The War Closest to Home

[Author’s note: the events memorialized in this essay took place between 2002 and 2013, with the actual writing of this story in 2014; the recollection of past and exact dates are subject to the vagaries of memory; names have been changed. Unless captioned, photographs are from local media sources, some are graphic.]

A human skull in Mexico’s northern desert

The drug war being fought in Mexico is very different from America’s war on drugs. The war in America is prosecuted by the government against her ordinary, if not usually her poorest, marginalized residents. The Mexican war consists of a bloody triangulation of an asymmetric conflict between the Mexican government and her hyper-violent competing drug cartels. They are more than just symbiotic: they are obligate. And neither war is necessary. Indeed they exacerbate the problems of drug abuse, violence, the public health crisis, and human rights violations. This is my story of having lived through Mexico’s ongoing drug war, viewed through the duel lenses of academia and personal experience.

Up Close and Personal

Finding bodies a daily occurance

It was an idle Wednesday afternoon in the sweltering summer of 2011. I was returning home from an insufferably boring faculty meeting, my tie loosened, the air conditioning full-blast in my little Seat Cordoba, waiting at the traffic light on an overpass at the Periférico de La Juventud and Juan Escutia only a few kilometers from my house. I could taste the ice-cold Indio beer waiting for me. A Jeep pulled up directly in front of me, blocking the intersection. A man wearing a black ski mask exited the back holding an automatic rifle, not the easily recognizable AK-47 or AR-15, with which I am familiar from my youthful U.S. Army days. I saw the simultaneous bird-like head jerks of surprise by the two young male passengers, the half-second of hesitation, the “oh shit’ moment just before the bullets’ impact. The sicario unloaded a full magazine into the VW Jetta. Amongst the shattering glass and deafening noise I oddly noticed a phone number painted on the back window with white shoe polish, indicating the car was for sale. From the corner of my saucer-eyes I slunk down low in my seat and turned to look straight ahead, barely able to see above the steering wheel, my heart suddenly pounding out of my chest.

Another volley erupted – presumably a second magazine was emptied – but I was looking now straight ahead. And the Jeep was gone. It couldn’t have taken more than 10 seconds. Nothing to be done, no available escape, only the brief fiery fear that a stray bullet might part my head as clean as a machete could a coconut. The light turned green and I accelerated. In the rearview mirror I could see cars driving around the Jetta as if it were occupied by a couple of hapless motorists who ran out of gas. But of course it was occupied by the corpses of two young men – two among more than 120,000 others who have been murdered during the ongoing Mexican narco wars. And another 26,000 disappeared, presumed dead. More than all combatants killed in Iraq and Afghanistan in the last two decades.

Typical hit

The next morning, El Heraldo – one of two major newspapers in Chihuahua’s state capitol of the same name – reported the assassination in the crime section; it hardly warranted, and was not given, a front page spread. Standard hits such as these read like a local police blotter from Peoria, but with the obligatory and gratuitous photos of bloodied, lifeless bodies shredded by high-velocity rifle rounds. No one got the license plate number, but even if they had it would have undoubtedly come back as stolen. The carjacking of nondescript SUVs for the purposes of carrying out gang hits is the preferred method for acquiring a vehicle to do dirty work. Sometime later, perhaps a month or so, an unwisely feisty mother of two refused to turn over the keys to her Suburban and was shot in a supermarket parking lot. She died on the scene with her two kids still strapped in their seats. Another story buried in the back pages of the crime section. Still later, one of my law students, AC, unwisely refused to give over the keys of his Trailblazer and was shot in the head. He survived, but suffers from lifelong disabilities of both movement and mind.

