Friday, July 6, 2012

Numbers Tell of Failure in Drug War

When policy makers in Washington worry about Mexico these days, they think in terms of a handful of numbers: Mexico’s 19,500 hectares devoted to poppy cultivation for heroin; its 17,500 hectares growing cannabis; the 95 percent of American cocaine imports brought by Mexican cartels through Mexico and Central America.

They are thinking about the wrong numbers. If there is one number that embodies the seemingly intractable challenge imposed by the illegal drug trade on the relationship between the United States and Mexico, it is $177.26. That is the retail price, according to Drug Enforcement Administration data, of one gram of pure cocaine from your typical local pusher. That is 74 percent cheaper than it was 30 years ago.

This number contains pretty much all you need to evaluate the Mexican and American governments’ “war” to eradicate illegal drugs from the streets of the United States. They would do well to heed its message. What it says is that the struggle on which they have spent billions of dollars and lost tens of thousands of lives over the last four decades has failed.

There is little reason to expect the elections this year will do much to address the challenges to the bilateral relationship. Enrique Peña Nieto, elected president of Mexico on Sunday, is a scion of Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party, which was tainted by authoritarianism, corruption and fraud during seven decades in power, before it was booted out by voters 12 years ago. In the United States, neither President Obama nor his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, has shown much interest in the nation’s southern neighbor.

Yet the presidential elections on both sides of the border offer a unique opportunity to re-examine the central flaws of the two countries’ strategy against illegal narcotics. Its threadbare victories — a drug seizure here, a captured kingpin there — pale against its cost in blood and treasure. And its collateral damage, measured in terms of social harm, has become too intense to ignore.

Most important, conceived to eradicate the illegal drug market, the war on drugs cannot be won.

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