Sometimes I wonder how super-smart people can be so obtuse when it comes to the drug war. A recent example of this phenomenon is Ioan Grillo, a contributing editor for the New York Times. Grillo is the author of two books on the drug war: El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency, which was translated into five languages and was a Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist, and his new book Gangster Warlords.
Clearly, Ioan Grillo is a super-smart person.
The problem is that he, like so many other super-smart people in the mainstream press, is also super-obtuse when it comes to the war on drugs.
Grillo thinks he has found a way to win the war on drugs. In an op-ed entitled “Dismantling Mexico’s Narco State,” he says that the secret is for the Mexican and U.S. governments to start targeting for criminal prosecution Mexican government officials who protect the drug cartels. The corruption within the Mexican government would then be ended, which would mean an end to the official protection for the drug cartels and drug lords, which would enable law enforcement to finally — finally — shut them down. Victory in the drug war!
Why, that’s ingenious! Why didn’t anyone come up with this brilliant idea before now?
Maybe because it is so ludicrous.
Anyone who still thinks that the war on drugs can be “won” is living in la-la land. I would recommend to Grillo that he go spend several hours watching Narcos: Mexico, both Season 1 and the just released Season 2, which are based on real-life figures and events in the drug war. I will guarantee that anyone who watches those two seasons will be forever dispelled of the notion that the war on drugs can be “won.”
Targeting consumers and sellers
For the past 50 years or so, drug war strategy has been based on targeting sellers of drugs and consumers of drugs. This two-pronged approach, it was believed, would bring victory in the drug war. Consumers of drugs would be sent to jail for decades, which was supposed to deter other people from consuming drugs. At the same time, there would be a crackdown on drug sellers, especially the drug kingpins.
And so it’s been for the past several decades. The penitentiaries, both here and in Mexico, have been filled with drug consumers, especially African Americans, and with big-name heads of drug cartels or just people who have been caught smuggling or selling drugs. Every time there is a record drug bust, the mainstream media goes gaga — and then covers the criminal trial with rapt attention to every detail of drug distribution and violence.
With each drug bust and conviction, hope springs eternal among the drug warriors and the mainstream press. Finally — finally — the drug war will be won.
Alas, not even close. As the Narcos series shows, each time they bust some high-profile drug dealer, he is quickly replaced by a new one or by multiple new ones.
The laws of supply and demand
It’s just economics 101 — i.e., the laws of supply and demand. By making drugs illegal, black-market prices and profits soar, attracting unsavory competitors into the market who don’t hesitate to employ violence to garner larger market share. If one of them is busted, that causes prices and profits to spike, which means that other competitors quickly fill the void.
Thus, this drug-war strategy has never worked and will never work. The more drug lords and drug dealers they bust, the more that others quickly replace them.
Grillo’s plan is just a variation on that theme. As soon as some corrupt government official is busted and prosecuted, another one will quickly take his place.
Imagine a head of the state police in one of the Mexican states that border the United States. Let’s say his annual salary is $75,000. A drug cartel approaches him and offers him $5 million to look the other way on cocaine shipments into the United States. The official is told that if he refuses, he and his wife and children will be killed. Plata o plomo? Silver or lead?
What will he do? He’ll do whatever any rational person would do — he’ll take the money. If he doesn’t, he knows that his negative response will not have any effect on the supply of drugs into the United States. If he does, he saves his own life and the lives of his family, plus he now has $5 million of extra money. Of course, he could just resign, but he knows that that could antagonize the drug cartel, and he knows that his resignation isn’t really going to impact the flow of drugs into the United States. By choosing to become “corrupt,” the police official is behaving as rationally as people in the United States who go on the government dole.
Only one way to end drug cartels
Thus, there is not a snowball’s chance in Hades that Grillo’s plan is going to finally — finally! — win the war on drugs. Yes, the prisons will have more people in them, and drug war prosecutors and judges will continue to draw nice salaries, but so what? Life will go on as usual, with new drug lords and new corrupt officials and a never-ending flow of drugs.
There is only one — only one — repeat: only one — way to put the drug lords and drug cartels out of business. That way is by ending the drug war by repealing all laws that criminalize the possession or distribution of drugs. Ending drug prohibition would have the same impact that ending alcohol Prohibition did. It would immediately put all the drug cartels and drug lords out of business. Drug legalization would immediately dismantle Mexico’s narco state and restore a state of normality and peace to Mexican society.
Why can’t super-smart people like Ioan Grillo see that?