For many years there was a tacit understanding between the Mexican government and the various drug cartels, a sort of inevitable tolerance of each other brought by a common understanding the market for illegal drugs would never go away, nor would the attempts to stop it. Though this is somewhat of an oversimplification, the unspoken agreement more or less consisted of a recognition that both had a job to do and a role to play: the government knew it could never win outright, and the cartels acknowledged that some drug busts and apprehensions were the cost of doing business.  The government was in the need of occasionally arresting a cartel lieutenant and interdicting drugs headed for the border, in exchange for the cartels keeping their cool ─ a lid on outright turf war. The PR was necessary. Until 2006, Mexico’s heart was never really into confronting drug cartels in a serious and sustained way, but cooptation by the U.S., and the money provided for drug enforcement and interdiction, made it an inevitable, albeit futile, exercise, largely for show. There had always been some violence between competing cartels, and between various state and federal police agencies and cartels, but the grease of corruption and the unstated acknowledgment that stopping proliferate trafficking was a fool’s game, kept the squeaky wheel of violence to a minimally acceptable level.

The brutality of ISIS pales in comparison to Mexico’s drug violence

But then the conservative National Action Party (Partido Acción Nacional or PAN) Candidate, Felipe Caldarón, won the 2006 presidential election, and made good on his promise to clean up corruption and rid Mexico of the drug cartels. This was, unfortunately for me, just after I had decided to pursue my passion for food and open a Spanish restaurant. Three months after our grand opening of El Capote, the violence was nearing its apogee. Assassinations at traffic lights, on the street, at car washes, in bars and restaurants, were daily occurrences. Massacres of dozens of people at single locations became common. Running gun battles now included grenades and rockets. Mexicans who had the financial means moved into gated neighborhoods, or out of the country altogether. People stopped going out. Almost half of all restaurants in the cities of Chihuahua and Juarez closed, and in some places a quarter of all businesses, whose owners were coming under increasing threats of extortion from cartels who were being squeezed harder and harder, not to mention the precipitous drop in tourism one might expect. Suddenly our restaurant was empty. Broken hearted, we closed, and for the first time in many years, I cried like a baby. Deep, guttural sobs. I now realize, many years later, that I was not crying for our restaurant, I was crying for Mexico, my adopted country. The morning after our first Help Wanted ads ran for waiters and cooks, there was a line of hopefuls outside the restaurant. And not just young people looking to earn extra money, but people with bachelors degrees: accountants, nurses, graphic designers. I was taken aback by the resumes. My manager half-smiled at me and shook his head. “Es México, Jefe. La vida es una batalla.” Yes, life is a battle in Mexico, both figuratively and literally.

Soldiers patrolling Ciudad Juárez

I went back to my teaching job, stopped reading the local papers, and tried not to notice the violence, although often it was impossible. There was the bloody body in the street I encountered just outside of Wal-Mart so freshly killed the police had not arrived yet and no crowds had the time to gather. There were the two hours locked inside a convenience store on a late-night run for cigarettes because a gun battle had erupted outside. When another midday firefight broke out in the parking lot of a strip mall where my wife’s family owns a store, our kids were almost trampled by people running to get out of the way. Thankfully the only casualties were a two critically wounded policemen and a bullet hole in my brother in law’s delivery truck.

That last incident was also the last straw. We had been thinking about moving for some time. But my wife’s family has deep ties to Mexico. Her grandfather was a former governor of Chihuahua State. They are known and respected and financially comfortable. Although I’m an American and our kids have U.S. passports, my wife would never consider moving to the States, despite having been educated there. Emotional ties to one’s country often run irrationally deep. We decided to make a go of it again in a safer place, in Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo, along Mexico’s beautiful Riviera Maya coastline. We would still be in Mexico. It seemed like a reasonable compromise, and we planned to return when things calmed down.

Fighting the Bad Fight: Policy Meets Reality

The war at home is different, but it is a war nonetheless. It is not a war largely waged against drug traffickers, although that front certainly exists in the form of futile drug interdiction efforts. It is a war waged by the U.S. government against its citizens, mostly the sad, desperate dystopian society-within-a-society. Understanding its origins and its consequences is not especially complicated.

Mexico City: a small cache of drug money

According to United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the trade in illegal drugs is worth more than $300 billion annually, making it the world’s most lucrative business market. Bigger than IBM, bigger than General Electric, bigger than Apple, bigger than Telmex (the Mexican company owned by one of the world’s richest men, Carlos Slim). And the reasons for this are clear. First, people like to consume drugs. Second, drug traffickers don’t have to bother with inconveniences like paying taxes, complying with national and local business laws, permits, or any other form of business regulation. What’s more, the market is not ever likely to disappear. Since before recorded history, evidence suggests that our species were quite fond of drugging themselves. Excohotado points this out convincingly in A Brief History of Drugs: From the Stone Age to the Stoned-Age. (We have very good evidence, too, that other animals like to alter their consciousness for pleasure – to get high – such as African elephants, North American birds, and dolphins, but to name just a few.) The world’s first civilization, the Sumerians, dating from 7,000 BCE, discovered the pleasure of opium around 3,400 BCE. It’s been a mind-altering thrill ride since then, but only in recent human history have we been overly concerned about the phenomenon.

One of the results of alcohol prohibition

A study of alcohol prohibition in America proves instructive. It was a national disaster. Drinkers didn’t stop drinking because alcohol was illegal. They just bought their favorite drug from a different source ─ the black market. The American mafia was born. Violent clashes between rival gangs and bootleggers vying for territory, and between the police and these newly-minted criminal elements, bloomed into a low intensity war where thousands of lives were lost. Not surprisingly, the homicide rate increased drastically during Prohibition, and fell drastically after it was repealed, despite economic hardships brought by the Great Depression. Equally important is the surprising fact that while alcohol consumption initially went down during the first years of prohibition, in a few years it increased to 70% above pre-Prohibition levels despite being illegal. By prohibiting the production and consumption of alcohol, the use of alcohol increased, as did violent crime, which is not, I suspect, exactly what the government had in mind when the law went into effect.

After 13 years of gun battles with bootleggers and gangsters, Prohibition was repealed. The grand experiment proved to be an epic failure. After repeal, tax money from alcohol sales poured into the accounts of the federal and state governments, quality standards of alcohol products were promulgated and enforced, and regulations were put into place enforcing things such as the minimum age to purchase and consume alcohol, the labeling alcohol content, and restrictions on marketing activities, among many others. Violent competition and bootlegging evaporated as legitimate business enterprise took over the alcohol market. It is universally agreed by historians that Prohibition was a huge blunder, a fact wholly lost on the U.S. Congress. “We learn from history that we do not learn from history,” as Hegel so famously and presciently noted. At the time we were ending the failed experiment of alcohol prohibition, we were beginning, this time in earnest, the very same approach to prohibition with other drugs, and not at all surprisingly, to a similar result.

I’ve published two academic articles on U.S. drug policy as well as several magazine pieces, and the results of my research have surprised even the cynical me. The impetus for illegalizing most drugs in the U.S. came not from science, but rather xenophobia. First, we banned Chinese opium dens, then marijuana used mainly by Mexicans, then hashish favored by Sikh Indian immigrants, and of course cocaine favored by the black community. But branding the War on Drugs with the caustic simplicity of “racist” would be too convenient, and superficial. The white ruling class, as it turns out, did not (as is often argued) intentionally target minorities to imprison them, concocting their preferred drugs as an convenient excuse, though one might reasonably argue this has been the net result.

