In stops all around the country, the Caravan for Peace has found that convincing people that the war on drugs is destructive and wasteful is not the problem. The polls show the public came to this conclusion long ago and now close to a majority favor what used to be considered “radical” solutions like legalizing and regulating marijuana. Although most people weren’t aware of the impact of the violence in Mexico, it’s immediately obvious to them that the drug war—trying to block supply in places like Mexico and stop consumption by criminalizing drugs in the U.S.– is not working. Anywhere.
The question then is: If a public consensus on the failure of the drug war, why hasn’t anything changed?
Why does the U.S. government continue to send millions of tax dollars to cities to fight the drug war, as they close down schools for lack of funds? Why does it waste more millions financing a bloody war in Mexico? Why does the Mexican government continue to pay the economic and political cost of a disastrous and destabilizing war? The U.S. has spent 2 billion dollars on the Mexican drug war in the past five years, mostly through the Merida Initiative and the Mexican government has spent at least four times that much.
To answer these questions, we have to look behind the scenes of the drug war. There we find that this disastrous policy has some powerful promoters.
Some fans of the drug war are open and upfront. They are politicians with clear ties to the military establishment and the business of war. Their job is to create conflict and then propose military solutions. They funnel government contracts to defense companies, and then the defense companies funnel funds into their political campaigns.
These politicians seem to have written the foreign policy part of the Republican Party platform. They have invented a new menace, “narco-terrorism”, that attempts to convince the public that the production and transit of illicit substances is equivalent to terrorism.
This is false. In Mexico, Latin America drugs are produced and trafficked. It’s an illegal business that thrives off drug prohibition. Terrorism is a violent political agenda. Anyone who cannot tell the difference between these two—drug cartels and terrorist organizations—should not be in a position to make policy.
There is no proof of terrorist cells operating permanently in Mexico or Latin America, but “narco-terrorism” is being used as an excuse to send the military out in these countries. Unfortunately, the Democrats Platform is very similar in its wholehearted endorsement of the military approach to drug trafficking.
The politicians manufacture the war for the companies that manufacture the weapons. In this cycle, the drug war is the latest market for intelligence and spy equipment, military hardware, arms and private security firms like Blackwater.
On this side of the border, security companies and local government offices that receive federal money to fight the drug war have a vested interest in continuing it. They know it doesn’t work. But it works for them.
The prison pipeline is big business now. For certain government bureaucracies, and for the private companies that run our prisons and press for more and bigger jails. They pressure for prison expansion, in places like here in Baltimore, where they figure it’s easier and more profitable to lock kids away then to educate them or provide them with decent jobs—especially African American and Latino youth. In the Southwest where the caravan passed through a few weeks ago, these same companies run the migrant detention centers, where women are raped and prisoners have died from lack of medical treatment. Where prisoners are made to feel, as one woman who had been incarcerated for drugs in New York told us, like “throwaway people”. No one is a throwaway person.
Public security, which should be the goal, is the greatest casualty of the drug war. All these victims are here to attest to the fact that fighting violence with violence generates more violence.
The drug war has also blurs the lines between security forces and criminal forces. Nothing makes sense in this insanity of violence. Two examples prove the point. Several weeks ago members of the Mexican Federal Police chased down and shot at a U.S. Embassy car carrying two CIA agents and a Mexican Navy official. The first question on everybody’s mind was: why were the Federal Police trying to kill the U.S. advisers? Aren’t they supposed to be on the same side in this war? The US has poured millions of taxpayer dollars into funding Mexico’s Federal Police and here they were not only biting, but trying to destroy the hand that feeds them. The second question, much less asked, was: Why were U.S. CIA agents training 18-year old Mexican Navy recruits to shoot their own people?
The second example comes from here in Baltimore. Yesterday we heard about a 16 year-old boy with his whole life ahead of him who was shot by a 14 year-old with an assault rifle. We learned that it’s easier to buy an assault rifle than a tomato in some neighborhoods of this city.
It’s been said before—the war on drugs is a war on people. Today we are surrounded with proof of the insanity of this war. We hear it in the voices of the victims and we see it in their tears. We honor the men and women here who have had to courage to tell these stories and to forge a movement for justice from the raw material of their pain.
No one believes that drug abuse is not a problem or that organized crime is not a problen in Mexico. They are. What we are saying is this way of dealing with real problems is not working. There are far better ways, paths toward an integral human security; health and community-based approaches. We have seen so much needless grief, we have been placed in harm’s way, by bad policy and governments that for the most part, just don’t care, in Mexico and in the United States.
Obama administration officials and those who benefit from the drug war say that the proposal to legalize marijuana is irresponsible. What is irresponsible is to continue a policy for more than 40 years when all available evidence shows it doesn’t work. It kills people. It incarcerates their bodies and lacerates their spirits.
Let us not be ambiguous:
We must end the drug war now. We must reform our drug policy that makes drug use criminal and hands criminals a lucrative business. We need to take the multi-billion-dollar market away from the brutal cartels. If we stop the flow of money by ending prohibition, we cut off their lifeline.
We can end the drug war, maybe even before it reaches the ignominious hundred-year anniversary that former mayor Ken Schmoke mentioned. We can build better communities, better nations and a better relationship between our countries. But we can’t do it alone. We need to support our local organizations and we need to reach across borders.
Then we can join together, not just based on our shared sorrow and pain, but based on a common vision of a better future for ourselves and our families.
Laura Carlsen is the Director of the CIP Americas Program. This text is based on a presentation at the Summit to End the War on Drugs: Baltimore & Beyond Borders, Sept. 9, 2012, an event of the Caravan for Peace with Justice and Dignity.