An End in Sight

U.S. Reform and the Mexican Drug War

La Une du journal local.
An End in Sight : U.S. Reform and the Mexican Drug War - Alex Weaver

The most recent U.S. elections offer some hope for reforming the immigration and drug policies that have perpetuated the Mexican Drug War and its tragic effects in the region. The two reforms present real opportunities to weaken the powerful drug cartels: immigration reform would constrict the organizations’ cross-border supply chains, and marijuana legalization, approved by referendum in Washington and Colorado, would have an even bigger impact. By crowding out black markets with legal industry, U.S. firms could enter the market and appropriate cartel profits. Immigration reform and drug liberalization, effectively implemented and tacitly accepted, respectively, by the federal government, can reduce the economic incentives and power of cartels and thereby mitigate the conflict in Central America.

With regard to immigration, the solution is relatively straightforward. The U.S. government should institute a sanctuary policy for those exposed to violence and relax quotas on unskilled labor. Both policies will reduce border traffic, effectively easing the burden on U.S. border security personnel so they can focus on combatting drug trafficking. Such a shift in resources priority would cut into the cartels’ supply chains and cross-border networks.

The United States can grant sanctuary for foreign nationals affected by the drug war without need for legislative measures. Like Obama’s recent Deferred Action protocol, it can be done with a change in Department of Homeland Security (D.H.S.) protocol.[1] D.H.S. can recognize the victims as refugees or offer them informal sanctuary. However, refugee status is not amnesty, in the sense that protectees will have to report to government authorities in order to be in compliance. Regulated qualification could present some political difficulties, as the notion of amnesty is heavily politicized. By instituting anterograde legal sanctuary based on exposure to violence, the debate could bypass amnesty altogether.

The government should also relax quotas on legal immigration, specifically of Class H2 Visas for seasonal work. The agricultural labor shortage survived the recession, but H-Visas are capped at around 200,000 per year by Congress with new admissions representing just 0.3% of the U.S. labor force. If this were raised to 0.6% through executive competence (as is done for the H1-B), illegal immigration could decline. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that approximately 250,000 immigrants enter the US illegally each year from Mexico. By adding 200,000 visas for primary foreign nationals with additional dependent support, the United States increases access to legal, controlled means of immigration. H2 Visas can give humanitarian priority to areas impacted by the violence. The Mexican economy also stands to benefit from increased remittances, which have dropped by 20%.

Finally, drug policy reform could simultaneously cripple the cartels and provide much-needed state government revenue. The only move required by the White House is to treat marijuana policy as a state-by-state issue. The government stands to gain a significant tax base from legalization, with Mexican marijuana sales estimated between 6 and 20 billion USD per annum. A report by the Mexican Center for Competitiveness claims legalization in Washington alone could reduce profit by 1.37 Billion USD for cartels, as much as 23% of their estimated revenue, though most gains have been realized through legalization of medical marijuana. The shift away from black markets to legal or grey markets damages the cartels. By respecting the states’ referenda and descaling the “War on Drugs,” the Obama administration lets the domestic market out-compete inefficient Mexican cartels. This position is tenable from the libertarian right and the progressive left. Citizens now favor legalization, and more state referenda may come. Obama’s best policy choice, with an eye the Mexican Drug War and public opinion, is non-response.

By relegating drug policy to individual states and allowing the referenda to take effect, the Obama administration weakens the cartels on the demand side and creates potential for tax revenue. Small revisions in immigration reform will further damage the cartels’ supply chain. With supply suppressed and demand diffused, the cartels will face constrained profit margins, reducing incentives to stay in business and perpetuate the conflict. Implemented properly, these policies could hasten an effective end to the drug war and remove a major source of contention with U.S. policy in the region.

Alex Weaver is a first year M.A. candidate at Johns Hopkins SAIS Bologna Center.