We learn from modern evolutionary biology that we humans are tribal–we are adapted for survival on the African savannah to stay within our own tribe, help one another, and be suspicious of other groups that may want to harm us and are competing for the same scarce resources. We tend to not like groups that are different from us. In fact, studies by scientists have demonstrated that the human brain is really only capable of knowing from about 150 to 290 individuals (our tribe): their personalities, ambitions, hopes, dreams, fears, etc., in any significant way. After that we have to rely on abstractions, constructs, and stereotypes. This, in turn, tends to lead us into xenophobic behavior, often without realizing it. It is natural to want to control other groups that are different from us; different in terms of race to be sure, but also language, religion, customs, among many other things. After all, in our still (relatively) primitive brains are fine-tuned to be living in tribes on the savannah. This explains why such wild claims were made about the dangers of drugs like marijuana and heroin when there has never been any good scientific proof of particularly insidious harm. In fact, the most dangerous and most abused drug – alcohol – is not only legal, aggressively marketed if not glorified within the media, but is also the third leading preventable cause of death in the United States according to The Centers for Disease Control. And the vast majority of overdose deaths in the U.S. are from prescription drugs, not illegal drugs, while not a single death has been attributed to marijuana.

nixonIn 1970 we saw tribalism raise its ugly head once again. Richard Nixon was having nothing to do with the long-haired, counter-culture, pot-smoking, acid-dropping, hippies; they threatened conservative social values. They weren’t part of the tribe. Congress passed the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970. The following year President Nixon signed the Act, and in a speech to the Congress which was televised nationally, declared his War on Drugs. Nixon’s War on Drugs was a brilliant political move, not only resulting in his landslide election in 1972, but also leading to many other international leaders copying his “tough on drugs” strategy (often pushed along by means of cooptation by the U.S.). Initially funded by one hundred million dollars in federal money, funds poured into state, local and federal law enforcement coffers around the nation. The War was on.

druggraph1Currently the United States has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world, far exceeding both Russia and China, and the majority of inmates are poor whites and minorities in jail for non-violent drug-related charges. Since 1970, the U.S. has spent more than one trillion dollars on this drug enforcement effort, and the social cost to otherwise law abiding and productive citizens jailed for recreational drug use is immeasurable: families separated, casual drug users branded as felons, lost jobs, and all-too-many lost lives.

druggraph2And not only has drug use remained essentially unchanged since the War really turned its swag on in 1988, but drugs are much more potent and much cheaper than they have ever been. Meanwhile, in other countries like Portugal, which have abolished all criminal penalties for personal drug possession, drug use by teenagers has declined, the rate of HIV infection among drug users has dropped, deaths related to heroin and similar drugs has been cut by more than half, and the number of people seeking treatment for drug addiction has doubled. In a 2008 World Health Organization study, the United States ─ despite its stringent federal anti-drug laws ─ found that Americans have the highest level of illegal drug use of all countries surveyed, far exceeding levels of drug use in countries with liberal drug policies such as the Netherlands, Portugal and Greece, among others.

The historical data and empirical evidence are crystal clear: the War on Drugs is an abject failure of public policy of such colossal proportions that is almost cannot be exaggerated. It impinges on the very concept of freedom and individual liberty. It imprisons perfectly happy, healthy, and productive citizens. It encourages violence and weakens public health. It is an immoral abomination, and indeed I am at a loss for words to describe its utter fatuity.

The answer to the question of why we haven’t abandoned this costly canard comes in three parts, each one of which is powerful in its own right, but together arguably insurmountable: money, propaganda, and counter-intuitiveness.

crazymanOnce the government establishes a multitude of federal and state agencies to accomplish a mission with billions of dollars of funding, creating thousands of well-paying jobs, defunding becomes an exercise in futility. If you are in political office at the municipal, state, or federal level, even hinting at defunding, much less reducing funding, or still less liberalizing U.S. drug laws, your career is likely to be a short one. Second, because we have for so long been bombarded with the anti-drug propaganda on the evils of drug use, it has become a part of our collective “knowledge,” despite the Everest of scientific data that contradict it. The third reason that U.S. federal drug policy has not been liberalized is that asserting fewer drug laws will not result in more drug users is deeply counterintuitive. Yet when examining data from other jurisdictions as well as our own historical evidence, it is undeniably true. As the great historian Barbara Tuchman said in 1984, once a government commits to a policy, no matter how purblind and asinine it may prove to be, “all subsequent activity becomes an effort to justify it.”

