Wednesday, Mar. 25, 2009

Rethinking the Drug War

It is a convenient and long-standing tradition in Mexico to blame its problems on the U.S. — and one that's now finding agreement from surprising quarters. "Our insatiable demand for illegal drugs fuels the drug trade," declared U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton en route to Mexico on March 25. "Our inability to prevent weapons from being illegally smuggled across the border ... causes the deaths of police officers, soldiers and civilians." Mexico has seen more than 7,000 drug-related killings since early 2008, and the violence now threatening to spill north hasn't escaped attention. Late last year, somewhat hyperbolically, a Pentagon study lumped Mexico in with Pakistan as states that might face a "rapid and sudden collapse."

Clinton's trip is the first step in solving the U.S. side of the equation. She took with her a plan to put more than 500 new federal agents in border states, cut off arms-smuggling into Mexico and lasso more of the billions of dollars heading back to drug cartels. Meanwhile, the Merida Initiative, a bilateral plan that began last year, is supposed to funnel almost $1.5 billion to Mexican President Felipe Calderón's offensive against the cartels.

All that is good news. It would be better news if it prodded Mexico to take its obligations more seriously. Rampant police corruption has let the drug cartels operate more freely and brutally. Though the Merida plan steers resources to Mexico's efforts to reform its police and judiciary, more is needed.

But better border security in the U.S. and better policing in Mexico will not make the drug wars go away. Each year an estimated 350 tons of cocaine, together with other drugs, finds its way to the U.S., while more than $25 billion flows south into the cartels' coffers. The Obama Administration hopes to reduce demand by expanding drug-court programs that require rehabilitation. But if the U.S. wants a real, long-term solution to the drug crisis, it is going to have to do more than that.