A Mexican Tycoon's Plea: End the War on Drugs

Pleading with thought leaders to rethink prohibition, he cited the tens of thousands who've died in his country in the aftermath of a crackdown on cartels.

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Mexican businessman Ricardo Salinas, one of the richest men in Latin America, lamented the war on drug cartels waged by President Felipe Calderon Thursday, saying at the Aspen Ideas Festival that it has been an unmitigated disaster for Mexico. "We cracked down," he said. "It didn't work. We've got 50,000 dead people." Invoking America's failed experiment with alcohol prohibition, he suggested a lesson policymakers should've already learned: "What we see now is a huge demand for drugs. It is going up, not down. As long as that demand is there, it will be supplied."

Notes from the Aspen Ideas Festival -- See full coverage

Addressing the audience, he issued a plea to thought leaders, asking them to reflect on the huge costs and meager benefits drug prohibition has brought. What I found most interesting was his notion that, compared to Mexico, the United States isn't waging a War on Drugs. Understand that our Drug Enforcement Agency is in dozens of countries, we've created paramilitary style drug units in the police forces of our cities, no-knock raids with doors battered down by SWAT teams is a daily reality in America, and drug violence remains a reality in various urban neighborhoods.

At the same time, I take Salinas' point. Even the United States hasn't escalated the War on Drugs to the degree that Mexico has done, which is to say, we've been unwilling to bear costs like 50,000 dead Americans in order to mount an all out effort to eradicate drug cartels and gangs.

American drug warriors don't talk much about the costs of the aggressive measures they'd like to implement. They do maintain that if only we fought the cartels and drug trade harder we could win. The experience of Mexico suggests that even a radical, frontal assault on the drug trade doesn't guarantee success, and risks consequences as catastrophic as tens of thousands dead. If America is ever foolish enough to dramatically escalate the War on Drugs, perhaps our business elite will start pleading to rethink prohibition. Violence and instability are bad for business.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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