THE OTHER WAR INHERITED

Over the last month or so, the drug war has been shifting and accelerating, punctuated on Wednesday by two drastic changes. On the domestic front, Barack Obama appointed his drug czar, former Seattle police chief Gil Kerlikowske, to the applause of folks like Joanna McKee who heads a medical marijuana advocacy group, and Norm Stamper, also a former Seattle police chief, who resigned so he could more freely support the legalization of drugs. At the same time, in Brazil, a group led by three former Latin American heads of state released a brief and ballsy report that rails on the drug war and argues that the U.S., the EU, and Latin America should prevent drug use and decriminalize marijuana rather than continue to militarize combat of organized drug crime. Both advent a new counternarcotics strategy for the drug war, which plays out mostly in Mexico, where 90% of cocaine passes on its way to the U.S. But since Obama supports Bush’s M&eacuterida Initiative, which turns Mexico into the new Colombia by funneling $400 million (just shy of Colombia’s $600 million) a year towards helicopters, speedboats, and other law enforcement technology, the drug war may kick no habit in the near future.

This is more than a shame. In February, on his way out of the CIA, former director Michael Hayden informally warned Obama and Leon Panetta, his successor, that Mexico’s threat to the U.S., due to drug violence and its likely spillover, is second only to Al Qaeda’s. A month ago, in January, the U.S. Joint Forces Command reported Mexico is on the brink of becoming a failed state. In 2008 alone, more people died from Mexico’s drug war violence (some 5,700) than have died in all five years of the Iraq war.

So more money towards security in Mexico seems like a good thing. But Mexico’s judicial and law enforcement systems are so corrupt -- with moles from drug cartels reported in both the Attorney General’s office and the U.S. Embassy -- that our funds wind up in the enemy’s pocket. Council on Foreign Relations’ Mexico expert, Shannon O’Neil, one-ups this conundrum, explaining in a January Foreign Policy op-ed how, outside of the Mérida Initiative, the U.S. funds and arms this war:

U.S. drug consumers send at least $12 billion a year back to Mexico's cartels, and the U.S. government does little to stop it. Dealers gather individual sales of $20, $50, $100, or more from the streets of New York, Chicago, Charlotte, or Fresno. Through bank transfers, money wiring, and even Greyhound bus, the cash is amassed at the southern border, then put into cars and trucks, and shipped south -- without a glance from U.S. customs officials. This money keeps the cartels in business, funding corruption and violence.

The gun situation is even worse. … the arms that cartels can and do buy from the open U.S. market -- completely illegally -- leave Mexico's police force and even its military outgunned. There are nearly 7,000 gun shops along the southern U.S. border, about three for every mile. They sell thousands of hand grenades, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, AK-47s, and "cop killer" guns and bullets that cut through Kevlar body armor. The weapons quickly flow south, again with barely a nod from U.S. Border Patrol.

All this is to say that unless the U.S. reduces its drug demand and rectifies its illegal gun sales, the Mérida Initiative money is going to perpetuate, rather than terminate, this war. Which takes us back to Kerlikowske and that report from Brazil.

“Prohibitionist policies based on repressing production, interceding trafficking and distribution, as much as criminalizing drug use, have not produced the desired results. We are farther than ever from the objective of drug eradication,” it says. And this comes, in part, from the man behind Pablo Escobar’s demise, Colombia’s former president, Cesar Gaviria.

The drug war as we know it must turn a corner. While Obama’s Kerlikowske seems the man for the job, he’s a former police chief and not a public health expert, for which those in favor of prevention policies had hoped. Still, there’s faith, as always, in Obama: “The inauguration of Barack Obama’s administration represents a favorable opportunity for both the profound revision of a strategy that has failed and for the common search for more efficient and humane policies,” the report concludes.

Since Bush already took advantage of the drug war’s low-hanging fruit, by putting guns and money towards squashing production and violence, what’s left for the Obama administration is the prevention that experts all around demand.

--Carolyn Petri

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