President Bush and Mexican President Felipe Calderon could reach an agreement as early as Monday that would put American taxpayers on the hook for tens of millions of dollars in counter-narcotics aid to Mexico. It is a familiar game.
U.S. leaders blame another country for our failure to reduce drug misuse here at home. That country escalates its war against drugs but asks the U.S. to pick up part of the tab. Aid is given, but it ends up having no effect on the availability of drugs in the United States. Politicians in Washington point their fingers again, and the cycle continues.
Of course, it's tempting to give aid to Mexico. Calderon seems to be doing all the right things in cracking down on drug traffickers. He's appointed new people to key military and criminal justice positions, deployed troops to quell drug violence, reasserted federal police power and extradited major traffickers to the U.S.
But all this provides little reason to hope that Mexico will turn a corner in its efforts to control the illegal drug trade. For a guide to what's in store, one need only look at past sexenios (the six-year terms of Mexican presidents).
What Calderon is doing now differs little from what his predecessors did at the start of their terms. The results are always the same -- encouraging at first, but then it all starts up again. Drug-trafficking gangs re-group with new leaders and new connections. Previously incorruptible officers are newly corrupted. Police of all ranks, and all shades of probity, tremble in fear of assassins' bullets. And Mexicans again wonder why the cycle never really stops.
So what should policymakers do?
Mexico should crack down hard on violence, drug-related or not -- and think in terms of protecting its own citizens, not just fighting drugs. That requires thinking strategically about drug enforcement, targeting the most violent people and criminal organizations and even promoting nonviolent solutions to conflicts among traffickers.
The United States should put its own house in order. Decades of research has shown that the most cost-effective way to undermine drug markets and reduce drug abuse is not providing aid to other countries but making a greater commitment to reducing drug misuse at home. Funding effective drug treatment provides a far better return on investment than does any form of international drug control.
Leaders in both countries would do well to provoke a discussion about the failures of drug prohibition and the damage it is causing. Economist Milton Friedman said it best in a letter to President George H.W. Bush's first drug czar, William J. Bennett:
"Of course the problem is demand, but it is not only demand, it is demand that must operate through repressed and illegal channels. Illegality creates obscene profits that finance the murderous tactics of the drug lords; illegality leads to the corruption of law enforcement officials; illegality monopolizes the efforts of honest law forces so that they are starved for resources to fight the simpler crimes of robbery, theft and assault.
"Drugs are a tragedy for addicts. But criminalizing their use converts that tragedy into a disaster for society, for users and nonusers alike. Our experience with the prohibition of drugs is a replay of our experience with the prohibition of alcoholic beverages."
Until policymakers start rethinking failed drug-war policies, the violence and corruption inherent in prohibition will continue. Aid to Mexico could do some good, especially if it is used to bring major crime bosses to justice. But those bosses will inevitably be replaced, and battles about who will succeed them could increase violence in Mexico, not decrease it.