As readers of this blog are no doubt aware, I am not a huge fan of the recently passed Arizona immigration law, SB 1070. The Arizona law has mainly been justified as a means of combating violent drug gangs from Mexico. I frankly don’t see how the law helps in this regard, but no one should mistake my opposition to SB 1070 for sanguinity on the topic of Mexican drug and gang-related violence. Drug related violence is up sharply in several regions of Mexico over the last few years, and there is always the danger that violence could spill over into the United States.
Why is drug violence up so sharply in Mexico? Ironically, the cause seems to be an upsurge in attempts by the Mexican government to suppress the drug trade. Since his election in 2006, Mexican President Calderon has made going after the drug cartels one of his top priorities. The cartels have responded in kind, murdering anyone they perceive as a threat.
The idea that anti-drug efforts are causing an increasing drug-related violence can be hard to stomach. After all, the law enforcement officials fighting against the cartels are heroes, whereas the cartels themselves are made up of profoundly evil people. Suggesting that the increased violence is the result of anti-drug policies may thus seem morally perverse. My claim, however, is not moral but causal. The drug cartels have existed in Mexico for a long time. Yet it was only when the government stepped up anti-drug efforts that the violence has increased so dramatically.
If I thought that a war on drugs was winnable (i.e. that increased enforcement could actually suppress the drug trade), then a temporary increase in violence might be acceptable. But I don’t see that happening. Selling drugs is a very lucrative business as there are lots and lots people in the United States and elsewhere who are willing to pay for illegal drugs. So long as that remains true one can never win the war on drugs simply by breaking this cartel or jailing that drug kingpin. All this does is create a vacuum into which some new aspiring kingpin can step. Indeed, breaking up drug cartels may paradoxically make the situation worse. Drug violence, after all, costs money, and if one organization controls the drug trade within a given territory they will have a strong incentive to minimize violence. If no one organization has control over a given territory (say, because the previous cartel leaders for that territory have been jailed), then different organizations will have to fight each other for control, which means more violence.
Considerations like the above have led Mexico’s former president, Vicente Fox, to call for drug legalization. Fox, who like the current president is a member of the center-right PAN party, views legalization as necessary to really break the power of the Mexican drug cartels:
“Legalizing in this sense doesn’t mean that drugs are good or don’t hurt those who consume,” Fox wrote. “Rather, we have to see it as a strategy to strike and break the economic structure that allows the mafias to generate huge profits in their business.”
Nor is the situation with Mexico unique. In Colombia, the Marxoid terrorist organization FARC has long used the illegal drug market as a means of funding its war against the country’s legitimate government. And in Afghanistan, the Taliban has used American eradication of opium crops as a way to increase their own support.
Ironically, Arizona’s immigration law stands to do much less to stem the tide of drug-violence than another measure currently being debated one state over. This November voters in California will decide whether to legalize marijuana an action which could significantly reduce the lucrative nature of the illegal drug trade. As former California sheriff Joe McNamara notes:
The federal Drug Enforcement Administration estimates that Mexican cartels derive more than 60 percent of their profits from marijuana. How much did the cartels make last year dealing in Budweiser, Corona or Dos Equis? Legalization would seriously cripple their operations. With more than 20,000 people in Mexico killed in the past three years in drug turf battles, which are spreading north of the border, undercutting the cartels is an urgent priority for both Mexicans’ and Americans’ safety.
St. Thomas Aquinas long ago noted that attempting to suppress vice may lead people to break out into still greater vices. For this reason, he held that law should not attempt to outlaw all vice, but should tolerate smaller evils rather than provoking larger ones. Drug legalization would, I believe, fall into this category.