Should Mexico Legalize Drugs?

Dispatches from the Border Wall: Matamoros


I’ll be reporting from Mexico for the next two weeks. Here are some reflections from the road…

Matamoros – Life seems almost normal in the streets of Matamoros until a convoy of military soldiers appears. Dressed in camouflage and bulletproof vests their faces are hidden by ski masks. On each truck a soldier sits behind a mounted machine gun. They warily scan the plaza.

Everyone is watching but pretending not to see the soldiers. The soldiers are like menacing phantoms circling the city. Everyone knows that gunfire could erupt at any moment if they encounter drug cartel members. The drug cartels favor convoys of black Suburbans without license plates. Any passerby caught in the middle is fair game for the bullets. This is a war, after all – President Felipe Calderon’s war. The field of battle is anywhere at anytime. In 2008, the Mexican government sent the military to Mexico’s border “to help” fight the cartels and root out corrupt police. But nobody feels safer. On the contrary, too many innocent people have died in the crossfire.  “No one goes out at night,” a reporter from Matamoros tells me “Everyone is scared.”

The Mexican Army was respected in the past.  At least, they were more trust worthy than the police. This is one reason why Calderon sent them in 2008 to police Juarez, Matamoros and other Mexican border cities. But the use of the Army and the growing unrest and violence is dividing President Calderon’s own conservative party the PAN.

It’s gotten so bad that last week Calderon opened the debate for the legalization of drugs in Mexico, formerly a taboo subject for his party.  More conservative members of the PAN are already trying to tamp down the small opening for a national debate. But former president Vicente Fox, also a member of Calderon’s PAN party, has taken up the banner for the legalization of drugs in Mexico. His argument is that Mexico is fighting our drug war, while the U.S. does nothing to curb its market for drugs or the flow of guns and ammo heading south. Even worse the United States doesn’t seem to particularly care.

Prohibition is not working, he told Mexico’s El Universal. To stop the violence and the cartels drugs should be “under regulation like cigarettes or alcohol.”

Fox has also joined an increasing number of critics who are against Calderon sending in the military to police the border. “They are not prepared for police work,” he told the media recently. “They should return to the barracks.”

Of course, Fox is being mightily criticized by many Mexicans for not having brought up legalization when he was President from 2000 -2006. Why now and not then? Fox says that the level of violence in Mexico was nowhere near the level it is now. Increasingly, Mexico’s political class is out of ideas. The crisis is pushing Calderon and some elements of the conservative PAN to wade into this formerly forbidden territory where they are openly challenging U.S. policy and its 40-year War on Drugs.

It remains to be seen whether Calderon will actually embark down the path of legalization. Many Mexicans doubt it. The government doesn’t have the stomach for going up against its powerful northern neighbor. Maybe this is all a ploy to get the United States off its increasingly polarized anti-immigration script and more focused on Mexico’s body count and the growing crisis Calderon is facing.

The general feeling in Matamoros seems to be that the United States would like nothing more than to finish the wall and forget about its southern neighbor altogether. The military keep circling the plaza. But no one is winning this war.