Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Slaughter in Juárez is Our Reform Call

The New Mexican

Poor Mexico, goes a remark most often attributed to turn-of-the-20th-century dictator Porfirio Díaz — so far from God and so close to the United States ...

God knows there've been enough reasons for Mexicans to think that — but also for norteamericanos to call up a play on those words by the great Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes: "Poor Mexico and poor United States; so far from God and so near to each other."

Flying in the face of both quotes are decades of great relations between both countries — commercial, personal and institutional, if not-always-so-great ones on the diplomatic front. Tourism, student exchanges and over-the-border shopping have created vast numbers of friendships transcending the whole notion of national boundaries.

But reviving the ruing of national proximity is the tragedy that the drug wars have become. It was pinpointed recently by Mexican former Foreign Affairs Secretary Jorge Castañeda's recent appearance on Christiane Amanpour's CNN TV show. The drug cartels, claims Castañeda, still get 60 percent of their money from marijuana-smuggling — yet just a hundred miles north of the border, the stuff is being sold legally in the Los Angeles area's flourishing "medical-marijuana clinics."

And of course Washington goes on telling Mexico City that marijuana, along with harder drugs, must remain illegal. The illegality translates to high markups on the stuff that somehow slips past the eagle-eyed guardians and the creeping walls of our southern frontier. High markup — high profits; money that Mexico's drug bosses figure is worth killing each other to keep coming in.

If they were only killing each other, we'd chalk it up to natural selection and hope they'd hasten the grisly process. But when innocent people — perhaps relatives of this or that gangster, perhaps not — are victims of the slaughter, then something's got to be done.

At the end of January, in Ciudad Juárez — long a weekend-visiting place for New Mexicans and West Texans — gunmen waged an assault on a quinceañera party, blowing away 16 youngsters. This in a city, only a riverbed's width away from El Paso, where President Felipe Calderón already had dispatched two army divisions.

Calderón is now in a tight spot: Does he deploy even more of his nation's soldiers to Juárez? Does he declare martial law in the border city? And can he extend such an extreme measure to the many other parts of Mexico — border towns, coastal-plain agricultural cities and teeming metropolises — if he has to? There probably aren't enough armed forces in the whole country to clamp down on all the trouble spots.

Yet if Mexico were to legalize drugs, that would amount to surrender to some truly low forms of life. And what good would that do? There's a growing amount of drug use there — but the main market is here. Many areas of the U.S. are toying with marijuana legalization, the most recent manifestation being the bogus "medical" dispensaries popping up and selling pot for premium prices. The best that can be said about those operations is that they're telling our country's law enforcers not to bother with the stuff — so potheads have fewer fears of growing their own in a closet. Will that lead to the change our country needs in drug policy — to total legalization, backed up by credible education and readily accessible treatment?

That won't come easy: Even if our lawmakers could get past the shibboleths that have formed today's laws, would they be subject to threats, and follow-through, from drug-cartelistas who stand to lose fortunes over legalization?

This is a call for courage — and for calm thinking in the quest for a workable drug policy. Any takers?

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