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behind the news | Essay / ROBERT A. JONES

Narcolandia Knocks

March 19, 1997|ROBERT A. JONES

TIJUANA — Once, the horrors of Narcolandia seemed far removed from our shores. Oh, perhaps the streets ran with blood in Cali, Colombia, where the drug kings made sport of executing honest judges. But that was 6,000 miles away. Another continent.

No more. The drug kings can now sit on the decks of their mini-mansions in the hills of this city and stare directly into the United States. The whole, messy scene associated with their arrival--machine-gun slayings, the flaunting of hyper-wealth, the corruption of government--has grown commonplace in Tijuana. Narcolandia now knocks at our backdoor.

Here's a number that's interesting: Mexico now serves as the principal route of cocaine into the United States, and an estimated 70% of all Mexican-delivered coke comes through Tijuana.

Just this week, the Mexican government arrested another of its Army generals who supposedly flew to Tijuana and offered the new anti-drug chief here $1 million a month to overlook certain activities of the Arellano Felix brothers, Baja's biggest and baddest drug dealers.

A million a month. A tidy sum. Then the general allegedly delivered what he regarded as the deal closer: If the anti-drug chief did not accept the $1 million per, he would be executed a la Ernesto Ibarra Santes, the drug-fighting police commander in Baja who was gunned down last September.

In Tijuana, this kind of offer is known as "plata o plomo." Take the silver, or eat lead. For what it's worth, the anti-drug chief refused the silver and thus far has defied the lead. God be with him.

In the United States, we have taken the arrival of Narcolandia along our border as a hard lesson in Mexico's inveterate corruption. You just can't trust 'em, ya know. Congress wants to "decertify" Mexico as a fellow drug warrior and the subtext of that debate goes something like this: If only the Mexicans were honest like us, we could be winning the drug war.

Well, surely Mexico is corrupt. Surely its police agencies have been converted to an army of snitches for the drug kings. But to blame Mexico for Narcolandia's appearance is to miss the true meaning of the event.

Narcolandia's arrival could not have been prevented by Mexico any more than the United States can prevent the flow of drugs into its neighborhoods. The narco kings on our borders simply suggest, once again, the bankruptcy of the ideas driving the U.S.'s drug war. We are losing this war, and every year we are losing it faster.

According to Peter Smith, a Latin America drug expert at UC San Diego, the U.S. drug war has relied almost entirely on a strategy of reducing drug supply since its inception. The idea is to so curtail supply that drug prices rise beyond the reach of most consumers.

The supply strategy has been pursued for more than two decades. And yet, today, drug prices in the U.S. are lower than when the drug war began, suggesting only one thing: Supply has grown rather than diminished.

"The profits [from illegal drugs] are so great that dealers will always find a way to get the product to market," says Smith. "In fact, Mexico became the route of choice for cocaine only after the DEA began to harass drug shippers in the Caribbean-South Florida route. The drug lords looked for an alternative, and found Mexico."

So, in one sense, our own DEA drove the drug shippers into Mexico. And that route proved to be a more reliable, higher-volume system.

The shift has converted Tijuana into something that resembles Chicago of the Prohibition Era, albeit in miniature. Capone-like figures parade through the city, defying authorities to challenge them. Intramural squabbles between drug lords produce regular massacres on city streets. Bribery erodes the government. And woe to the honest prosecutor or judge who stands up for the rule of law.

In the last several years the prominent dead have included the above-mentioned Ibarra, prosecutor Jesus Romero Magana, Police Chief Jose Federico Benitez, and state investigator Rafael Lopez Cruz. Meanwhile, non-prominent drug murders are proceeding at an estimated 1-3 per week.

"We see a government that is desperate and turning to the military," says Victor Clark, head of the Binational Human Rights Center here. "In itself, that is a very dangerous development. In the past, the military was confined to the barracks in Mexico. Now it is being invited into the structure of government because of the drug crisis."

This is the legacy of a drug strategy that, in Peter Smith's words, "will not and cannot succeed." In fact, he adds, no Western government has ever successfully controlled drugs from the supply side.

And yet the supply strategy proceeds, year after year, costing billions, defying any politician to express the slightest doubt about its essential design.

A half-century ago Prohibition created gangster rule, civic corruption and bloody massacres in cities like Chicago. In the years between 1920 and 1933, when Prohibition was in effect, alcohol consumption in this country actually increased, and finally the country saw its folly and repealed the ban.

The parallel with drugs is almost too obvious to note. No one likes the idea of admitting that a long war has been lost. But until we do, we will continue to pay the price for our stubbornness and pride. And Tijuana will be here to remind us just how high the price can go.

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