How Could One Expect Otherwise?

In 2004, before my wife and I had children, we travelled around Mexico, visiting every state in an old Chrysler Spirit. But the bohemian life wears on you after a while, so we temporarily “settled down” in Tuxtla Gutierrez, the capital of the state of Chiapas, taking a one-year English teaching contract. For our two week summer break, we decided to take a road trip (upgrading the Spirit for a 1980 4WD Chevrolet Blazer) with two fellow teachers, Jaime and Magdalena. Both were Canadian, although Jaime also held U.S. and Peruvian passports. At the time my Spanish was still pretty rudimentary, so Jaime’s native Spanish skills came in quite handy, especially when it came to finding mota. The day before our scheduled departure he asked me if I knew where to buy pot, and of course I didn’t. (Our usual dealer, a toothless local journalist living in our apartment building was out of town.) “No worries,” he said, “Let’s go have a look.” After asking a few appropriately grungy locals, we were directed to a traffic cop, who sold us quite a lot of high-quality cannabis at a reasonable price. This was my first important practical lesson about living in Mexico. Not all police are corrupt, but their salaries are so low, they’re always looking for a way to supplement their income. Most did this by accepting bribes instead of citing citizens for minor infractions (the infamous mordida – little bite). This municipal cop, however, preferred his niche of being a street-level dealer. Fine with us.

Our first stop on the road trip were the campgrounds near the ruins of Palenque. We spent two nights and a day there, exploring the ruins by day and smoking weed, making tea with magic mushrooms, and getting scared shitless by the nighttime jungle noises (howler monkeys are the worst). After that, we spent a day and night at the far-more-spectacular much-more-remote ruins at Calakmul. No tourists, just half-excavated ancient Mayan ruins near Guatemalan border. Our next destination, quite by accident, was the most interesting.  To break our trip to Cancun, we took a very long detour and stayed in Xcalak, a tiny fishing village, more Caribbean than Mexican, with brightly painted wooden shacks, no grocery stores, and electricity only half of the day. As we drove into the pueblo, though, it was impossible not to notice that almost all of the shanties had a new motorcycle or car parked in front. Satellite dishes protruded from almost every roof. When the power was cut at night, the town came alive with the distinctive hum of Honda generators. Curious, indeed, in this rural, poor, and isolated part of the country. We soon found out from the owner of a local bar why there was a hotspot of prosperity in what was the dirt-poor southern Yucatan Peninsula. About a year before, a boy playing on the beach discovered large plastic bundles washing ashore and fetched his mother to have a look. They were packed tight with pure, uncut, Columbian cocaine. Apparently a passing speed boat was spooked, perhaps by the Mexican Navy which is traditionally tasked with coastal drug interdiction, and the drug-runners tossed their cargo into the sea. Soon the whole town was on the beach harvesting the good fortune.

There is no part of Mexico untouched by the drug trade. As mentioned, it is the world’s most lucrative business enterprise, and the world’s richest country, with the highest percentage of per capita illegal drug users, as well as the world’s highest gross consumption of illegal drugs, is just a stone throw to the north. One could hardly expect anything else.

Why Drug Wars only Adds Fuel to the Fire

Nobody is bootlegging moonshine anymore. Harry Browne, the philosophical leader of the Libertarian Party and its one-time presidential candidate said it best. I’ve used this quote (and also Hegel’s) perhaps too much in other works regarding the subject, but if there is one quote that bears repeating, indeed that should be memorized by all policymakers in both America and Mexico, this is it:

There are no violent gangs fighting over aspirin territories. There are no violent gangs fighting over whisky territories or computer territories or anything else that’s legal. There are only criminal gangs fighting over territories covering drugs, gambling, prostitution, and other victimless crimes. Making a non-violent activity a crime creates a black market, which attracts criminals and gangs, which turns what was once a relatively harmless activity affecting a small group of people into a widespread epidemic of drug use and gang warfare.

