It’s the never-ending war on drugs, of course. Steve Chapman at Reason has a nice take:
By now, it should be clear that using force to wipe out the drug trade is a task on the order of bailing out the Atlantic Ocean with a teaspoon. Law enforcement can interdict shipments and imprison dealers, but the success is invariably short-lived.
Each seized cargo is an opportunity for another seller to fill the gap. Each arrested trafficker is an invitation for a competitor to grab his business. The more vigorous and successful the law enforcement campaign, the higher the prices drug suppliers can command””and the more people will be enticed to enter the market. It’s a self-defeating process.
All this would be academic if Americans (and Mexicans) would simply lose their taste for illicit drugs. But we might as well hope the Sahara Desert will run out of sand.
There has always been a demand for mind-altering substances, and there always will be. That’s why, despite all the resources the U.S. government has expended on locking up sellers and their customers, drug use is higher today than it was two decades ago.
What an irony: In Afghanistan, the U.S. military, in order to achieve a larger strategic victory in Marja, the former Taliban stronghold, is ignoring the vast opium fields in their midst. As this NYT story from yesterday reports:
“Marja is a special case right now,” said Cmdr. Jeffrey Eggers, a member of the general’s Strategic Advisory Group, his top advisory body. “We don’t trample the livelihood of those we’re trying to win over.
Now Mexico is a whole other kettle of drugs, so winning over the vicious cartels there is not an option. But it appears that ordinary Mexican citizens are turning against its government’s ineffectual war on the cartels. Meanwhile, the U.S., like a junkie’s enabler, is just helping to extend the misery and collateral damage. Is there an exit strategy for this war? As Blake Hounshell recently wrote in Foreign Policy:
If you ask me, it all seems like doubling down on a failed strategy — a typical example of trying to solve a social and political problem through military and technical means.
I think his qualifier was too generous. It’s pretty obvious the U.S. is sticking with the tip of the spear.
So why is that the U.S., when faced with failure in Iraq and Afghanistan, can pivot to a new war strategy, but not do the same with the endless drug war on its own turf and across its southern border?
Here’s another dispatch from a decades-old war, in which the policy and politics never change. You couldn’t read this kind of story in the country where the war is raging, because of a virtual news blackout, enforced by fear of vicious reprisal. So what does that mean for the people caught in the crossfire? As the NYT reports,
It means that a mother can huddle on the floor of a closet with her daughter for what seems like eternity as fierce gunfire is exchanged outside their home, as occurred here recently, and then find not a word of it in the next day’s paper.
And it means that helicopters can swoop overhead, military vehicles can roar through the streets and the entire neighborhood can sound like a war movie, and television can lead off the next day’s broadcast talking about something else.
Welcome to life in the Mexican border towns, where, as the Times story reports, even the local American media has been intimidated by drug cartels.
As I noted several weeks ago, there’s some nice happy talk about cross-border cooperation on environmental issues. At least that’s one thing journalists on both sides of the border can feel safe to report on.
UPDATE: Over the weekend, three U.S. citizens with ties to a U.S. consulate office in a Mexican border town were killed in an ambush. The AP reports:
The slayings came amid a surge in bloodshed along Mexico’s border with Texas and drew condemnation from the White House. Mexico’s president expressed outrage and promised a fast investigation to find those responsible.
A fast investigation. In that lawless region, any investigation would do, but even that won’t change the facts on the ground. As the AP reports, the U.S. recognizes this:
The State Department authorized U.S. government employees at Ciudad Juarez and five other U.S. consulates in northern Mexico to send family members out of the area because of concerns about rising drug violence. The cities are Tijuana, Nogales, Nuevo Laredo, Monterrey and Matamoros.
I’m all for the U.S. improving avenues of cooperation with Mexico, especially if that helps ameliorate the miserable conditions of border communities. But in this post over at Natural Security, Will Rogers overreaches when he suggests that environmental initiatives with Mexico aids U.S. national security interests along the southern border. That can hardly be the case when the border remains a violent battleground, in large part because the U.S. government stubbornly clings to a futile, bankrupt policy: the War on Drugs.
Let me back up a minute. In his post, Rogers discusses
an ongoing bilateral, interagency effort that includes the U.S. Northern Command [NORTHCOM] the Environmental Protections Agency (EPA) and several U.S. and Mexican state and federal agencies around environmental preparedness, protection and response along the southern border.
