WHENEVER I’ve interviewed Mexican cartel killers, the aspect that I’ve found most disturbing about them is that they appear to be sane.
Even though they have described to me such unfathomable actions as hacking off the heads of still-living victims, it is something other than mental illness that drives their violence. Their sanity is disconcerting because, if they were simply mad, it would be easier to accept horrific actions like leaving piles of headless corpses in town squares.
Instead, we have to face up to the hard reasons why thousands of young men (and some women) with full mental faculties have become serial killers. These reasons should be taken into account by residents of Colorado, Washington state and Oregon when they vote on referendums to legalize marijuana next Tuesday.
The painful truth is that the monster of Mexican cartels has been pumped up by decades of Americans buying illegal drugs under the policies of prohibition. No one knows exactly how much money Mexican traffickers make, but reasonable estimates find they pocket $30 billion every year selling cocaine, marijuana, heroin and crystal meth to American users. Since 1980, the cumulative jackpot could be close to $1 trillion. Under the law of the jungle, this money goes to the most violent and sadistic players, so the cartels have spent their dollars on building increasingly ferocious death squads.
There have been a tragic 60,000 killings under President Felipe Calderón that are described as drug-related. But even this description can be misleading. Most cartel assassins do not carry out these brutal acts because they are high on drugs. Their motive is to capture the profits that are so high because in the black market you can buy drugs for a nickel and sell them for a dollar. How many others would love to be in a business with a markup of more than 2,000 percent?
Marijuana is just one of the drugs that the cartels traffic. Chemicals such as crystal meth may be too venomous to ever be legalized. But cannabis is a cash crop that provides huge profits to criminal armies, paying for assassins and guns south of the Rio Grande. The scale of the Mexican marijuana business was illustrated by a mammoth 120-hectare plantation busted last year in Baja California. It had a sophisticated irrigation system, sleeping quarters for 60 workers and could produce 120 metric tons of cannabis per harvest.
Again, nobody knows exactly how much the whole Mexico-U.S. marijuana trade is worth, with estimates ranging from $2 billion to $20 billion annually. But even if you believe the lowest numbers, legal marijuana would take billions of dollars a year away from organized crime. This would inflict more financial damage than soldiers or drug agents have managed in years and substantially weaken cartels.
It is also argued that Mexican gangsters have expanded to a portfolio of crimes that includes kidnapping, extortion, human smuggling and theft from oil pipelines. This is a terrifying truth. But this does not take away from the fact that the marijuana trade provides the crime groups with major resources. That they are committing crimes such as kidnapping, which have a horrific effect on innocent people, makes cutting off their financing all the more urgent.
The cartels will not disappear overnight. U.S. agents and the Mexican police need to continue battling hit squads that wield rocket-propelled grenades and belt-driven machine guns. Killers who hack off heads still have to be locked away. Mexico needs to clean up corruption among the police and build a valid justice system. And young men in the barrios have to be given a better option than signing up as killers.
All these tasks will be easier if the flow of money to the cartels is dramatically slowed down. Do we really want to hand them another trillion dollars over the next three decades?
It is always hard to deal with these global issues in a world where all politics is local. Mexico was not even featured in the presidential debate on foreign policy, despite that fact that the United States has supported Calderón’s war on drugs with more than $1.3 billion worth of hardware, including Black Hawk helicopters, and that cartels have attacked and killed U.S. agents.
Of course, residents of Colorado and Washington will have many valid local reasons to make their choices. But on the issue of organized crime, the underlying fact should be clear: Legal marijuana will take away dollars that pay for assassins and redirect them to small businesses and government coffers.
If voters do choose to legalize marijuana it would be a historic decision, but it would also open up a can of worms. The U.S. federal government and even the United Nations would be forced to react to a state’s resolution to break from the path. This could be a good thing.
Many Latin American leaders and others have been questioning the current prohibitionist doctrine. Even Calderón, who staked his presidency on fighting cartels and suffered assassination threats, spoke at the United Nations in September demanding an international debate on drug policy. Perhaps the time for this debate has come.
By IOAN GRILLO
Published: November 1, 2012
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