These lessons of history, when compared with the available empirical data on illegal drug use, can only lead to one reasonable conclusion: criminalizing individual drug use is not only asinine, it is also ineffective, harmful, and outrageously expensive. The answer is legalizing drugs, while taxing and regulating sales, as we do with the drugs of alcohol and tobacco. But I do not pretend that this would be an easy task. If a government overtaxes and overregulates a particular drug, making it economically prohibitive to purchase legally, consumers will turn to the black market. If, on the other hand, taxes and regulation are reasonable, the consumer will easily avoid the risks of black market purchases and purchase through legal channels, even at a premium price. Thus, in the end, public drug policy is really about balancing various interest in order to find a formula that works, as is done with alcohol and tobacco, acknowledging that a utopian ideal will never be reached, and a certain percent of the population will always abuse certain substances.

Pouring more than a trillion dollars into a lost cause with the remote hope that drug use will be reduced is the ultimate in naiveté. And what is more (and more obvious) is that this strategy has been proven, convincingly I think, to have been an enormous intellectual swindle, just as the prohibition of alcohol was, while the competing strategy ─ the liberalization of drug prohibition laws through legalization, regulation and control ─ is the only proven game in town for those who are actually serious about addressing the problem of drug addiction, drug-related violence, public health and other socioeconomic problems facing modern societies. Albert Einstein once said that the definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing but expecting different results. Under this definition the global war on drugs is insane.

Other experts agree. On September 11, 2014, while the news cycle was understandably dominated by remembrances of the 9/11 attacks, the Global Commission on Drug Policy quietly published its report Taking Control: Pathways to Drug Policies that Work. The Commission members agree that the War on Drugs is bad public policy doing far more harm than good, but also that ending the War would also mean the beginning of the end of drug-related violence worldwide, noting specially that the War has fueled crime and enriched criminals, undermined development and security, threatened public health and safety, and wasted billions of dollars, all while sabotaging national economies. Not exactly a stellar track record.

The next potentially paradigm-shifting event on the horizon with regard to the global war on drugs is the 2016 United Nations General Assembly Special Session on the World Drug Problem (UNGASS). The U.N. has traditionally been pro-strict enforcement, but in the face of the massive body of evidence against this approach, it will be fascinating to see what unfolds.

No Escape

About year ago we were living in Playa del Carmen, operating a small Italian restaurant on the famous Avenida Quinta. On one long summer weekend my wife made plans with another mom and a gaggle of kids to visit a water park in Cancun. Not my kind of thing, so a friend and I decided to drive south to the Sian Ka’an Biosphere reserve. We bought some pot in the uber-chic beachside resort village of Tulum (not to be confused with the archeological ruins or the scruffy pueblo further inland) where the world’s great unwashed backpackers share the beautiful beach with the jet-set crowds from Hollywood and New York. The drive south was slow and bumpy, but gorgeous beyond description, with the Delaware-sized UNESCO World Heritage reserve to our right, and the crystalline Caribbean sea to our left. We had no air conditioning in the rickety old Jeep we had borrowed, and the jungle was literally steaming. Luckily, just outside the southern terminus of the peninsula there is a small village (Punta Allen) that supports a few hundred people with a dive center and some sport fishing. Soaked through with sweat and caked with road grime, we stumbled upon a shady palapa near the water where an old man was selling tacos de bistec, and thankfully, ice-cold Indio beer. There was also an onshore breeze. It was a nice place to spend some time. The tacos were delicious and the beer was ambrosia.

