Friday, April 9, 2010

Violence, Corruption and the Drug War

In a town in southern Veracruz, I spoke to a young man who ran a small business. I’ll call him X, because although I doubt if los Zetas or any of the local police will be reading my blog, I don’t want to risk getting him in trouble.

Los Z, he said, are like the American mafia of the 1920s, but with less ethics. Every business pays protection. Murder is rampant, prosecution non-existent. The only law enforcement agency free of corruption is the federal army, and its resources are totally inadequate. (Others disagree and cite numerous instances of corruption in the army, and, according to Wikipedia, the organization was formed in the late 90s by elite army personnel, possibly trained at the School of the Americas.)

X plays on a local fĂștbol team, and they met and beat a team from the city police department. Some gangsters started harassing the ref. X protested; the police said don’t worry, it’s nothing, but X persisted. Some time later, two carloads of gun-toting thugs came and beat him up.

X recovered, with no permanent harm. It’s a small incident, a mere anecdote, but it speaks to the widespread corruption and disfunctionality that plagues Mexico and has significantly worsened in the last decade. Pobre Mexico, he says. My poor country. And I remembered the old saying: Pobre Mexico, tan lejos de Dios, tan cerca de los Estados Unidos. Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States.

It would be an over-simplification to blame Mexico’s problems on the US drug war, but it is a major factor. Just as alcohol prohibition was a major boom to the American mafia in the 20s, the drug trade is the indisputable source of the Zetas’ wealth and power. The US demand for illegal drugs, combined with the availability of arms in the US and their flow into Mexico, creates and sustains the culture of violence and corruption.

At the same time, the US offers an ideal and a solution. X spoke with admiration of the American justice system, and I am sure he is correct in this. Compared to Mexico, and for all its faults, we in the US can rely on our system and believe in it in a way that Mexicans cannot. If anything remotely like the soccer incident occurred in the US, we would expect protection from authorities and redress in the courts. Of course there are aberrations; they are the exception. When police or government officials are corrupt (and there will be corruption in any system), we expect that they will be found and prosecuted. Not so in Mexico.

Yet even in our country, the practice of justice falls too short of the ideal, as an important book published last year shows. In ORDINARY INJUSTICE, HOW AMERICA HOLDS COURT (, writer and attorney Amy Bach shows in a number of examples from throughout the country how poor people, out of expediency rather than through malicious intent, are victimized by an overtaxed and under-resourced legal system with little regard for guilt or innocence.

In the US and in Mexico, and in many other places as well, the ideal of justice, so fundamental that experiments show that even little children and animals strive for it, is severely impacted by the misguided war on drugs. To be sure, drug prohibition, as alcohol prohibition in the past, has the positive effect of suppressing - however imperfectly - drug abuse, but at what cost?

In the US, the cost includes the drain of resources needed elsewhere to support the massive prison complex, choking the court system as described above, enabling gang structures that impact city life, and disrupting families and communities as petty drug violators are caught up in the criminal justice system. Not to mention the affront to the liberty of the millions of relatively responsible recreational drug users. Isn’t this a cure far worse than the disease?

In Mexico and many other countries, including Afghanistan, US drug prohibition enables and promotes powerful criminal organizations that intensify corruption and undermine the ability of governments to protect civil society.

I feel like a broken record. I know I’m not saying anything here that hasn’t been said a million times already. But after my conversation with X, I want to say it once more.

Americans have a lot to be proud of, but we should be ashamed of allowing this terrible, misguided, disruptive, unwinnable war on drugs to go on and on.

End drug prohibition now.