Editorial: A Postcard from Mexico 2/16/01

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Phillip S. Smith, The Week Online with DRCNet, [email protected]

(Week Online editor Phil Smith shares a little of his Mexico vacation with readers for this week's editorial. The beach of Oaxaca provides a different perspective on the drug war.)

It's hard to remember that the rest of the world exists when one is sitting under palm fronds and watching the endless waves rolling in at a remote beach way down Mexico's Pacific coast. The sun beats down on cloudless skies as mostly youthful travelers from Europe, Canada, South America, and, to a lesser extent, the United States revel in paradise and feed their sensual appetites. The cost of lodgings is dirt cheap -- starting at 50 cents per night to hang a hammock; primitive rooms might cost you $5; I splurged on a room with fan and private bath for $10 -- and if you go to the dirt streets behind the beach, a bellyful of tacos al pastor or rice, beans, and tortillas can be had for a buck.

The local folks are more than happy to provide the travelers with everything they want, and among other things, many of the travelers here want drugs. They, too, are cheap. Grams of quite pure cocaine go for $25 -- although the price is variable. In touristy Cancun, it can be as much as $80; in off the beaten path places, I've heard as low as $7 a gram. Marijuana grown in the mountains behind the beaches can be had for as little as $10 an ounce, although in a "carrying coals to Newcastle" phenomenon, an increasing number of travelers are bringing their own, high-quality smoke that is much stronger than the commercial Mexican.

The cocaine never used to be here, not until about five or six years ago, when the smugglers shifted their lanes from the Caribbean to the Yucatan peninsula and thence overland through Mexico to the border. The stuff has been falling off the back of the truck ever since and is available everywhere in Mexico. Wherever there are travelers, coke is there; in the toney Mexico City suburb of Coyoacan, coke is there; in little no-name villages along major highways, coke is there. It enriches some Mexicans, ensnarls others, but for Mexico, the drug problem remains primarily one of suppressing (or more accurately, regulating) the traffic rather than dealing with legions of addicts.

In that sense, this sleepy little beach town is a synecdoche for the role Mexico plays in the United States' crusade against drugs. The gringos demand and the Mexicans supply. But other gringos, powerful ones, demand that Mexico not supply the demand. Hence the drug war gets played out south of the border as well as in the streets of the US.

Here at the beach, the drug war means federales occasionally cruising the beach or the back streets, snagging unwary or just plain stupid travelers, and robbing them of cash and valuables in the name of enforcing the drug laws. Corrupt and informal, yes, but perhaps better than the heavy-handed legalism of the US. Better to pay what is in effect a scary on-the-spot fine than to end up under official control for years over a bag of weed.

But these are trivial aspects of the US drug war in Mexico. It is a harsh and nasty affair, with hundreds of murders in the drug trade in recent years as entrepreneurs hungry for black market profits settle accounts with the only tools available to them. If the trade were legalized and regulated, disputes that now end with bullets flying could instead be settled by lawyers.

And the drug war is the stuff of daily life as the US inflicts its misery on Mexico. It is high on the agenda as new presidents Bush and Fox meet this week. Sadly, but not unexpectedly, new Mexican Foreign Minister Castaneda, who has been a strong advocate of legalization, is singing a different tune now that he is in power, promising to be a staunch ally in the war against narcotraffickers. Fox himself has promised to end corruption and wipe out the cartels. If, against all odds, he actually accomplishes something like that, Mexico could then become as successful as the US in its 100-years war on certain substances.

In the meantime, the drugs flow, the violence continues, the cops get rich (the honest ones get dead), and Mexico's prisons fill up. But of course, it's usually not the big shots who are doing time; just this week the national human rights commission noted with despair that more than 2,000 Indians are being held as low-level traffickers. In reality, they are little more than beasts of burden for the smugglers, but the indigenous are Mexico's oppressed minority and they play a social role similar to blacks and Latinos in the US.

And, oh yes, a few more meth labs busted in Mexicali this week, and a few more truckloads of weed popped on the highways, and lots of soldiers and federales on those highway checkpoints. (Some of those checkpoints, left over from the old "permanent campaign against narcotrafficking -- thanks for your cooperation" era have been in the same place for twenty years, leading one to wonder just what their purpose is. Clearly, local smugglers know the checkpoints are there and duly circumvent them. It looks good to foreign officials, though, and Mexico does want to be certified even as it rails against the process.)

The drug war is depressing, even viewed from paradise. But, at least here I can go back to the beach. Next week, I'll get back to being part of the solution.

-- END --
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Issue #173, 2/16/01 Incarceration Fever About to Break? Prison Populations Leveling Off in Some Big States | California's "Three Strikes" Law Continues to Snare Mainly Drug and Nonviolent Offenders | John Ashcroft's Drug War | Oklahoma Meth Mess | One Third of Indigenous Prisoners in Mexico Imprisoned on Drug Charges | New StopTheWar.com Site Uses Traffic Movie to Raise Awareness, Free Daily DVD or Video Give-Away for Participants | Book Review: The Politics of Medical Marijuana | Errata: Ecstasy Conference, Calendar | The Reformer's Calendar | Editorial: A Postcard from Mexico
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