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As U.S. States Decriminalize Marijuana, Mexico’s Drug War Rages On
As U.S. States Decriminalize Marijuana, Mexico’s Drug War Rages On
The 43 Missing Students Are Not Alone. Mexico’s Justice System Is Broken.
The 43 Missing Students Are Not Alone. Mexico’s Justice System Is Broken.

As U.S. States Decriminalize Marijuana, Mexico’s Drug War Rages On

Originally published in Open Society Foundation

In August of 2016, Aarón Valencia and his family fled to the United States amid the violence of Mexico’s drug war. Gangs had threatened to force two of his children into organized crime in his home state of Michoacán, and seeking refuge in the United States seemed his only option.

Today, Aarón, a former member of a vigilante militia disarmed by the Mexican government, and his family are being held at the Eloy Detention Center in Arizona, waiting for their asylum claim to be processed. They are among the millions of victims of the drug war that rages in Mexico to this day.

Over the past decade, several U.S. states have moved to legalize or decriminalize marijuana, a shift that has improved the lives of countless Americans. But while legalization is an important component of righting the wrongs of the drug war, it is not the only component—especially for the hundreds of thousands of Mexican families who have already been victimized by a century of prohibitionist policies.

Mexico and the United States have long had an asymmetric relationship when it comes to the control of cannabis and other drugs.

Mexico and the United States have long had an asymmetric relationship when it comes to the control of cannabis and other drugs. Two decades ago, California made history by regulating the medicinal use of the plant. That same year, Mexico doubled down on the punitive model by criminalizing narcomenudeo, the small trade of marijuana.

While in the United States, decriminalization has boosted local economies and decreased mass incarceration, in Mexico the presence of the army in the streets has only demonstrated the country’s fragile institutional framework. Homicides, disappearances, forced displacement, human rights violations of people who use drugs, and the diversification of criminal activities have all increased, especially since 2006.

When California legalized recreational marijuana on 8 November 2016, drug policy reformers in Mexico received the news with cautious optimism. Legalization in California would boost Mexican initiatives to reform prohibitionist and punitive drug policies that have cost the country a third of its GDP growth and stalled the life expectancy of Mexican men, who live up to five fewer years than average in drug war–addled states like Chihuahua.

Last December, the Mexican Senate legalized the medical use of marijuana; it now awaits approval in the Chamber of Deputies. In the beginning, however, only imported medical marijuana will be allowed. Recreational consumption will continue to be prosecuted, self-cultivation will remain illegal, and authorizations for local production will only be possible, perhaps in the future, if the Ministry of Health determines their feasibility.

This incongruity between California’s progressive approach to marijuana laws and Mexico’s continued prohibition is creating acute problems for Mexico that will only grow worse.

For one, Mexico’s negative trade balance will continue to widen. As criminal organizations decrease their exports from Mexico in response to falling demand for black market marijuana in the United States, Mexico’s domestic supply of marijuana will rise, driving down prices and boosting domestic consumption, with costs for both the health and penal systems.

While legalization has bestowed an array benefits on the United States, it will not repair the damages the war on drugs has caused to Mexico.

Further, as the Mexican cartels diversify their criminal activities away from marijuana, the costs of maintaining a war against them will also rise. Ironically, even as these costs go up, the government will justify intensifying this war as the cartels ramp up their trade of other substances, such as heroin and methamphetamine, and pursue activities like extortion, protection rackets, kidnapping, and human trafficking.

Meanwhile, the peasant communities and migrants that cultivate cannabis will lose their source of income, leaving them more susceptible to recruitment for other criminal activities. And Mexican migrants working on legal, semilegal, and illegal marijuana farms in California will continue to be exploited.

These specialized migrants, coveted for their unique skills, are often unfairly compensated because of their immigration status. One engineer at Chapingo Autonomous University who specializes in agroecological techniques worked for six months at California marijuana farms. He said in a recent interview that he earned less than $15,000 for $100,000 worth of work.

