To many people, the "war on drugs" sounds like a metaphor, like the "war on poverty". It is not. It is being fought with tanks and sub-machine guns and hand grenades, funded in part by your taxes, and it has killed 28,000 people under the current Mexican President alone. The death toll in Tijuana – one of the front lines of this war – is now higher than in Baghdad. Yesterday, another pile of 72 mutilated corpses was found near San Fernando – an event that no longer shocks the country.As a result, Hari says, Mexico is contemplating legalising drugs, to remove the economic driver for the escalating violence.
Mexico today is a place where the severed heads of police officers are found week after week, pinned to bloody notes that tell their colleagues: "This is how you learn respect". It is a place where hand grenades are tossed into crowds to intimidate the public into shutting up. It is the state the US Joint Chiefs of Staff say is most likely, after Pakistan, to suffer "a rapid and sudden collapse".
Why? When you criminalise a drug for which there is a large market, it doesn't disappear. The trade is simply transferred from off-licences, pharmacists and doctors to armed criminal gangs.
In order to protect their patch and their supply routes, these gangs tool up – and kill anyone who gets in their way. You can see this any day on the streets of a poor part of London or Los Angeles, where teenage gangs stab or shoot each other for control of the 3,000 per cent profit margins on offer. Now imagine this process taking over an entire nation, to turn it into a massive production and supply route for the Western world's drug hunger.
Why Mexico? Why now? In the past decade, the US has spent a fortune spraying carcinogenic chemicals over Colombia's coca-growing areas, so the drug trade has simply shifted to Mexico. It's known as the "balloon effect": press down in one place, and the air rushes to another.
When I was last there in 2006, I saw the drug violence taking off and warned that the murder rate was going to skyrocket. Since then the victims have ranged from a pregnant woman washing her car, to a four-year-old child, to a family in the "wrong" house watching television, to a group of 14 teenagers having a party. Today, 70 per cent of Mexicans say they are frightened to go out because of the cartels.
The gangs offer Mexican police and politicians a choice: "Plata o ploma". Silver, or lead. Take a bribe, or take a bullet. President Felipe Calderon has been leading a military crackdown on them since 2006 – yet every time he surges the military forward, the gang violence in an area massively increases.
This might seem like a paradox, but it isn't. If you knock out the leaders of a drug gang, you don't eradicate demand, or supply. You simply trigger a fresh war for control of the now-vacant patch. The violence creates more violence. (1)
Britain and the USA oppose this, and are pressing the Mexican government to maintain the current, bloody, status quo.
I'm no fan of intoxicants. When I was younger, I drank like a fool, put myself in all sorts of stupid situations and behaved reprehensibly. I find it hard to make an argument that irresponsible idiots like myself should be given a greater range of means to get themselves wasted.
And - as I slide into grumpy and hypocritical middle age - I can't help but wonder if the easy availability of intoxicants is a ploy to keep the youth and the (ex) working class happily smashed and politically docile. After all, why worry about social justice when you've got White Lightening on special at the offie? Marx's opium of the people has been replaced by a far cruder means of muting "the sigh of the oppressed creature. The heart of the heartless world now comes contained a six pack or a bottle of fortified wine, not a bible (2).
Equally, however, I can see no justification for hapless Mexicans being slain in a futile effort to keep these intoxicants from me. I, at least, was a voluntary participant in my own endangerment and degradation. If that's what stupid over-privileged first worlders want to do with themselves, let them, rather than perpetuating a hypocritical war that is accomplishing nothing beyond a lot of misery and suffering.
1 - "Violence breeds violence. The only thing drug gangs fear is legalisation," by Johann Hari. Published in The Independent, 26th of August, 2010. (http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/johann-hari/johann-hari-violence-breeds-violence-the-only-thing-drug-gangs-fear-is-legalisation-2062252.html)
2 - "A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right," by Karl Marx. Published in 1843. (http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1843/critique-hpr/intro.htm)