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Why Is the U.S. Fighting Mexico’s Drug War?


In December of 2006, Mexico’s new president, Felipe Calderón, declared war on drug cartels. “We need to win. And we will win. That’s my idea. I’m sure about that,” he said in an “ABC News” interview. But winning this war is coming at a heavy price: assassinations of government officials, horrific gun battles in Mexican streets, kidnappings, thousands dead, and the loss of trade, investment, and tourism.

The Mexican government deployed over 40,000 military troops last year dedicated to counter-narcotics activities in assistance of civilian law-enforcement authorities.

In order to draw a distinction between casual users and drug traffickers, in August of 2009 Mexico enacted a “personal use” law that decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana (5 g), cocaine (.5 g), heroin (50 mg), and other drugs including LSD (.015 mg) and methamphetamine (40 mg). “This is not legalization,” said Bernardo Espino del Castillo of the attorney general’s office, it is “regulating the issue and giving citizens greater legal certainty.” Anyone caught with amounts under the legal limits will be encouraged to seek treatment. Treatment is mandatory for third-time offenders. At the same time, though, penalties have been toughened for drug dealers. Although the new law hasn’t changed things much, I suppose it has kept some non-violent addicts out of jail.

The former president of Mexico, Vicente Fox, favors a different approach: legalization. Fox said that fear and violence is destroying Mexican society and that Mexico is losing young lives at an alarming rate as a result of the drug war. He looks to Portugal, which decriminalized all drugs ten years ago, as a model for a solution.

Regardless of how the government of Mexico decides to wage the war on drugs, one thing is for certain: the U.S. government should not be fighting Mexico’s drug war. But that is exactly what our government is doing.

An undisclosed numbers of U.S. law-enforcement agents work in Mexico. What we do know, thanks to an Associated Press investigation, is that the U.S. law-enforcement role in Mexico has surged. The DEA has more than 60 agents in Mexico. There are in addition 40 Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, 20 Marshal Service deputies, and 18 Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents, plus agents from the FBI, Citizen and Immigration Service, Customs and Border Protection, Secret Service, Coast Guard, and Transportation Safety Agency. The State Department also maintains a Narcotics Affairs Section. The United States has also provided helicopters, drug sniffing dogs, and polygraph units to screen law-enforcement applicants.

U.S. drones spy on cartel hideouts, and U.S. tracking beacons pinpoint suspect’s cars and phones. U.S. agents track beacons, trace cell-phone calls, read e-mails, study behavioral patterns of border incursions, follow smuggling routes, and process data about drug dealers, money launderers, and cartel bosses. According to a former Mexican anti-drug prosecutor, U.S. agents are not restricted from eavesdropping on anyone in Mexico by U.S. laws that require judicial authority as long as they are not on U.S. territory and not bugging American citizens.

According to William Wechsler, deputy assistant secretary of defense for counter-narcotics and global threats, the Department of Defense (DOD) will increase its counter-narcotics support for Mexico in fiscal year 2011 (Oct. 1, 2011 to Sept. 30, 2012) to over $50 million. This is a substantial increase from the $34.5 million spent in 2010 and the $34.2 million spent in 2009. Before 2009, the DOD allocated “only” $3 million in U.S. taxpayer funds for Mexican counter-narcotics activities.

Wechsler testified before the Senate Armed Services Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee on April 12 that the Pentagon’s increase in support to Mexico’s security forces engaged in the war on drugs will take place despite a recent State Department report of human-rights abuses by Mexican security forces. He also said that the DOD is working “to develop a joint security effort in the border region of Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize.”

This DOD assistance is in addition to funds from the State Department that provide training and equipment to Mexican law enforcement to the tune of another $500 million a year appropriated from U.S. taxpayers.

But in spite of all this assistance, President Calderón recently said that U.S. cooperation in the fight against drug cartels has been “insufficient.”

I note first of all that whether the government of Mexico chooses to engage in the folly known as the war on drugs is the business of Mexico and Mexicans. Just as no American would appreciate it if some foreign government tried to influence U.S. government policy, so the U.S. government should neither discourage nor encourage the Mexican government to fight a war on drugs or any other activity.

Secondly, if there is nothing in the U.S. Constitution that authorizes the federal government to declare a war on drugs or fight crime, then there is certainly nothing in that document that authorizes the federal government to help Mexico or any other foreign country do those things.

Thirdly, even if Mexico’s war on drugs is just and right, the United States should not be funding it. U.S. foreign aid takes many forms, and helping the Mexican government fight drug cartels is just another form of foreign aid. The United States gives billions of dollars in foreign aid every year to many countries. Some receive foreign aid in the billions (like Egypt and Israel) and others receive foreign aid “only” in the millions, tens of millions, or hundreds of millions. But regardless of the amount, foreign-aid spending by the U.S. government is only possible because billions of dollars have first been confiscated from American taxpayers. If an individual American is in favor of the Mexican’s government’s war on drugs then he can make a contribution to the Mexican government. Just don’t expect the rest of us to do likewise.

Fourthly, the government of Mexico should end its war on drugs. Most of the violence and corruption in Mexico is because of the enormous black-market premium in the illicit drug trade. The high risk involved in selling illegal drugs means that drugs sell on the street for many times more than they would sell if drugs were legal. But the war on drugs in Mexico should not be ended just as a way to stop the violence and corruption it fosters. The war on drugs in Mexico should be ended because it is a war on freedom by the Mexican government. Ending the war on drugs in Mexico has nothing to do with surrendering to the drug cartels, appeasing or accommodating them, or just throwing in the towel; it has everything to do with individual liberty, private property, personal responsibility, and the free market.

And finally, the United States should just stop funding and participating in the Mexican drug war. It should likewise end the futile, unconstitutional, expensive, civil-liberties-eroding, financial-privacy-destroying, prison- crowding, and violence-fostering war on drugs.

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