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Mexico's Drug War Goes Much Deeper Than Drugs

Why the legalization of marijuana won't change the forces underlying the country's bloody conflict

Alfredo Estrella/ Getty Images

Perhaps one day, many years down the road, people will look back at Mexico’s Supreme Court decision on marijuana this week as a pivotal step toward a more humane, sensible drug policy in the country. But for now, that possibility seems remote. Wednesday's ruling is limited to precisely four individuals—the activist plaintiffs who brought the case—granting them the right to legally grow, possess, and transport weed for non-commercial purposes. And even if it does lead to outright legalization of marijuana across the country, as reformers hope, the forces underlying Mexico's disastrous drug war—corruption, poverty, and institutional neglect—will be just as present as ever.

President Enrique Peña Nieto was probably exaggerating when he assured the Mexican people that the decision “in no way opens nor signifies the legalization of marijuana.” The precedent the court established, if reaffirmed in subsequent rulings, could, in fact, obligate Mexico’s legislature to revise marijuana statutes. But Peña Nieto wasn’t off by much. Beyond its cosmopolitan capital, and the pot enthusiasts who lit up on the courthouse steps on Wednesday, Mexico is still a country with a deeply ingrained prohibitionist streak.

The most recent polling data indicates that 77 percent of Mexicans are against legalizing marijuana. Proponents will point to the steady progress that has been made since 2008, when that number was as high as 92 percent, or to the 81 percent of Mexicans who say they are in favor of allowing marijuana for medical use, which the Peña Nieto administration has resisted. But the Supreme Court decision is more a victory for the global reform movement than an accurate expression of the Mexican public’s beliefs on the issue.

“My impression is that the large majority of Mexicans think the problems with the war on drugs are drug problems, not policy problems,” Isaac Campos-Costero, a historian at the University of Cincinnati, told the New Republic. Liberal critiques of the drug war often focus, not without reason, on the extent to which the United States has imposed its reactionary, tough-on-crime attitudes on Latin America, which produces and delivers much of the supply for the U.S. black market. But as Campos-Costero explained in his recent book, Home Grown: Marijuana and the Origins of Mexico’s War on Drugs, the drug war alliance between the U.S. and its closest neighbor is more reciprocal than commonly acknowledged. In Mexico, racist hysteria over marijuana actually preceded reefer madness in the United States.

“This decision may play very poorly out in the provinces, even the ones where you’re seeing the worst of the violence and corruption, because people associate all that with the drugs themselves,” explained Campos-Costero. With the Peña Nieto administration facing heavy scrutiny over its handling of the 2014 Iguala Massacre, in which 43 students were murdered by paramilitaries aligned with the state, and the spectacular jailbreak of drug kingpin “El Chapo” Guzmán earlier this year, to name just two prominent scandals, the last thing the government needs is to be perceived as legalizing the drug trade. “That could sow even more discontent with the federal government, which is already at an all-time high,” said Campos.

The government’s interest in protecting its legitimacy is vital to understanding the internal politics of the war on drugs in Mexico. It was not a coincidence that President Felipe Calderón launched his much-heralded campaign against Mexico's cartels in 2006, immediately following an election widely believed to have been rigged. Nothing says legitimacy, after all, quite like a hapless military offensive against one's own citizens. This escalation, financed and supervised by the United States, has had devastating consequences: 100,000 murders and counting, and innumerable rapes, disappearances, tortures, and forced displacements. But the political utility of militarization remains. 

Among other things, explains investigative reporter Dawn Paley in Drug War Capitalism, “Mexican officials have used the specter of narcotrafficking to shift blame away from structural impunity and police abuses” and to “push for reformation of the justice system” toward a model more conducive to societal repression. According to a new report from the Research Consortium on Drugs and the Law (CEDD by its Spanish initials), Mexico’s prison population has grown to over 250,000 people, a 25 percent increase since 2005. Between 2009 and 2013 alone, CEDD registered more than 140,000 drug arrests. A 2012 academic survey indicated that as much as 60 percent of the federal prison population was sentenced on drug offenses.   

Activists have argued that legalizing marijuana would help stem some of the legal “reforms” that Mexico has put in place at the United States’s encouragement. But that assumes the policy is a considered response to the reality, that mass criminality is the cause of mass incarceration and not simply its pretext. There is some evidence that internal drug consumption has risen in Mexico, but none to suggest that the intensification of the drug war was a result of that trend. 

The legalization of marijuana in Mexico, moreover, would have no direct bearing on the prohibition of marijuana in the United States, where most of Mexican marijuana ends up. Nor would the legalization of marijuana globally have any direct bearing on the prohibition of heroin, cocaine, methamphetamines, or any of the other substances from which the Mexican drug trade profits. Even the legalization of all drugs everywhere would do little to eradicate the crisis-levels of violence from a country where so-called drug cartels are not merely businesses specializing in specific products, but paramilitary groups with diverse economic pursuits and deep political ties. Extortion, kidnapping, and political violence are just some of the areas into which the narco-mafia has extended its tentacles in recent years. In Michoacán, for example, the Knights Templar may already earn more from illegal mineral extraction than drug-trafficking.

"Since the beginning of prohibition" in Mexico, wrote sociologist Luis Astorga, the drug trade has always been "related to powerful political agents in the production and trafficking regions," an industry “supported from within the power structure.” The violence associated with it is an extension of the way political authority has been organized in the country. The first step toward ending the war on drugs—in Mexico or elsewhere—isn’t legalizing drugs. It’s recognizing that they have little to do with the problem in the first place.