We chatted with the old man. His face looked like a black leather catcher’s mitt. His had clearly been a hard life. There was a sad, silent, indigenous air about him, but he opened up, like locals tend to do when a Spanish-speaking Gringo shows some interest in their lives. He, like almost everyone else in the village, was a fisherman before the Riviera Maya became a tourist haven in the 1970s. As a young man he enjoyed a simple life. His father taught him how to fish and there was always enough to eat: tropical fruit grew in abundance, fish were plentiful, and sometimes they would kill a deer. With the influx of tourism came an increase in commercial fishing however, and his family could no longer compete. His wife died years earlier and he now made his living selling tacos and doing odd jobs. He said he had two sons and a daughter. They wanted a better life. His daughter works as a hotel maid in Cancun, and one son is a bartender at a Playa del Carmen resort. He looked down and pretended to be busy arranging things on his taco cart. “And your other son?” I asked. He hesitated for a moment.  “He left to work in Texas four years ago, in Brownsville. I haven’t heard from him.”

I stumble over my words and change the subject.

Mass graves discovered almost daily

Were Paco’s son alive, even if he never made it to his destination, he would have wired some money, or at the very least telephoned. He was undoubtedly one of the 26,000 Mexicans who have been “disappeared” since 2006. Intended migrants are favorite targets of the cartels; they are used as drug mules, or slaves, they are coopted or lured into the trafficking business with promises of avarice, or are simply robbed and killed. Fosas clandestinas – clandestine mass graves – are discovered almost daily, sometimes through investigation, often by chance: the stink of death and disturbed soil noticed by neighborhood kids.

We drove back to Playa del Carmen in silence, deflated. I’ve always been prone to bouts of depression, and I could feel another one creeping up behind my eyes, my world darkening. It is the poor people who suffer in the drug wars in Mexico and the United States, the marginalized, those without rights. The top Mexican drug bosses live in opulence, as do many of the politicians in their back pockets. In a nation where 45 percent of the population live below the poverty line, some 37.6 million people survive on less than five dollars a day. It should not be surprising that there is an endless supply of poor young men to act as soldiers and smugglers for the drug cartels; these are the ones gunned down in the street or imprisoned, not by-and-large the kingpins and their acolytes. In the U.S., too, rich people are rarely arrested and imprisoned for drug possession or trafficking, for that matter; that privilege is almost exclusively reserved for the poor, the disenfranchised, the powerless, despite the fact that illegal drug usage among income levels and ethnicity is essentially the same.

We drove in silence and I ruminated. Suddenly my restaurant seemed like a waste of my life. Selling lobster raviolis and huitlacoche fritters to sunburned vacationers seemed pointless and jejune, as did my obsession with food. My biggest worry was where my restaurant ranked on Trip Advisor. It was at that moment that I began to think about going back to writing and teaching. I am economically poorer for the decision, but academia keeps pulling me back, and I’m glad for it.

This asymmetrical low-intensity war in Mexico has all of the unthinkable brutality of ISIS in Mesopotamia: videotaped decapitations, people being burned alive, raped, dismembered, enslaved. Add a good dose of corruption, where poorly paid local police can significantly supplement their incomes by cooperating with certain cartels or local gangs, and you have a recipe for chaos. Chaos fed by the outrageous profits of the drug trade, in turn fueled by the unyielding demand for drugs by Americans.

The war closest to home is in Mexico: a triangulation of warring cartels competing for lucrative trafficking routes, with governmental policing entities sometimes brutally, and futilely, trying to stop them, or as is often the case, actively helping them for profit. The war at home is simpler and only two-sided. It is a war prosecuted by the government against the poorest and most vulnerable of its own citizens. Both are morally defenseless and pernicious wars against virtually defenseless people. Neither are necessary. Both are counterproductive and inhumane.

