Third and final in a series on the Mexican Drug War
By Joe Chivers
In previous articles, I’ve covered the history of the Mexican Drug War from its origins until now, so what’s next? It’s a question that’s been pondered by many, from the Mexican people in their own desperate hour to American and European think-tanks. It’s important for us to remember that Mexico is not an isolated case. While it is an extreme example, countless other nations have or have had their own similar issues. If you’d like to see another state where the government has cracked down on drug violence by practicing their own blend of brutality, look to the Philippines. To see a country which solved a public health crisis cleanly, and without violence, Portugal. For a nation which, while not decriminalizing drugs, has taken an official policy of tolerance towards them, see the Netherlands.
I am under no misapprehensions that Mexico is the Philippines, nor is it Portugal or the Netherlands. Nor am I Mexican, and I have never experienced the suffering that is living under a daily threat of narcoterrorism or the state terror which responds with a shattering fusillade. Despite all this, I want to see a solution to these problems. That’s why, in this article, on the future of the Mexican Drug War, I will present two different possible futures: one negative, one positive. We can only hope that the positive will prevail.
Increasing Violence and a Vicious State
In the Mexican Drug War, the Mexican state has shown itself to be capable of astonishing cruelty. In an attempt to shatter the narcotrafficantes, the police and military have regularly lowered themselves to their level. In 2016, a United Nations Rapporteur, Christof Heyns, said that little has changed in recent years, despite various efforts.
“Protective measures remain insufficient and ineffective; impunity and the lack of accountability for violations of the right to life remain a serious challenge, as does the absence of reparations for the victims,” Hynes said.
As mentioned in the previous articles in this series, this is the result of using the military, and its ordinance, to solve domestic issues. However, what if the Mexican state, rather than forging a different strategy, simply doubles down? This is not out of the question, with 2017 on track to be the bloodiest year in the nation’s history. The world’s attention was drawn last year, albeit far too slowly, to the cold-blooded murder of thousands by state forces and vigilantes in the Philippines, a “drug war” which only ended in October. Is there a possibility of this happening in Mexico? It’s arguable that it already is, albeit with an enemy who IS a serious threat to the public. While the world looks to the Philippines with anger, Mexico continues to face similar levels of violence.
Should the right combination of factors occur, with stars creating some kind of bloodthirsty alignment, the Drug War in Mexico could become even more violent. All it takes is one figure to come into some form of power with idiosyncrasies similar to Duterte, and they could let the figurative dogs loose. It could certainly be sold. If you had experienced the level of bloodshed wrought by Los Zetas or the Sinaloa Cartel, wouldn’t you jump at any solution? If you’d seen friends or family killed, wouldn’t you want to finally put an end to it? There already are vigilante groups in Mexico, as seen in the documentary Cartel Land. What if they were given the official backing of the state, to carry out justice in any way they wished? It’s a frightening situation to think about, but it’s important to remember that it is not impossible. Not only would this lead to innumerable deaths on all sides, including civilians, but it would leave the root causes of the drug war intact. This is where we move on to the next possible future.
A Compassionate Approach
The other opportunity which presents itself to the Mexican state is an entirely different approach: one of radical change. What if instead of responding to the violence with more violence, the legislature took charge of the nation’s response? Let’s take a look at three European countries which have taken this approach: the Netherlands, Portugal, and the Czech Republic.
The Netherlands is known internationally for its drug policy, with countless college kids from European countries and North America making a pot pilgrimage to Amsterdam. Despite what you may think, the Netherlands has never actually legalized the sale of marijuana. Instead, it enforces an official policy of tolerance, or gedoogbeleid. As such, use of the overwhelmingly more popular “softer” drugs such as marijuana, are ignored by law enforcement. While this is not total decriminalization, it does mean that anyone who wishes to use the most popular drug in the world after alcohol can do so virtually legally. The quality is high and the more open market means both users and vendors have certain legal rights, so violence is not the sole recourse. If Mexico took this approach, it could both capitalize on the long history the country has as a source of marijuana to provide quality goods, and increase the number of visitors.
Portugal is another state which has taken another approach to the drug war, this one even more radical. Since 2001, in this small nation in south-western Europe, all drugs have been decriminalized. This wasn’t done to combat mass violence, but to combat a health crisis. In the 1990s, Portugal experienced two horrendous health crises. First, Portugal was experiencing surging rates of HIV infection among heroin users. This was even more of a problem than it usually would be because of problem number two: in the same decade, a whole one per cent of the population was addicted to heroin. Today, those who are found to be in possession of drugs for personal use do not face prison, instead they are given medical treatment. The health benefits of this are immeasurable, with only three overdose deaths per million citizens, compared to a European average of 17.3.
The Czech Republic has taken a similar approach, the only post-communist nation to do so. Possession of personal amounts of drugs are a misdemeanor which can result in a fine, but no more. The reason I bring up this lesser-known example is because it shows that not only would Mexico be far from the first country to take such an approach, but it also shows that the approach does not need to sprout from a stable nation to survive. In the Czech Republic following the fall of the Soviet Union, a new democracy had to be created almost from scratch, yet drugs were immediately decriminalized. Mexico has a democracy, it has the potential to do just the same. These two nations show that one does not need to respond to a public health threat with overwhelming force and harsh punishments; these are the tools of prohibition. Instead, they can be answered with the liberating idea of personal use. If drugs were decriminalized and tolerated in Mexico even without formal decriminalization, the rates of violence would drop dramatically. If the state then took the initiative, and decriminalized the drugs entirely, with medical treatment for addicts, and the potential of legal recourse for buyers and sellers, I’m confident it would fall even further. Violence is the only recourse of the black market, and under prohibition, the black market is the only recreational drug market.
As I said before, I cannot lecture to the Mexican people about how they should solve their national crisis. I can never know the full extent of it, as they do. Whichever path they choose to take however, we can only hope that the day-to-day deaths and barbaric butchery which the drug war visits upon their nation will end one day soon.
Joe is a print and online journalist, based in Europe, who specializes in writing on war and social issues.