5 Expert Takes on How U.S. Marijuana Legalization Would Affect Mexico

By Emily Q. Hazzard
In recent years, the frequency and intensity of violence associated with Mexico's drug war has escalated dramatically: 28,000 murders between 2006 and 2010; 7,000 this year alone. More and more, the victims of such violence are not involved in cartel activity themselves, but rather caught in cartel campaigns terrorize Mexico's government and people.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon has accused the United States of failing to act and blames this country's "terrible inconsistency" in drug policies for failing to control consumption and manage addicts' treatment. Calderon himself has loudly opposed initiatives to legalize marijuana in California, on Tuesday's ballot as Proposition 19. Supporters of legalization claim that cartels' finances would be hit hard. But it wouldn't necessarily put them out of business: A new study from Rand Corporation estimates that not more than 15 to 26 percent of cartels' income comes from marijuana export.

We asked five experts on Mexico's drug wars to assess both U.S. and Mexican policy, and to predict the effects in Mexico of California legalizing marijuana. 

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has compared Mexico today to Colombia 25 years ago. How is this comparison fair or unfair?

Peter Reuter (Professor of Public Policy, University of Maryland): In Colombia it was the drug cartels that launched the attack on the power of the state. In Mexico, it's the opposite: it's the state that has attacked the drug dealers.

Peter Andreas (Professor of Political Science and International Studies, Brown University): The analogy fits in the sense that Colombia was ground zero for the drug war international 25 years ago and now Mexico is, and they're getting all the attention. They're very apprehensive about the analogy. Colombia had no hesitation about Americanizing their war on drugs--accepting U.S. advisors and aide and technology and so on. Mexico is much more reluctant to embrace a similar relationship. 

Robert Bonner (Senior Partner, Sentinel HS, and former Administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration): Colombia had ... a real [political] insurgency: the FARC, ELN, and other groups who had territorial control over a pretty significant part of [the country]. To defeat an insurgency takes a military solution, but to defeat transnational criminal organizations is primarily a law enforcement issue: you need judicial reform and stronger law enforcement institutions. You can't bring down, powerful criminal organizations with military force alone.

Andrew Selee (Director, Mexico Institute, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars): A big difference between Colombia and Mexico is that in Colombia you have large, ungoverned spaces where the central government was not very present. In Mexico you don't have that; what you do have is deeply corrupted spaces ... where the government is very present but organized crime is able to corrupt and co-opt.

What have been the U.S.'s biggest mistakes in Mexico policy? Biggest victories?

Andreas: What the U.S. has called a success has actually turned into failure. Twenty years ago, thanks to so-called success in combating smuggling into the country from south Florida and the Caribbean, the cocaine trade moved west to Mexico thanks to the U.S.'s interdiction. It was fabulous for Mexican traffickers because it has actually [made the drug trade] more difficult to control. 

Reuter: I don't think the U.S. really has much of a role in this. In terms of policy, the long history of U.S. meddling in Mexico and the Mexicans' intense nationalism on that issue means that the U.S. can do very little in Mexico itself.

Bonner: [One of the most successful tactics in Colombia] was the use of extradition to the United States: Mexico is doing that. The only thing that the cartel leadership truly fears is extradition to the United States and prosecution here. It gave tremendous leverage to Colombia. Use of extradition started in earnest under Vicente Fox, but the pace has been increased under Calderon. 

Vanda Felbab-Brown (Foreign Policy Fellow, Brookings Institution): The U.S.'s greatest failure, of course, has been [our] inability to conduct immigration reform, which is something that's incredibly important politically not only in the U.S. but for the Mexican government as well.

What are the most effective policy or enforcement countermeasures available to the U.S.?

Bonner: As we learned in Colombia, identifying the assets of the major traffickers in Mexico and seizing, freezing, and forfeiting their assets is incredibly important to weakening them and bringing them down.

Felbab-Brown: I'm skeptical that focusing on money laundering can be very effective. It's excruciatingly difficult to do, and of all the tools available to law enforcement it's one of the least efficacious programs. We capture something on the order of 2 to 5 percent of flows, and it would take a lot of effort just to get to 10 percent.

Selee: [We need to] do something about what happens on the U.S. side of the border, which is the demand for narcotics and the billions that American consumers spend on narcotics. This includes controlling the flow of arms.

Reuter: I am really struck by the lack of suggestions as to what the Mexican government should do other than just give up. I don't have any good ideas, and nobody else does, either.

What will be the effects on the Mexican drug trade if California legalizes marijuana?

Andreas: Marijuana's potential tax revenue has been overstated. 

Bonner: I hope it doesn't pass: it would be a real slap in the face for Mexico. Almost 30,000 people have died in drug-related homicides [since 2006]. Some of those have been police and military who have been fighting the drug traffickers there. 

Selee: The biggest effect of passing prop 19 would be to generate a serious debate over drug policy for the first time in many years in this country. I can't see prop 19 creating the conditions for a... market in which marijuana is not controlled by organized crime.

Felbab-Brown: In one outcome, cartels' market [for marijuana] would be threatened and so they would try to move into other illegal markets as they are doing already. The fight over the heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine markets would intensify and lead to even greater escalations of violence.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2010/11/5-expert-takes-on-how-us-marijuana-legalization-would-affect-mexico/65498/