Why you should care
Ending the prohibition of drugs without effective criminal justice reform will do nothing to reduce violence.
Even before he won office, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, aka AMLO, was making noises about changing the country’s approach to drug trafficking and security. So it came as no surprise when he announced earlier this year that the prohibition model for illegal drugs is unsustainable and that getting rid of it is the only way to reduce addiction and drug trade violence.
But there has been no detail from AMLO’s administration about what the end to prohibition will involve. Will it legalize the consumption of cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin and LSD? Legalizing those drugs is a whole other ballgame than that of legalizing marijuana.
“It seems to me that [AMLO] said this without really having much knowledge of the situation and how to regulate these things,” says Carlos Zamudio, an independent investigator on drug markets and consumption. “They really have no idea.”
Are they also going to legalize the production of all of those substances? A proposition from a politician from the state of Guerrero — Mexico’s heroin heartland — to legalize poppy farming is as woefully lacking in detail as AMLO’s blanket anti-prohibition plan. The proposal does nothing to suggest how a legal poppy farming industry would actually look, whether it would involve the tens of thousands of farmers who currently make a living from the plant and whether there is a market to sustain it. Research by political analysis group Noria suggests there isn’t enough demand for legal opium pharmaceutical products in Mexico to sustain a legal industry — meaning producers would produce more than the market could buy.
The main buyers and clients for the region’s drug traffickers have always been Americans, not Mexicans …
To be fair, it’s early days for AMLO, but he still should be a little further along than this if ending prohibition is the aim of a six-year administration.
Zamudio doesn’t think that anything other than marijuana consumption is going to be decriminalized. Legalizing weed, however, won’t have a big impact on drug-related violence. And for that, Mexico can blame the United States. The state-level legalization of marijuana in America means the black market for it has shrunk, eliminating its cash crop status for Mexico’s drug cartels. Why smoke Acapulco Gold when you can take your pick of oils, edibles and other gourmet products produced and sold legally?
Marijuana is now part of a polydrug portfolio that includes cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin for criminal groups like the Sinaloa cartel and its main rival, the ever-expanding Jalisco New Generation cartel (CJNG in Spanish).
Lisa Sánchez, director of the influential nonprofit Mexico United Against Crime, is more optimistic. “I don’t think the decriminalization of all drugs is out of reach — but I don’t think it’s a priority on the public agenda,” she says.
For now, the production of heroin, meth and, increasingly, fentanyl, as well as the transportation of those drugs and cocaine, will continue unabated. That means the violence generated by the struggles for territory and dominance around those activities between criminal groups and the persecution of them by Mexico’s armed forces will also continue.
And here’s the kicker: There is a broad consensus that violence around the drug trade in Mexico isn’t as connected to the sale and consumption of illicit substances at home as to the production and transportation of them north. The main buyers and clients for the region’s drug traffickers have always been Americans, not Mexicans, and according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, Mexican crime syndicates “remain the greatest criminal drug threat to the United States.” Consumption in Mexico has been rising as more drugs pass through, but the big bucks for the cartels and their associates are to be made north of the border. The fact is that the brutal violence in Mexico — which is killing more people than ever — is more connected to the U.S. market than to Mexican sales.
“The Mexican market is tiny in both volume and total dollar value,” says Jaime López-Aranda, a security analyst and former Mexican law enforcement official.
As long as the prohibition of most substances persists in the U.S., Mexico’s powerful criminal syndicates will continue to produce and transport illegal drugs there.
Arguably, on a local drug sales level, stopping the persecution of consumers of drugs such as marijuana, cocaine and meth in Mexico may bring drug use into the open. It may also free up more police hours to go after the real criminals — drug dealers — but is that a good thing? It doesn’t promise to reduce conflict between (notoriously corrupt and inefficient) law enforcement and Mexico’s criminal underworld — in fact, it threatens to make matters worse. As drug busts and military operations to attack criminal cells increase, so too will violence.
It’s important to note that drugs are just one of many criminal markets for Mexico’s crime groups. Organized crime is now as focused on generating income from extortion, kidnapping, people trafficking and other markets, and the use of violence in all of those activities is fundamental. Criminal impunity in Mexico is so rife that killing often brings few legal consequences.
“It’s not the markets, but the incentives for the participants. Mexico’s illegal markets have fewer restrictions, given the relative absence of the rule of law, “ says López-Aranda.
Which brings us to another fundamental part of AMLO’s strategy in combating drug-related violence: law enforcement and the justice system. Although he claims to be backing away from militarization, López Obrador’s administration is putting together (yet another) elite force, this time called the National Guard, to hit the streets running in the fight against drug-related violence — replacing the military with … a military force. Mexico’s armed forces, alongside the police, have a dire human rights record and stand accused of myriad crimes, including forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings.
AMLO is doing away with Mexico’s federal police as he brings in the National Guard. But, as Sánchez points out, the police are better equipped than soldiers to enforce the law in communities. “The police [are] missing and if improving police bodies is not a priority for the government to improve public security, then I don’t see things improving. That’s very bad for Mexico,” she says.
Getting rid of the prohibition of certain drugs is a necessary start to changing the approach to Mexico’s drug problem, converting it from a criminal issue to a public health one. But in a vacuum, it will achieve very little. The authorities need effective strategies to tackle the supply as well as the demand side of the illegal drug market. Improving Mexico’s justice system at all levels is fundamental to improving the country’s dire public security situation, from addressing the working conditions and training of soldiers and cops on the beat to eradicating corruption and increasing transparency at all levels of the country’s justice institutions.
It is only when criminal syndicates believe they will be held accountable for their crimes that they will be encouraged to back away from their highly profitable criminal activities and unchecked use of violence.
Without that, decriminalizing drug consumption will achieve very little.