MEXICO CITY — After years of covering the drug war in Mexico, after looking down from a helicopter to see burning marijuana fields that soldiers had set aflame and after riding along with federal police as they looked for heroin and cocaine traffickers, I got a very different perspective when I visited Baltimore.
On a reporting trip there last year, I accompanied a former drug dealer to one of the so-called open air markets, where marijuana and heroin were hawked in plain view on a busy street. It was a striking paradox. South of the border, I’d watched soldiers torch drugs to destroy them. Here, 40 miles from the White House, I was watching people sell them openly.
That image came to mind early this month, when President Trump gave Mexico an ultimatum to stop the northward flow of narcotics. “We’re going to give them a one-year warning, and if the drugs don’t stop, or largely stop, we’re going to put tariffs,” he told reporters at the White House. “And if that doesn’t stop the drugs, we close the border.”
Blaming Mexico for the American drug problem and then coercing it to act is a tactic that dates back to Richard Nixon. It’s pure hypocrisy. While drugs do flow through Mexico, they also flow throughout the United States, feeding one of the biggest drug markets on the planet. If the United States government fails to halt the river of narcotics inside its own territory, how can it expect Mexico to succeed?
Of course, there are more factors in the equation. While Mexico’s security forces burn opium poppies and shoot traffickers, there are also countless cases of its soldiers, police and politicians working with the criminals. And while you can find open air drug markets in several American cities, the United States arrests millions on drug charges.
But the bottom line is that both nations have utterly failed to stop the trade in the decades since Nixon declared war on drugs. The Mexican government has spent over a decade waging a military-led crackdown, detaining or killing kingpins in all the major cartels. But this has not reduced trafficking. Over the last five years, seizures of heroin and cocaine on the southern border have fluctuated; seizures of crystal meth have risen, perhaps because of more demand; while seizures of marijuana have plummeted, probably an effect of the production of legal cannabis in the United States.
The cartel violence, meanwhile, has ravaged Mexico, with over 200,000 murders in the country in the last decade. And despite endless drug cases in its courts, the United States set a tragic record in 2017: 70,000 overdose deaths.
Back in 1969, Nixon launched Operation Intercept to pressure the Mexican government to crack down on the marijuana smugglers of the era. Over a period of several days, almost every vehicle or pedestrian entering over the southern border was searched. It didn’t yield many seizures, as the smugglers waited out the crackdown, but it did lead to frustration on the part of businesses in the United States whose goods and laborers were being held up.
Half a century on, President Trump has held back so far from such action, despite his threats. With over $600 billion in cross-border trade last year, it would be far more costly today than it was in the 1960s.
His main priority is really to stop the flow of migrants and asylum seekers, and it was the rise in their numbers that triggered the latest round of rhetoric. But from his 2016 presidential campaign until now, he has also railed against the flow of drugs from Mexico and used it to bolster his arguments to “build a wall” and beef up security. “Our southern border is a pipeline for vast quantities of illegal drugs, including meth, heroin, cocaine and fentanyl,” he said in a January speech, pushing for wall funding.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico has avoided answering Mr. Trump’s ultimatum on drugs, at least publicly. When asked about it on April 5, he said he had no problems with the White House. “Relations are good. We have no confrontation with the government of the United States.”
Meanwhile, he seems to be placating Washington by stepping up arrests of undocumented migrants heading through Mexico.
Seizures of drugs in Mexico appear to be down in the first quarter, according to early reports, which may have helped prompt Mr. Trump’s ultimatum. The problem is that even when Mexico has made major seizures in recent years, the northward flow of narcotics to Americans hasn’t stopped. But then, regardless of Washington, Mexico does face the herculean problem of organized crime ravaging its society.
A better way forward would be for the two nations to work together on real policies that reduce the damage unleashed by drugs and cartels. United States and Mexican agencies should team up to target the most violent gangsters, to lower the number of homicides in Mexico and to lower the number of people fleeing over the border as refugees. Mexico could do far more to weed out the narco corruption, which is destroying its political system. And the United States could provide considerably more rehabilitation services to reduce addiction and overdoses, many of which are actually from prescription drugs.
There are real problems, from the corners of Baltimore to the mountains of Mexico. But they need integral long-term solutions, not simplistic ultimatums and threats.
Ioan Grillo is a contributing opinion writer.
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