We should stop this nonsense. But the inertia built up over decades, with the sticky tentacles of federal, state, local and international agencies, each with its hand in the cookie jar, are formidable foes, perhaps even insurmountable ones. But alas there is hope, although I am not convinced that a rational, pragmatic policy is not really possible within my lifetime. Views are slowly changing about drug use and abuse, with a definite trend evincing changes in drug policy at the state level, particularly with respect to the decriminalization of cannabis. If this trend continues, and the marijuana fear is debunked, as it surely will be, then there is hope. The legalization of cannabis in Colorado, despite the hysterical predictions of the usual Conservative anti-drug crusaders that the state would become a zombie apocalypse, can only be considered a success measured by any metric you like. Eugene Jarecki’s 2012 blockbuster documentary The House I Live In confirmed what academics and researchers have been saying for decades: the War on Drugs has never been about drugs. Most recently, Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs by Johann Hari, showed us, in a riveting narrative, that our own popular understanding of drug addiction swims in a putrid sea of pseudoscience and misinformation. Together with the Global Commission of Drug Policy report, this makes powerful and increasingly agreed-upon body of evidence against this horrific public policy.


I originally wrote this piece in late 2014, where it was submitted to a magazine editor before finally being rejected after a few months with the comment, “we like this piece but it just doesn’t work for us at this time.” It languished on a spare USB drive as I worked on other things, and I only rediscovered it searching through my scattered library of unpublished work to include on this blog.

Since then, some important events have unfolded. Enrique Peña Nieto from the PRI assumed office on December 1, 2012. He is not a popular president, but no Mexican president has been popular in modern times: accusations of cronyism, nepotism, corruption, inefficiency, and wildly inappropriate priorities stick to Mexican presidents like feathers to tar. But drug violence quieted down significantly. People began going out again, starting businesses; universities initiated programs in business and entrepreneurship, and young people embraced technology, and once again, hope. The Mexican inteligencia and polemicists began the task of evaluating Peña Nieto’s predecessor’s policies on the Mexican drug war. How could Calderón, a smart man educated at two elite Mexican universities (a bachelor of laws and a masters in economics) followed by a Master of Public Administration at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, have so seriously botched this purblind drug war? How could he have possibly thought that military force could be used effectively against an endemic social and economic problem? (Calderón actually fired entire police departments and sent in soldiers, who were not trained for and knew nothing of policing, let alone investigating crimes.) Under his tenure rural communities in parts of rural Mexico, especially in border states like Chihuahua, became essentially lawless vestiges of the old Wild West.

Under Peña Nieto’s tenuous tenure, infrastructure spending increased dramatically, fueled in part by state revenue from high oil prices, increased foreign direct investment, and once-again growing tourism. The attitude of hope, of looking forward to a better future, was palpable. It lasted for 21 months, until September 26, 2014, when 43 student protesters from Ayotzinapa were kidnapped in the state of Guerrero by the police of Iguala, turned over to the local drug gang Guerreros Unidos, and murdered. Prompting Freedom House to declare Mexico 1st place for the worst human rights developments in 2014.

It was a surprise punch in the gut to Mexican society. Days of quiet, morose disbelief were followed by the catching of a collective breath, and then massive street protests in Mexico City, Iguala, and elsewhere throughout the Republic. The ham-fisted response from many Mexican legislators was to propose amending the Mexican constitution to ban public protests.

In the United States, we seem to be learning, slowly, too slowly, that a massive criminal enforcement approach to a minor public health problem is exactly ass-backwards. The evidence, after all, is overwhelming in this regard. Smaller and more nimble jurisdictions like Portugal, the Netherlands, and many U.S. States, have or are in the process of reversing course, to great effect. North America, though, with close to a half billion residents, continues to struggle under the inertia of a massive bureaucracy, sometimes happily, sometimes haltingly, committed to the status quo.

© 2016 by Glen Olives Thompson.

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Glen Olives Thompson is a Professor of North American Law at La Salle University in Chihuahua, Mexico. He is a graduate of Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles and California State University, Chico. He writes on a broad range of topics for newspapers and magazines as well as publishing academic research in journals within the areas of law and public policy.

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