The Brutal Logic of a Drug Warrior: Put 'Em All in Cages

More

Behold where narcotics prohibition leads a forthright advocate.

drugs full.jpg

Reuters



In the Asia Times, David P. Goldman has published a column that is at once jarringly horrific and possessed of a certain integrity, for it frankly acknowledges what happens when a country wages a war on drugs. His impetus for writing about the subject is Mexico, where tens of thousands have been slaughtered as a result of violence between drug cartels, their rivals, and police. He rightly points out that lawlessness is rampant in that country.

His solution?

Mexico should incarcerate a much higher percentage of its citizens.

If that sounds like brutal logic you don't know the half of it yet. The author begins by talking about America's war on drugs, and the role that James Q. Wilson played in perpetuating it. "As head of Richard Nixon's commission on illegal drugs in 1972, Wilson engaged in a celebrated polemic with the economist Milton Friedman over drug legalization. Rather than accept legalization, Wilson proposed to refocus law enforcement," he wrote. "It worked, but at dreadful cost. America has the world's highest incarceration rate at 743 per 100,000 of population and holds a quarter of all the prison inmates in the world. And the prison population disproportionately includes minorities. A third of African-Americans between the ages of 20 and 30 have passed through the criminal justice system in 1995, according to the Sentencing Project, a prisoners' advocacy group... Controlling crime crushed a generation of African-Americans."

It's worth pausing to reflect on what the author means when he says "it worked." As he surely knows, illegal drug use and gangs that sell narcotics remain ubiquitous in the United States. It is true that the crime rate has recently fallen, but that hardly coincided with the Nixon Administration's criminal justice policies. As Goldman himself acknowledges, a generation of African Americans has been crushed by these policies, and as he fails to point out, American drug prohibition is hugely complicit in the violent black market that is responsible for the tens of thousands of deaths he wants to address in Mexico. That is this drug warrior's definition of success!

As you can imagine, his recommendations for Mexico are horrifying:

Contrary to what the libertarians argued, you can control the population of prospective criminals - not by going after the top, where there always is room, but by waging a war of attrition at the bottom. In the past I compared the war on drugs to the American Civil War, which was won by killing off such a large proportion of military-age Southern men (nearly 30%) that the Confederate Army lacked soldiers to put into the ranks. That was the most heroic thing America ever did.

That is the United States, where the number of young people sufficiently poor to risk life and limb in criminal activity is comparatively small. What happens in a poor country with a much larger proportion of unemployment youth? Mexico's incarceration rate is just 200 per 100,000 population, roughly a quarter of America's. To attack criminality from the bottom up rather than the top down would imply a social dislocation of catastrophic proportions... It is questionable whether any Latin American government can deliberately reduce the criminal element in its own population. Peru's former President Alberto Fujimori will remain in prison for decades after his 2008 conviction stemming from the use of death squads against the "Shining Path" guerrillas. And Fujimori had a relatively free hand during the 1990s because the guerrillas' main support came from indigenous people in rural areas, where street justice is hard to document.

Nonetheless, if it is to break the hold of criminal gangs on many of its cities, Mexico has no choice but to take a page from James Q Wilson's book. To undertake the Herculean labor of suppressing criminality from the bottom will have terrible consequences, as in Enrique Krauze's chilling analogy to the 1910 Revolution. The only thing worse is the alternative. It is not enough to arrest the drug lords; it is also necessary to attrite the ranks of their gunmen. How much will it cost? If you have to ask what it costs, you can't afford to be a country. 

One part of the column that I skipped over is worth mentioning, for I'm sure a lot of readers are thinking, Rather than knowingly devastate the poorest Mexicans by embarking on a deliberate program of mass incarceration, why not just make drugs legal if only on the chance it could work?Here's a rebuttal that the author apparently finds persuasive. "Libertarians used to argue that arresting criminals was futile as long as crime paid, because there always would be someone willing to take the job; the only remedy, they added, was to legalize drugs, bring down the price and eliminate the economic incentive," he writes. "The trouble is that the Mexican gangs do not restrict their predations to drugs, as the frightful incidence of kidnapping makes clear." He is apparently blind to the fact that those gangs would be far less powerful, far less formidable to stop from kidnapping people, if they weren't enriched with obscene amounts of wealth the likes of which they could only plausibly obtain from one source that can in fact be eliminated: drug profits. Prohibition era gangs committed crimes besides producing and selling alcohol. Do you know what made them less powerful? Or why they've long since ceased to terrorize law-abiding Americans?

But this is the illogic of a drug warrior. His solution requires locking up vast swaths of a country's population in cages while the folks that remain free are caught in a hopeless attempt to eliminate a black market. He nevertheless points at the libertarian solution and says, as if its a commensurate complaint, "Even if you legalize drugs there will still be other crime in Mexico."

Yet his side is still driving policy in the United States.

A related piece worth reading, if this topic interests you, is James Q. Wilson himself defending America's high incarceration rates. One line in particular jumped out at me as I read his arguments: "If we knew how to make street gangs less attractive to boys we could reduce dramatically the number of murders our cities experience, but so far we do not know how to do this." How about destroying the black market that permits many people in street gangs to earn vast amounts of money? Its hard to imagine how that could fail to make street gangs less attractive.

Jump to comments
Presented by

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.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Is Technology Shifting Our Moral Compass?

"The experience of taking another human life becomes much more trivial."


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Juice Cleanses: The Worst Diet

A doctor tries the ever-popular Master Cleanse. Sort of.

Video

Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion

Video

What If Emoji Lived Among Us?

A whimsical ad imagines what life would be like if emoji were real.

Video

Living Alone on a Sailboat

"If you think I'm a dirtbag, then you don't understand the lifestyle."

Feature

The Future of Iced Coffee

Are artisan businesses like Blue Bottle doomed to fail when they go mainstream?

Writers

Up
Down

More in National

Just In