Could drug legalisation counter violence and corruption in Mexico?
Drug prohibition has fuelled corruption and brutal violence across Mexico for decades. As a radical new president prepares to take office, could legal regulation be the answer?
According to Transparency International, Mexico is ranked among the most corrupt countries in the world. A recent report by the Washington Office on Latin America found that at least 14 former or current state governors are currently under investigation for corruption, some of whom are alleged to have colluded with criminal syndicates. The same report also cited evidence of the diminishing trust in Mexico’s public institutions - with around two-thirds of the population perceiving the countries judges as corrupt, and a similar proportion believing the state police to be corrupt.
The pervasive influence of drug cartels in Mexico has led to unprecedented levels of violence throughout the country, with homicides reaching a record high of more than 25,000 last year, and over 130 politicians or electoral candidates being killed in the run-up to the national elections earlier this month.
As with many other Latin American countries, this rampant corruption and violence in Mexico is the result of the power accumulated by criminal organisations through the wealth inherent to the illicit drug trade. The extortionate amounts of money involved in the drug business is a direct effect of prohibition.
Mexico is the largest supplier of illegal drugs to the US – where the wholesale market’s value is estimated to range between $13.6 and $48.4 billion annually. With the exorbitant amounts of money involved in the drug trade, it is unsurprising that it often goes hand-in-hand with ruthless violence, best summed up by the Colombian cartel maxim: Plata o plomo - Silver or lead.
This begs the question; why not reduce cartels’ influence by legally regulating the drug trade and removing their source of income?
Mexicans are beginning to reconsider the country’s repressive prohibitionist approach, evidenced by the landslide victory of Andrés Manuel López Obrador (or AMLO as he is widely known) in Mexico’s election on July 1. His crushing defeat of the two establishment parties highlights a hunger for reform among Mexicans.
The president-elect ran on a promise to root out corruption in the country and deviate from the long-standing stance of military intervention in drug control. Although he has yet to be inaugurated, he has already demanded the cancellation of a $1.2 billion deal with the US for eight sea-hawk helicopters, previously ordered to aid the fight against organised crime.
Although AMLO has pledged to fight the drug war with “hugs, not shoot-outs”, which includes a method of amnesty for farmers caught cultivating illicit crops, he has not ruled out legalisation. When quizzed about his approach to drug trafficking he remarked that nothing was off the table, “not even legalisation – nothing”.
The legal regulation and taxation of the drug trade could be the kick-start that AMLO needs to counter prohibition-related corruption and violence, and improve the Mexican economy. Simultaneously, funds raised from taxation could be directed towards harm reduction and drug treatment programmes – a significant issue, as rates of methamphetamine and heroin use are rising in the country.
These extra funds could also help AMLO implement some of the ambitious social programmes that he has pledged - to increase employment, improve wages, and develop infrastructure projects in order to dissuade Mexico’s youth from joining drug cartels.
However, attempting legalisation is no small feat, and would likely hinder the positive relationship AMLO wishes to develop with the US – a country which has historically backed and funded Mexico’s hard-line approach to drug trafficking. The US is likely to aggressively oppose such an approach, as Mexico’s cooperation is vital to their fight against drug trafficking.
It is clear that under Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Mexico is headed toward a more pragmatic approach to the War on Drugs. Legalisation would be a brave step, and one which could have a substantial impact in curbing the devastating levels of violence gripping the country; but, how far is this ambitious president-elect willing to go?
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the view of TalkingDrugs.