Legalising drugs a solution to the violence?
Almost five years ago, Mexicans watched their President Felipe Calderon send soldiers out onto the streets of cities like Ciudad Juarez, announcing an unprecedented frontal attack on the country’s drug cartels.
Then, they saw the death toll rise year by year, from around under 3,000 in 2007 to almost 20, 000 in 2010. This year could be even higher.
When I went to Cancun for the Climate Summit in late November, a taxi driver told me that the leve of violence was seriously disrupting the economy - especially tourism - and that he hoped the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) , which ruled Mexico for 70 years, would be brought back to power in the next presidential elections.
“Before, during the PRI governments , we didn’t have this problem with the drug traffickers . They minded their business and we minded ours. Why should we do the dirty work for the Americans, who are the ones who consume the drugs?“ the man asked point blank.
I was amazed that anyone could articulate what seemed like such a short-sighted point of view. Didn’t he realise that sooner or later the traffickers would become so powerful that they would become everyone’s problem in Mexico?
Eight months later, I find that it is not just the taxi driver who believes that it is time to go back to a policy of peaceful co-existence with the cartels, but also some politicians and opinion makers, including former Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda, who served under previous President Vicente Fox.
“Call off the war. Take the army back to the barracks and say enough of this business. Let’s concentrate our efforts, our army and navy on reducing violence against society, kidnapping, extortion, etc," he said.
"And frankly, let the cartels do pretty much what they want as long as they don’t get involved in these things. Now since we don’t want to encourage a culture of illegality, we’re going to try to begin the process of legalisation."
What legalisation? I asked.
"In a perfect world, all drugs, all over, everywhere,” Castaneda told me.
Was he really proposing an accommodation with the cartels, I enquired.
“Isn’t that what the Americans are doing in Afghanistan with the poppy growers who are producing heroin? Nobody complains about that!”
Even Castaneda recognises that what he suggests is politically incorrect, but with drug trafficking violence getting worse, and the amount of drugs crossing the border into the United States undiminished, many Mexicans I talked to are demanding a Plan B, which some say should include less confrontation with the traffickers.
The Mayor of Ciudad Juarez, from the opposition PRI , supports Calderon’s policy and insists that the government must keep the pressure on.
But many people I spoke to - including a respected community leader, Protestant Pastor Alfonso Murguia, say that “it is time for the army to leave. They had already been corrupted by traffickers and they are committing abuses against the population. We need to do something else. “
Everyone agrees that if Mexico is serious about dealing with the cartels, it needs to dramatically reduce poverty , corruption and impunity, an elusive goal since independence.
And as long as millions of Mexicans cannot make a decent living legally, the cartels will always have an army of willing foot soldiers.
“So many young people tell me they would rather have a couple of good years on the street, than a lifetime on their knees living in poverty,” Pastor Murguia told me, shrugging his shoulders.