Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Neverending War

On the failures of the drug war:

On June 17, America's longest-running war reached another milestone -- 37 years and counting, with no end in sight. Hardly anyone noticed. Neither of the leading presidential candidates mentioned the struggle that has cost hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars and countless American lives. A Senate hearing was held to mark the anniversary, but hardly anyone came.

A few weeks later, there was a major breakthrough in the war when three hostages -- the longest-held U.S. captives in the world at more than five years -- were freed in a dramatic military rescue. But few Americans had ever even heard of Marc Gonsalves, Keith Stansell or Thomas Howes or knew that when they were captured by guerrillas in Colombia, they had been fighting on the front lines of the U.S. war on drugs.

Declared by then-president Richard M. Nixon in 1971, the drug war no longer has the glitter it once had. Two decades ago, illicit imports of cocaine, heroin and marijuana and their use by Americans topped the list of public concerns in nationwide surveys at 22 percent. In January, a Pew Research Center poll found that only 1 percent of the population considered drugs and alcohol the most important problem facing the country. the Colombia hostage story illustrates, the fight against illicit drugs goes on, and it is not without peril.

Nor is it without domestic consequences, as experts testified at last summer's poorly-attended hearing, chaired by Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.). About "500,000 persons are locked up for drug offenses in any one day" in this country, said Peter Reuter of the University of Maryland's criminology department. John Walsh of the Washington Office on Latin America noted that the annual economic costs of illicit drugs have grown significantly over the past 15 years; in a 2004 study, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) put the figure at $181 billion.

When he began the war on drugs, Nixon called it an "emergency response to a national problem which we intend to control" within five years. Demand, he said, was the engine that drove the industry and "when drug traffic in narcotics is no longer profitable, the traffic will cease." By the mid-1980s, the explosive mixture of crack cocaine and crime had led to tough mandatory sentencing guidelines for drug offenders and Ronald Reagan had labeled it a national security problem. With narcotics providing massive amounts of income to the Taliban in Afghanistan, FARC guerrillas in Colombia and other extremist groups around the world, President Bush has defined the drug trade as a major part of the terrorist threat.

But the war has arguably had little discernible effect on either supply or demand. At latest count, as Webb noted last summer, illegal drug flows are four times more valuable than global exports of beer and wine -- even though the street price of both cocaine and heroin are 80 percent lower than in the 1980s. Illicit drug use has remained relatively constant, involving about 8 percent of the U.S. population, since the beginning of this decade.

The analogy of a war isn't apt, as there really is no victory possible against this sort of illegal activity; the drug "war" is more like a disease that can't be cured but can perhaps be regulated. But what's truly discouraging is that for the billions spent, the millions imprisoned and an untold number killed, we really are no nearer to any measure of success than we were in 1971. We've experienced various phases in the war as various drugs have gained or lost popularity, but have yet to make any major inroads against the ever shifting panorama of drug lords and cartels that each pop up in the wake of the destruction of another. Worse yet, are the unanticipated consequences of our war on drugs:

The presidential nominees -- Republican Sen. John McCain and Democratic Sen. Barack Obama -- have said little about the drug war. But there are signs on the horizon that it may regain its place as a first-tier issue. The warnings come from Mexico, where President Felipe Calderón's government is engaged in a fierce battle against violent, homegrown drug cartels that has already cost thousands of lives. It does not take a geography major to understand the implications for the United States if this war gets out of hand.

Indeed it does not, and the Houston Chronicle explains in more detail exactly how the drug war in northern Mexico is spilling over into Texas:

Frustrated by a crackdown on South Texas drug smuggling routes, the Mexican Gulf Cartel is stockpiling high-powered weapons and recruiting local gang members on both sides of the border to prepare for possible confrontations with U.S. law enforcement, according to an FBI intelligence report.

The regional leader of the cartel's enforcer group, the Zetas, Jaime "El Hummer" Gonzalez Duran ordered dozens of reinforcements to Reynosa, Mexico, across the river from McAllen, the report said.

"These replacements are believed to be armed with assault rifles, bulletproof vests and grenades and are occupying safe houses throughout the McAllen area," the report obtained by The McAllen Monitor said.

The Monitor reported in today's editions that the local FBI office refused to comment on the report.

Erik Vasys, an FBI spokesman in San Antonio, refused to discuss the details of the report but told The Associated Press "we acknowledge the Zetas are a significant problem in Mexico and they have the potential to pose a significant problem to law enforcement on this side of the border."

There isn't an institutional impetus for vast drug cartels in the United States, but it's all too easy for them to extend their tendrils of influence across the border of Mexico. The cartels, never known for their discretion (hundreds of civilians have died this year in Mexico at the hands of the cartels) are nothing if not prickly when it comes to defending their drug trade, and such moves come despite a recent effort by Mexico's President to use federal troops to crack down on the cartels. Now, almost forty years into the drug war, did anyone imagine that the cartels would be stockpiling weapons in our country in preparation for battles with our law enforcement agencies? If this is a war, we're in retreat.

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