Tina K. Russell

July 17, 2008

Police and Mexico’s drug war

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , , , — Tina Russell @ 5:11 pm

The Long War of Genaro García Luna – NYTimes.com

I’m of two minds about the drug war. On the one hand, I don’t think the police can necessarily be used to end Americans’ bad habits by force, and I definitely cringe at the sheer volume of young people we corral into prison for minor drug offenses (where they will develop the identities, contacts, and skills of criminals) when we could be treating and rehabilitating them to make way for real criminals in our strained system of justice. On the other hand, I don’t like the idea of substances like cocaine or heroin, drugs that attack Americans in moments of weakness and then make them do anything for one more hit, being sold as legitimate products, even if such legalization would take the bottom out of the illegal drug market and the massive private armies it funds.

Here, the NYT magazine runs a great profile of Genaro García Luna, Mexico’s new chief of police and point man for their war on drugs. I’m not sure exactly where I should stand on Mexico’s drug war… it may or may not have been a good idea, given that it replaced a long period of calm and stability that was both untenable and morally contemptible. (Essentially, cops and drug lords had an understandin’. Read the article.) The drug war, of course, has produced utter chaos, with high-level police assassinations and an epidemic of police corruption rising from the drug cartels banding together as one force to fight the state. It’s also worth noting that Mexico is losing, and not only can it not afford to lose this war, we cannot afford for them to lose.

The thing is, García Luna cheerfully admits that they will be unable to eliminate drugs per se, noting that Colombia, regarded internationally as a success in America’s drug war, has had no notable decrease in drug traffic since the toppling of the fearsome Escobar empire. What cannot be allowed to continue is a morass of private armies fighting–and in many cases, winning–against the state for control of governance. Police works because they have a monopoly on violence, because they’re the biggest, best-armed gang on the block, and they’re accountable (ideally) to the taxpayers for their actions. Like any monopoly on a good or service, cornering the market on violence causes there to be less violence overall. In other words, competition causes lots of people to be killed, combatants and noncombatants, by police and non-police, in never-ending turf wars that distract from the full extent of police duty. García Luna essentially says (though I am the one paraphrasing John Kerry) that drug crime cannot be eliminated, but it can be reduced to the level of a nuisance. It must be reduced from its current level, where drug lords and their private armies are challenging the state monopoly on violence and causing good people to die in the process, and threatening the proper growth of the Mexican state.

Here’s where the US comes in. I must stress that it is absolutely essential that Mexico not lose. Democracy, economy, prosperity, none of these things can exist without the baseline of rule of law. I think the prospect of Mexicans streaming across the border en masse to come to our great country is a legitimate concern (though a logistical one, as I think our culture will survive and be better off for their participation), but one prong of that concern needs to be supporting Mexico, its fight against lawlessness and corruption, so that Mexico can flourish as a country and we will cross each others’ borders to relax and visit family rather than to flee plummeting economies.

I’m not saying that Mexico’s government is at all desirable (in fact, my impression is that their president right now is completely illegitimate, like Bush was in term one). It’s rife with corruption and reinforces the kind of cynicism that causes people to pack their bags and head north, or to join the deadly drug cartels. I’m saying that we cannot afford to let Mexico fall apart, as we are friends, we are allies, and we ought to be sure peace and stability exist in our corner of the world before we worry about others’. I’m saying that the rule of law is important and needs to be supported firmly by those, like me, who oppose violence in all of its forms. I’m saying that we cannot just send large aid packages full of money, but also personnel, clean and well-trained American police commandos to work with Mexico’s forces. As we’ve seen in Iraq, sometimes stability does come down to sheer numbers. (There were other factors in Iraq, but I’ll talk about those some other time.)

Here’s one more thing: while he appreciates America’s support, there’s one thing about us that reasonably bugs him.

When I met García Luna in Washington in January, soon after the shootout in Tijuana made headlines in the United States, he was carrying with him a manila envelope full of color photographs. The photographs were grisly full-color shots of dead Mexican police and narco gun caches — a police officer bleeding on the ground; the aftermath of the shootout; the underground firing range. García Luna thought of them as a sort of secret weapon of his own.

…  García Luna met with government officials and diplomats and gave a stilted power-point presentation to policy experts. He seemed more interested in the photographs he had brought, his way of making a blunt point about a touchy aspect of U.S.-Mexican relations: the vast majority of weapons in the cartel’s arsenals (80 to 90 percent, according to the Mexican government’s figures) are purchased in the United States, often at loosely regulated gun shows, and smuggled into Mexico by the same networks that smuggle drugs the opposite direction. García Luna has a hard time concealing his anger about the fact that U.S. laws make it difficult to do much about this “brutal flow” of firepower. “How is it possible,” he asked me, “that a person is allowed to go buy a hundred cuernos de chivo” — AK-47’s — “for himself?” In the United States, he said, “there was a lot of indifference.”

Guns go south and drugs come north. That’s depressing. (You could say that at least these assault weapons are going to well-regulated militias, though ones that mow down Mexican cops.) If we want Mexico to clamp down on drugs, then we need to do our part and clamp down on guns. Part of the state monopoly on violence needs to be a monopoly on the factors of production. Guns do have legitimate uses, such as hunting, and neither handguns nor assault rifles fit those purposes. The Second Amendment is explicitly for the purpose of state security, and I do not see how our insanely loosely-regulated gun market fits that purpose, either.

Blecch, I hate talking about violence. Let’s talk about something else…

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