SALINA, Kan. - While the United States remains focused on Iran and Syria the war next door drags on. I refer to the drug wars that have convulsed Mexico during the past five years. While Vice-President Biden was meeting with Mexican leaders in Mexico City this past week, Juarez, Mexico, residents Manuel and Isabel Martinez were in Kansas visiting their daughter who is a student at Kansas Wesleyan University. I found their observations on Mexico's plight on the eve of its own upcoming July Presidential election worth sharing.
Isabel, a hospital nurse, sees the violence firsthand. According to Isabel and her husband, President Felipe Calderon's well-intentioned effort to rid the country of drug cartels is widely viewed as a failure. While violence has abated somewhat in Juarez itself, the war between the drug gangs has spread to other parts of the country.
Associated Press writer Olga Rodriguez cited statistics this week showing that nearly fifty thousand people have been killed in drug violence during the first five years of the Calderon Administration.
A key factor keeping the drug mafias in business has been the consistent demand from Mexico's northern neighbor. Most Mexicans see little hope of reigning in the cartels as long as the demand for their products remains strong in the United States.
Conservative American commentator Pat Buchanan once famously remarked that "the problem with the (our own) war on drugs is that we have millions of Americans collaborating with the enemy," (i.e. the drug users). And in fact TIME magazine's July 2011 cover story entitled "The War Next Door," cites a figure of $65 Billion annually in reference to Americans' consumption of illegal drugs, a bigger business than all professional sports and Hollywood combined.
There has also been a deluge of arms flooding into Mexico in recent years, mostly from the United States. When President Calderon spoke to a joint session of the U.S. Congress a couple years ago he pleaded with lawmakers to reinstate the Assault Weapons Ban. His pleas fell on deaf ears. During his meeting with Biden, Calderon again asked for help controlling the flow of weapons and drug money south across the border.
Amid such an environment Manuel Martinez expects the ruling party of President Calderon (PAN) to lose the upcoming elections. Opposition (PRI) party candidate Enrique Peña Nieto assured Vice-President that his government will be "committed to fighting organized crime." However, many, say Martinez, expect him to make accommodations with the drug cartels in an effort to end the violence. The reasoning is that since the government has proven itself incapable of eliminating the corruption that has assisted the cartels they should return to the old ways of payoffs that ensured a modicum of peace and tranquility. The Mexican people have been traumatized by the daily violence and are ready to do whatever necessary to return safety to the streets, including making unsavory compromises.
To ultimately end the drug wars Manuel Martinez has become convinced that the U.S. needs to help its neighbor by decriminalizing drugs. His reasoning is simple. Criminalization of drugs has been a huge failure, just like Prohibition before it. For Mexicans the proof is direct - the body count. Drugs, therefore should be legalized, taxed and regulated like another, alcohol, already is.
The United States government has given our southern neighbor as much material assistance that the highly-nationalistic Mexicans will accept. But by in large this war remains an "out of sight out of mind" conflict for most Americans. As long as the violence stays south of the Rio Grande that attitude likely won't change.
But Manuel Martinez thinks the violence will inevitably spill across the border. The United States provides the demand and huge profit motive for the narco-traffickers. Although to date Mexico has borne the brunt of the human toll, Americans too are being victimized by the cartels. Maybe we need to get engaged in the search for another solution before it's too late.