Punishing Mexico Will Not Help The War On Drugs

12 February 1999

By Stentor Danielson

What ever happened to cooperation? I've watched in shock and disgust the past few months as arms inspections in Iraq brought us to the brink of war again and again, and peace talks in Kosovo gave way to threats and violence. Now (albeit on a slightly less horrific scale), another opportunity for international cooperation is on the verge of being thwarted, this time on our own southern border. Congress has declared Mexico's contributions to the war on drugs to be a failure. But, rather than helping our disadvantaged neighbor, Congress has decided to take a harsh and vindictive stance and push for Mexico to be "decertified." This means that it would lose key economic privileges, as a punishment for not stopping the traffic in illegal drugs that flows through the country. Decertification, though, is not an answer to ending the Mexican drug trade.

First off, we have the rationale of simple decency. The U.S., as the single most powerful nation on Earth, has the ability to apply significant coercive power to get what it wants. And, therefore, it has the responsibility to refrain from using that power in any but the most dire circumstances. Every time the U.S. exerts its will over another nation, even in the name of "right," we approach the role of a tyrant or a bully. The U.S. Congress only has jurisdiction over the 50 states and a handful of other territories. Any time it decides to try to coerce and control another region, it shows contempt for the government of that region, as well as for the concept of sovereignty. It is up to Mexico, not a foreign power who happens to have economic clout, how Mexico handles drug trafficking.

But even if we accept that Mexico ought to be doing more to stop the flow of illegal drugs, decertification is not the answer to getting more anti-drug efforts made. The teeth of the threat is that a decertified country loses certain trade privileges. Obviously, a country will be economically weakened if it is cut off to some extent from the largest economic power on the planet. Now, ask yourself: Is a weak, poor country or a strong, rich one better able to spend time and money on a non-vital program like the war on drugs? If bolstering the war on drugs is our goal, why do we want to impair the resources that would allow Mexico to aid us in that? And while I'm not saying that decertification would plunge Mexico into instant poverty, it would also put a damper on the success of an important partner of the U.S. Just think about how many times you've seen a "Made in Mexico" or "Assembled in Mexico" sticker or tag. Can Congress really believe that decertification will hurt only Mexico?

Beyond the issues of abuse of power and economy, the premise of decertification is flawed. Decertification threatens countries who do not help to attack the supply of drugs coming into the U.S. But the reason that Mexico has a drug traffic problem is that people in the U.S. are offering money for the drugs. If Mexico seizes more drugs, fewer enter the U.S., so the price of those that are left will rise. Higher prices will make it worth some drug lord's while to devise a new importing scheme in order to increase his supply and, therefore, his profits. This new scheme will take time to be recognized by the authorities, so the flow of drugs will rise to its old levels. The programs of drug seizure and trafficker prosecution, whose failure in Mexico sparked the decertification debate, are stopgap measures at best. The U.S. has the greatest ability to end the Mexican drug trade, and it's not through decertification. The only way we can win - rather than desperately hold steady in - the fight against drugs is to make them an undesirable commodity. If nobody wants drugs, there will be no incentive to bring them through Mexico. Decertification is, to an extent, blaming Mexico for the failures of the U.S.

Mexico has not been decertified yet. Despite the best efforts of Congress, it is still up to the President to issue the final decision, which he must do by March 1. We can only hope that he has enough sense to see that it is cooperation, not threats and coercion, that will bring success.

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