PETER O. ZIERLEIN*
The mounting drug-gang violence along the Mexican border spilling into Tucson, Atlanta and other American cities–the kidnappings, beheadings, torture and street massacres–is as unsurprising as it is ironic. It’s also a loud call for a fundamental review of this nation’s so-called “war on drugs.”
It’s unsurprising because Mexican President Felipe Calderón’s attempt to assert his authority and please his American neighbors by cracking down on the drug cartels is jeopardizing established supply routes and the cozy arrangements with Mexican drug cops and public officials that in effect stabilized the trade. Now the gangs, which are also seizing a growing segment of the migrant-smuggling business, are at war not just with Mexico’s federal cops, the army and the shrinking number of honest prosecutors and judges who try to confront them but with one another for a share of that destabilized market.
It’s ironic because Americans, as everybody knows, buy and consume most of the marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamines that make up the lion’s share of the cartels’ business. Also, some 90 percent of the guns used by drug gangs, including a growing number of military-type assault weapons, come from American gun dealers, most in the border states. And it’s American politicians who’ve been most active in putting the heat on Calderón to stop the drugs. But perhaps most ironic of all, it’s the federal prohibition of marijuana, first enacted in large measure because of its association with Mexicans, that created the multibillion-dollar market in which the drug gangs thrive.
Which is to say that the real cause of the drug violence now drawing anxious attention from Congress, the Obama administration and worried state and local law enforcement officials lies on this side of the border.
What’s new is that for the first time Washington is beginning to pay attention. At a Senate judiciary subcommittee hearing in March on the violence at the border there was widespread agreement that America deserves a large portion of the blame. At almost the same time, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton acknowledged a shared responsibility. “We know very well,” she said during a visit to Mexico, “that the drug traffickers are motivated by the demand for illegal drugs in the United States, that they are armed by the transport of weapons from the United States to Mexico.” When President Obama met Calderón recently, drug violence joined immigration at the top of the agenda. The two issues are linked in more ways than even Obama probably knows.
Historians disagree on who or what was the largest influence in persuading Congress to pass the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937, which in effect outlawed marijuana and criminalized its production and sale. Was it newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst, or was it Harry Anslinger, who as head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics was the nation’s first drug czar?