How the Drug War Leads to Actual War

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.


6 Responses to How the Drug War Leads to Actual War

  1. John Henry says:

    ESPN (of all sources) released an excellent documentary recently entitled “The Two Escobars” on Pablo Escobar (the drug king pin) and Andres Escobar (a star soccer player), both of whose deaths the documentary linked to an attempted crackdown by the Columbian government on cartel activity.

    This discussion reminds me of the international sweat shop discussions insofar as the manifestly unachievable ideal situation (the eradication of drug use and trafficking and sweat shop labor, respectively) is often used as a club to force people into supporting policies (e.g. futile attempts to crack down on cartels or removing employment options for people in poorer countries) that obviously harm all involved. Alan Jacobs recently remarked that “we live in a society with a hypertrophied sense of justice and an atrophied sense of humility and charity, to put the matter in terms of the classic virtues.” It seems to me that the virtue of prudence (a la Aquinas – tolerating smaller evils rather than provoking larger ones) is in ever shorter supply also.

    Btw, I do not support drug legalization – I would like drugs to stay illegal, insofar as law serves a pedagogical function and an expression of the mores of a society. I have no objection, however, to vastly reducing the resources we currently use in trying to stop drug trafficking and prosecuting and incarcerating people who otherwise are not violating the law.

  2. Tito Edwards says:


    I read about it and I’m waiting for it to arrive on Netflix.

    I thought the previews and reviews were pretty good and now you say how great it is, I’m sold!

  3. Micha Elyi says:

    As a practical matter “the resources we currently use in…incarcerating people who otherwise are not violating the law” besides the crime of simple possession are zero. By the time someone makes it to federal prison, their – uh – ‘transcript’ is long and loaded with achieved prerequisites, often in their violent form. Same goes for the quite populous but typical state in which I reside. (I can’t speak for Texas.)

    Tolerating “smaller evils” is easy to talk about but can our culture really tolerate just one (drug use)? Cease outlawing one so-called victimless crime and then how does one draw the line against any others, prostitution, gambling, assisted suicide, etc.?

    Also, be aware that Aquinas lived in a time in which the ruler’s punishment for many (most?) crimes was death and extra-legal methods of punishment that we would consider unenlightened and intolerable were commonly meted out.

    I wish there was an easy solution for plucking the thorn of recreational drug use from America. Oh, if only as much scorn existed for the pot abuser as is meted upon the tobacco user!

  4. Micha Elyi says:

    P.S. I don’t recall that Joseph McNamara was ever a sheriff. He did serve as police chief of San José, California. He is now a fellow of the Hoover Institution.

  5. Tony says:

    I don’t think that we MUST outlaw drugs, as a matter of principle. But it is surely the case that the use of drugs cannot be widespread and frequent in society without damaging that society. So we are faced with a social “problem” that drugs should be infrequently used, but no individual instance is all that evil. We need mechanisms to discourage drug use – not necessarily by prison, but that could be one option for severe cases.

    I think that we could easily discourage drug use (over the long term, that is) culturally by saying, basically, that they are legal but that since they are addictive and destructive in the long term, you have to be an adult to use them, to choose that lifestyle. But more importantly, you have to be willing to pay up front the true cost of the use of such drugs (this should go for tobacco, also, which is in reality a drug): you can get all the drugs you want with a prescription from the doctor, as long as you first post a bond for the value of your long-term care when the drugs undermine your ability to take care of the problems they will cause in your life.

    Oh, one last thing: death sentence for anyone who intentionally gives or sells drugs to a minor (i.e. to someone who is as yet unable to make that commitment to a destructive lifestyle choice). You wreck my kid’s life with drugs, you lose your right to life also.

    How is it that we can erect such a socially pervasive force of frowning on tobacco, and not similarly for other drugs? (Although, it is still the case that 20% of Americans use tobacco, and virtually all of them start before they are 18. I guess that social discouragement is not terribly effective.)

  6. Blackadder says:

    As a practical matter “the resources we currently use in…incarcerating people who otherwise are not violating the law” besides the crime of simple possession are zero. By the time someone makes it to federal prison, their – uh – ‘transcript’ is long and loaded with achieved prerequisites, often in their violent form.

    I used to work for the U.S. Attorneys’ Office (federal prosecutor) and later clerked for a federal judge. Most of the drug cases involved dealing, but a sizable minority were just users. I’m sure that some of the dealers (and users) had committed other crimes at some point, but these were usually attendant on their being involved in the illegal drug trade.

    And anyway, the idea that it’s okay to put a bunch of people in prison because they’ve probably committed some crime for which they’ve never been charged or convicted is not consistent with American legal traditions.

%d bloggers like this: