About 6:30 local time Wednesday evening, the latest outbreak of Mexican drug war violence occurred in Culiacán, the capital of the northwestern Mexican state of Sinaloa, long a drug-producing region and home to one of the most feared of the country's drug trafficking organizations, the Sinaloa cartel. Two cartel gunman and two Culiacán policemen died in a series of shoot-outs that broke out when Mexican soldiers and police attempted to arrest suspected narcos, or cartel members.
The deaths occurred less than a mile from the central Culiacán hotel where a number of intellectuals, academics, and political figures were staying while they were in town for a two-day International Forum on Illicit Drugs organized by the muckraking local newsweekly Ríodoce. The bloody gun battles were poignant punctuation for a conference Tuesday and Wednesday dedicated to seeking alternatives to Mexico's drug war, which has seen nearly 1,000 people killed so far this year, and nearly 4,000 dead since President Felipe Calderón called out the army at the beginning of 2007.
While Calderón and his allies in the Bush administration are seeking a $1.4 billion anti-drug aid package to try to break the back of the cartels by ramping up Mexican military involvement in the fray under the Plan Mérida initiative, the Culiacán conference was dedicated to searching for a different path. Its subtitle was "Plan Mérida and the Experiences of Decriminalization."
Organized by Ríodoce as a response to the violence that appears to be spiraling out of control, the forum brought together leading Mexican drug experts, such as Luis Astorga, head of the UNESCO program studying the economic and social aspects of drugs and the drug trade; Dr. Humberto Brocca, a Mexico City physician who deals with street youth and drug addiction; Ricardo Ravel, a journalist for the Mexico City newsweekly Proceso and author of numerous books on the Mexican cartels; General Francisco Gallardo, the leading proponent of human rights in the Mexican military; Jorge Hernández Tinajero, advisor to Deputy Elsa Conde and founding member of AMECA (the Mexican Assocation for Cannabis Studies), and Carlos Montemayor, a towering figure among the Mexican intelligentsia, among others.
They were joined by Colombian drug specialist Francisco Thoumi, director of the Center for the Study of Drugs and Crime at the University of Rosario in Bogota; and Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the New York City-based Drug Policy Alliance. Also in attendance, albeit briefly, were a number of local political figures, including a former state governor, a member of the state congress, the state human rights coordinator, and the state coordinator for the left-leaning Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD). The attendance of the local political figures at the forum's opening session is a sign that, given a massive military presence (about 1,000 more Mexican army troops deployed to Culiacán last week, joining about 2,000 others already working in the state), rising levels of violence, and endemic corruption among law enforcement and political figures, the state's political elite is starting to look for alternatives to even more soldiers, more narcos, and more violence.
"The drug trade has become one of the most complex and important problems facing us today," said Ríodoce publisher Ismael Bojórquez as he opened the conference Tuesday morning in the Torre Académica at the Culiacán campus of the Autonomous University of Sinaloa. "Our efforts to fight it have not produced results. But it is not just a law enforcement problem, it is also a health problem. How do we protect drug consumers? Here today, we are proposing that given the failure of our drug policy, we need to look at alternatives."
[Much of the discussion at the forum focused on Plan Mérida and the militarization of Mexico's drug war. See that discussion here.]
AMECA founder Jorge Hernández Tinajero explained one alternative, the decriminalization of marijuana use and possession, as a first step on a path toward meaningful drug reform in Mexico. "We have a proposal before the congress that would remove criminal penalties for marijuana possession," he explained, arguing that marijuana smokers should be dealt with outside the criminal justice system.
Although conceding that change will come incrementally if at all, Hernández Tinajero also made a broader anti-prohibitionist argument. "It is disingenuous to say that we should rely on the military and police to reduce the supply of drugs," he said. "Who trusts the police? Nobody," he said, to cheers and laughter from the audience.
While the Ríodoce conference marked the first public gathering in Sinaloa to discuss alternatives to the drug war, it is a problem that has been festering for years, said Nery Córdova, a poet and essayist who is a member of the social sciences faculty at Autonomous University of Sinaloa. "We've been discussing this for some time, and not just professionals and academics," he told a rapt audience of students, community members, and other interested parties. "This is a problem that involves millions of people here in Mexico. Prohibition has been very profitable," he noted.
But while prohibition has been profitable for some, it also imposes steep costs on others, Córdova said. "We've seen the army raid thousands of villages, and now, in the mountains hundreds of villages are just vanishing. We have seen massacres of innocents by the military, and at the same time, we have the media telling us that killing a narco is saving the homeland. But the use of institutional force and violence only generates more violence," he said.
"Prohibition has been inefficient and useless," said José Manuel Valenzuela, a professor in the Department of Cultural Studies at the College of the Northern Frontier in Tijuana, and author of award-winning books on popular culture and "narco-culture." "Prohibition corrupts not only the police forces and the army, but also many other spheres of society. We have become accustomed to confronting this in a brutal manner," he said.
There is a better way, said Brocca, citing the experience of Holland. But getting to a better solution, he said, requires looking within. "Blaming drugs obscures real problems," he said. "We fear the truth."
Still, said Brocca, times are changing. "We are used to working in the trenches, and we've been waiting for change to come from above, but this is changing. This decrim bill is the result of a group of us -- political people, doctors, academics, celebrities -- coming together to push for change."
But while panelist after panelist made strong arguments for a paradigm shift in drug policy, it was DPA's Nadelmann, with his energetic public presentation unimpeded by the necessity of ongoing translation, who stole the show and most captivated the crowd.
"The war on drugs is a disaster; it's contrary to common sense, the laws of economics, and human rights," Nadelmann told a rapt audience. "Our policy has resulted in a global prohibition regime that uses the criminal laws with respect to some drugs, but not others. Those decisions were not based on science or medicine; they had less to do with the dangers of various substances than with who was using them," he said, citing the racist history of drug laws in the US and comparing them to the contemporary "hysteria" over the of people from Mexico into the US , an approach that resonated plainly with his Mexican audience.
While various speakers at the forum placed Mexico's drug war within the ambit of American neo-colonialism -- oh, what a difference being outside the US makes! -- Nadelmann disagreed. "It's easy to believe that American drug policy with respect to Mexico is primarily to advance American political, military, and economic interests, or that the real intention is to humiliate Mexico. I think that's mostly false," he said. "What we are seeing is simply the international projection of our domestic psychosis. We are crazy when it comes to drugs, and Mexico must be swept up. It isn't rational, and it doesn't advance our national interest. Our interest is in peace, security, and open markets, and the American drug war does not serve those interests. Our craziness undermines us," he argued.
"What's the alternative? Legal regulation must be on the table. What Mexico is experiencing today reminds of Chicago under Al Capone -- the crime, the violence, the corruption," Nadelmann continued. "These are not the consequences of drugs, but of a failed prohibitionist approach."
About the time Nadelmann was saying those words the latest killings in Culiacán took place. As audience members left the forum, went home, and turned on their televisions, Mexico's narcos, soldiers, and police were busy reinforcing the arguments heard at the Torre Académica.