Again, this is all good stuff, which hopefully will improve the heavily degraded environment along the U.S.-Mexican border. Here’s the additional upside that Will envisions:
Such sustained engagements have the ability to professionalize Mexico’s first responders, build cross-border good will and help assuage some of the tensions associated with one of the many laundry list of issues that continue to undermine stability in Mexico (e.g., drug trafficking) ““ a country whose national security is inextricably linked with ours.
But drug trafficking is not just one of the “many” issues–it is the premier one. Just consider the hook that Rogers uses for his post, this Washington Post story, which reports:
For the first time, U.S. officials plan to embed American intelligence agents in Mexican law enforcement units to help pursue drug cartel leaders and their hit men operating in the most violent city in Mexico, according to U.S. and Mexican officials.
So the U.S. is going to double down on Mexico’s whack-a-drug cartel member strategy. To see how that’s faring, let’s scroll down a bit in the WaPo story:
Since his inauguration three years ago, CalderÃ³n has pursued a U.S.-backed strategy of relying on the Mexican military to confront the cartels fighting for dominance in the billion-dollar corridors to the U.S. drug market. The Mexican troops, who lack law enforcement training or investigative abilities, have made record numbers of arrests, but few of the detained have gone to trial. Instead, the military has been accused of human rights abuses — coerced confessions, illegal detention, unlawful searches.
Hmm. Human rights abuses, coerced confessions, illegal detentions…I feel like I heard about that somewhere else, in another part of the world, until a change in Administration policy decided to go in a different direction.
But I digress. Let’s get back to how that tip of the spear approach is working out in Mexico:
According to U.S. and Mexican officials, the municipal police cannot be trusted, nor can they operate on their own. One U.S. official said a local police chief was caught briefing his cartel bosses via cellphone immediately after planning sessions.
“This is an enormous mess. It is now starting to hurt CalderÃ³n politically. He cannot point to any success. And he is running out of time,” said Jorge CastaÃ±eda, a former Mexican foreign minister and now a professor at New York University.
Oh, but here in the U.S. we don’t have that problem. Time just stands still, while a broken, failed policy marches on. So if CalderÃ³n pays a political price, then it will be up to his successor to convince the U.S. that it should rethink it’s own war on drugs. Because guess what: we don’t have that debate in this country.
And yes, at some point, if Mexico unravels because of its own internal rot and corruption, that’s a national security problem for the U.S. No well intentioned environmental initiatives between the U.S and Mexico will stop that fire from burning out of control. That’s because the fuel that feeds the illicit, immensely profitable drug trade is demand from American consumers. U.S. policy makers that keep funding the war on drugs are just fanning the flames.
The allure of technology is so great as the Ultimate Answer that politicians, policymakers and engineers continually chase after it the way a drug addict chases after that first high.
And so, speaking of drugs, we learn today that a squad in the Homeland Security Department is trying out all manner of hi-tech gimmickry to fix that pesky little border problem once and for all.
As reported in The Wall Street Journal, the government geeks are
not ashamed to admit that they draw inspiration from comic-book superheroes and science-fiction novels as they dream up the gizmos and gadgets they hope will keep bad guys at bay.
One of them is called the Squid, which a guy in Tempe, Arizona dreamed up in 2005 while watching a car chase on TV. He sketched out his idea on a napkin while smoking cigars and downing pints of Guinness.
Pay attention you science fair whiz kids: Homeland Security liked the additional sketches so much they threw $850,000 at the squid inventor. (As the WSJ piece describes, the squid is “a lightweight disc about he size of a manhole cover, lies on the road and ejects rubbery tentacles on command to ensnare fleeing vehicles and drag them to a stop.”)
Another brilliant but low-tech idea is destined for the environmental engineering annals. It involves a plan
to flood the border with a particular breed of wasp with a taste for Carrizo cane, a massive weed that grows in dense stands along the Rio Grande, providing cover to smugglers…scientists, working with the Department of Agriculture, tracked down the wasps in Spain and have spent two years watching the critters in a secure greenhouse — gauging their appetites, assessing their role in a swampy ecosystem and finally breeding them into a swarm suitable for deployment on the Texas border. The first invasion is set for this summer, near Laredo.
I guess nobody bothered to tell these mad scientists about the law of unintended consequences–more specifically, what happens when exotic species are set loose in the environment to fix a problem.
But that would assume that the people who oversee our policies on illegal drugs and immigration are already familiar with the law of untendend consequences.
We have ample proof that’s not the case.