It’s becoming clear that, while legalization has bestowed an array benefits on the United States, it will not repair the damages the war on drugs has caused to Mexico. Legalization in the United States will not give comfort to the grieving Mexican families of the thousands disappeared and forcibly recruited by criminal organizations. It will not provide security to Mexican regions that were once marijuana providers for California. It will not return security to the communities displaced by the violence of Mexico’s drug war. And it absolutely will not provide minimal conditions of security, peace, and justice to the victims of this war, such as Aarón Valencia and his family.

Legalization in the United States can, however, encourage Mexican activists, researchers, and other members of the drug policy community to develop new solutions with renewed intensity now that legalization is becoming a more accepted approach around the world. While the benefits of legalization in the United States may not immediately reach the Mexican people, they could serve as motivation to redouble efforts to bring about positive drug reform that leads to peace and stability in our country.

The 43 Missing Students Are Not Alone. Mexico’s Justice System Is Broken.

Originally published in The World Post

Even in a country hardened by nearly a decade of deadly criminal conflict, the Ayotzinapa case stands out: 43 students forcibly disappeared during the night of Sept. 26, 2014, allegedly at the hands of municipal police in league with a local drug gang. President Enrique Peña Nieto promised that this horrific crime, above all, would not go unpunished. “After Iguala,” he declared, naming the city where the youths went missing, “Mexico must change.”

Nineteen months later, the case has generated much controversy but little change. A group of international experts backed by the Organization of American States, invited by the government to assist federal investigators on behalf of the victims’ families, has departed after issuing a scathing 600-page report citing evidence that suspects were tortured, promising leads left unexplored, contradictory forensic reports ignored and key evidence mishandled — perhaps planted — in an apparent effort to close the probe as quickly as possible.

Meanwhile, the president’s proposed security reforms — most notably a plan to fold more than 1,800 municipal police forces into 31 statewide corporations — remain largely unfulfilled. A national violence prevention program — touted by candidate Peña Nieto as the answer to his predecessor’s discredited war on drugs — has seen its already meager funding slashed by about 20 percent since 2013.

The bloodshed, tragically, has not stalled. Last year’s homicides rose slightly (8 percent) in the country as a whole and dramatically in certain states, such as Guerrero, where murders surged by 30 percent. Despite the deployment of federal troops and police to the state, fragmented gangs continue to wage brutal turf wars to control drug trafficking and illegal rackets like extortion and kidnapping. The disappearance of the 43 student teachers is far from the only unsolved case. Authorities — under pressure from the relatives of other missing persons — have discovered dozens of clandestine graves near the city of Iguala containing at least 140 bodies.

No wonder citizens show little faith in the country’s law enforcement institutions. Not only do few Mexicans trust their municipal police (36 percent), according to official surveys, less than half express confidence in state prosecutors or investigators (42 percent), state police (43 percent) or judges (46 percent). Federal prosecutors (trusted by 49 percent) and police (56 percent) fare only a bit better.

President Peña Nieto could still put his country on track to end the self-perpetuating cycles of violence, corruption and impunity that have turned certain regions into virtual war zones. But to do so, the president must address the “incredulity and distrust,” which, as he himself has stated, are undermining the law and order essential to assure that his economic reforms generate the promised prosperity.

The government should start by recognizing that the experts’ report not only raises serious questions about the Ayotzinapa case but also about the justice system in general: the overreliance on confessions to determine guilt, the lack of independent forensic services, the burden of unnecessary bureaucratic procedures, the inability to weigh the validity of evidence or to analyze context, the tendency to measure success based on the number of arrests (often on flimsy evidence that is later dismissed) and the failure to investigate the intellectual and material authors of crime.

The Mexican government did the right thing by inviting international experts to assist in a case that has come to symbolize the horrific brutality of criminals that operate in complicity with some state agents. Their job is not over. President Peña Nieto can still turn tragedy into a catalyst for change, but he cannot do so alone. To salvage the Ayotzinapa case — and overcome the crisis of confidence that threatens the government’s own reform agenda, Mexico should extend and expand the experts’ mandate to address the systemic flaws that have made incompetence, complicity and corruption sadly synonymous with the country’s own institutions of law enforcement.