US Drug and Gun Policies are Worsening Mexico’s Narco Wars

US Drug and Gun Policies are Worsening Mexico’s Narco Wars - Derek Schlickeisen

For a salary of $600 a week, Santiago Meza López made “stew” for the Tijuana Cartel, the notoriously violent drug trafficking organization that for many years controlled the vital US-Mexico border crossing at Tijuana. The ingredients of his stew: more than 300 corpses of the cartel’s rivals, which he dissolved in empty oil barrels using sodium hydroxide.

Stories like this one, which emerged after the arrest of López in 2009, have become increasingly common since the 2006 declaration of full-blown war against Mexico’s drug traffickers by then-President Felipe Calderón in a fight that has since claimed an estimated 80,000 lives.

The violence has continued unabated under the presidency of Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-present), who has maintained his predecessor’s strategy of targeting top cartel leaders, most notably the 22 February 2014 capture of Sinaloa Cartel boss Joaquín “El Chapo Guzmán. While this “leadership decapitation” strategy, carried out by Mexico’s military and federal police, has been the hallmark of government policy throughout the drug war, it goes against evidence suggesting that the removal of cartel bosses simply leads to the violent splitting of their organizations into smaller, competing factions. Moreover, with a shocking 2% criminal conviction rate, Mexico’s appallingly incompetent and corrupt criminal justice system has hampered the country’s legal response.

Yet for all of the shortcomings of Mexico’s counternarcotics strategy, its leaders are also struggling against two key problems that come from north of the Rio Grande: the US’s meager investments in drug treatment programs to reduce demand, and its political unwillingness to rein in the sale of firearms that are purchased in the US and then smuggled into Mexico. Simply put, it is US dollars and US guns that are fueling the orgy of drug violence south of the border.

The financial math of drug use in the United States is staggering: Americans spend more than $100 billion a year on illicit drugs, including an estimated $28 billion on cocaine and $27 billion on heroin. Mexico is our number one trading partner in this respect: the country serves as the transshipment point for over 90% of cocaine entering the United States, and Mexican-grown opium poppies provide much of the raw material for heroin sold north of the border.

Yet the vast majority of drug spending is made not by recreational drug users, but rather by chronic or addicted users. As a result, repeated government-commissioned studies have concluded that, dollar for dollar, taxpayer dollars would be better spent on the demand side (drug treatment programs) rather than the supply side (interdiction and eradication).

However, interdiction and eradication are precisely the strategies pursued by the United States and demanded of its neighbors, like Mexico. Under the 2007 Mérida Initiative, the United States provided $1.4 billion in military equipment and training for the Mexican army and police to conduct Calderón’s war against the cartels. It simply wasn’t effective: during first years of the Mérida Initiative, Mexico’s cartels made an estimated $64 billion annually from drug sales in the United States. “El Chapo” Guzmán, the Sinaloa boss arrested earlier this year, was once estimated by Forbes to be worth $1.3 billion by himself. With an astoundingly high revenue stream and virtual legal impunity thanks to the country’s 2% criminal conviction rate, Mexican drug traffickers have every incentive to stay in the business.

It is not just US dollars that are keeping Mexico’s cartels in business, either – it is also US guns. A 2012 study found that the vast majority of firearms seized in raids against Mexican cartels could be traced to one of the 6,700 gun shops operating along the border in Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and California. The study also found that between 2010 and 2012 alone, an estimated 253,000 firearms sold legally in the United States were then trafficked to Mexico, under the noses of border enforcement authorities who intercepted a mere 15% of the illicit shipments.

Though a disaster for Mexican homicide rates, this flow of arms is a cash windfall for US gun dealers. Fully half of all US gun stores are believed to rely to some extent on Mexican demand. The value of Mexico-bound arms sales was estimated at $127 million between 2010 and 2012, up from just $32 million between 1997 and 1999 during the Assault Weapons Ban. Given the levels of violence plaguing Mexican society, this massive sum represents blood money: US gun dealers’ tidy profit from the violence south of the border.

It is time for US lawmakers to own up to our present policy failures and address the significant extent to which we are worsening Mexico’s drug wars.

We can start by shedding the social taboo against drug addicts and invest significantly in their treatment and recovery. With the drug traffickers’ profits measured in the tens of billions of dollars, even a modest reduction in addiction rates among the heaviest drug users would slow the revenue stream to Mexico’s cartels.

It is also time for lawmakers to get over their fear of the gun lobby and take targeted steps towards improved gun control. Common-sense measures, like universal background checks and a national gun registry, will go a long way towards preventing cartels from using US proxy buyers to obtain their ever-increasing firepower.