EL PASO -- It is time to retire the "war on drugs" catchphrase, President Barack Obama's chief drug policy adviser said Monday at UTEP.
Speaking to about 600 people at the sixth annual Border Security Conference, R. Gil Kerlikowske said this administration's drug strategy will not be a war because a war limits what can be done.
"If the only tool is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail," said Kerlikowske, director of the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy. "That phrase -- war on drugs -- tells you that the only answer is in fact force. ... We want to have a different conversation when it comes to drugs."
The term "war on drugs," coined by President Nixon 40 years ago, does not adequately describe what Obama's strategy will entail, Kerlikowske said.
Kerlikowske said his visit to El Paso was part of a national tour to solicit ideas before making recommendations to the president. Once unveiled, Obama's drug strategy will probably include treatment centers, education, drug courts, more cooperation with Mexico and increased law enforcement, Kerlikowske said.
What it will not include is the legalization of drugs.
"Some think legalization will reduce the violence," Kerlikowske said. "It will not. If drugs were to become legal, I doubt very seriously that (the criminals) would take up jobs at Microsoft or Intel. Criminals are not going to change."
He was one of several high-ranking officials at the conference, which began Monday at the University of Texas at El Paso. Organized by U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, its main goals are to provide policymakers in Washington, D.C., with a firsthand look at how their decisions affect the border, and to give El Pasoans a chance to tell national leaders what programs work.
The United States first declared a "war on drugs" in 1969, when Nixon escalated efforts to stop the flow of drugs at U.S. ports of entry.
Though the phrase is catchy, experts say it is not working because illegal drug consumption in the United States has risen every year, drug production throughout the world is up and drug-smuggling cartels are in a protracted war in Mexico.
Until the new Obama policy is announced, the United States will continue a strategy implemented earlier this year, said U.S. Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, D-Texas.
It includes inspection of southbound vehicles at ports of entry as federal agents continue to try to stop the flow of guns and cash into Mexico. Weapons and money are used by the cartels to protect their billion-dollar industry.
Another strategy that will continue is the Merida Initiative. Through it, the United States has agreed to spend $1.4 billion to help Mexico fight the cartels.
Alan Bersin, border czar of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, urged those at the conference to be patient with Mexico as it fights the cartels. He said it took the United States 25 years to rid itself of the mafia that thrived in this country in the 1960s and 70s.
It might take Mexico just as long because it has to cleanse all of its law enforcement agencies, Bersin said.
But Howard Campbell, a UTEP professor who is an expert on Mexican drug cartels, said the strategy being used by Mexican President Felipe Calderón to fight the cartels was flawed.
He said Calderón was relying too much on the military, which is also prone to corruption.
"Despite an initial decline in crime when the military got involved, 2009 is now on its way to being the most deadly year," he said.
Throughout Mexico, more than 12,000 people have been killed since the drug cartel violence began in 2008. In Juárez alone, there were 1,600 killings in 2008. So far this year, more than 1,100 people have been killed in Juárez.
By Ramon Bracamontes
August 11, 2009
El Paso Times
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Rethinking strategy key to battling drugs