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Mexico's drug war

Even as President Calderon presses ahead against the cartels, former President Fox calls for the legalization of major drugs.

August 14, 2010

More than 28,000 people have died in Mexican President Felipe Calderon's nearly four-year war against drug cartels. The government of Mexico says a majority of those killed were traffickers, dealers and their associates, including kingpins Arturo Beltran Leyva in 2009 and Ignacio "Nacho" Coronel Villarreal last month. According to the U.S. State Department's International Narcotics Control Strategy report issued in March, removing such important cartel leaders has "narrowed the operating space of criminal gangs, who are now fighting among themselves for diminishing territory and profits."


FOR THE RECORD:
Drug war: An Aug. 14 editorial on Mexican President Felipe Calderon's war against drug cartels ended mid-sentence in the print edition. The sentence should have read: Nevertheless, Fox deserves credit for exploring every solution to a crisis that is ravaging his country. For the full editorial, go to latimes.com /opinion. —

That's one interpretation. But Times correspondents Tracy Wilkinson and Ken Ellingwood presented another picture this week of cartels continuing to expand their reach with industry earnings estimated at as much as $39 billion, and a growing list of places the State Department says American citizens should avoid: no longer just the border cities of Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez but also highways around Mexico's industrial city of Monterrey and down the Pacific Coast to the central state of Michoacan. In fact, Beltran Leyva was killed at a luxury apartment in downtown Cuernavaca, in the central state of Morelos, and Coronel in the suburbs of Guadalajara, Mexico's second-largest city.

Even Calderon has acknowledged that the traffickers pose a threat to Mexico's national security. As Wilkinson and Ellingwood noted, he called the criminals "a challenge to the state, an attempt to replace the state." That's also true in countries such as Guatemala and Jamaica, where the state is smaller and weaker and traffickers no less aggressive. The drug violence is tearing apart these societies, as is the violence used to combat it in Mexico.

Calderon is pressing the judicial system to step up prosecution and convictions of criminals, and is calling for a remaking of myriad state and local police forces that have been infiltrated by the drug mafia. The State Department says Mexico is on the right track with its law enforcement actions and longer-term institutional reforms. Although reforms obviously are necessary and removing drug lords is a good thing, we're not convinced that the U.S.-backed drug war can succeed. Neither is former Mexican President Vicente Fox, of Calderon's center-right National Action Party, who last week called for legalization of "production, sales and distribution" of all major drugs in Mexico. This went far beyond an earlier proposal by three former presidents of Brazil, Colombia and Mexico for decriminalization of marijuana consumption. Fox said prohibitionist policies were ineffective, while legalization would break the economic power of the cartels.

Sadly, even legalization in Mexico would not solve the problem, because most of the market for illegal drugs is in the United States, and cartels have diversified into other illegal businesses. Where there's lots of illicit money to be made, the cartels will find a way. Legalization, either in the United States or Mexico, may raise new problems even as it solves old ones. Nevertheless, Fox deserves credit for exploring every solution to a crisis that is ravaging his country.

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