I read with horror that Hillary Clinton, posing as the Secretary of State, has been in Mexico talking with Felipe Calderon, Mexico’s president, about “the problem of drugs.” Horror is the reasonable response whenever an American official is allowed to pass beyond the beltway. Or stay within it. They never know what they are doing. Oh god.
In fairness, I have to concede that Ms. Clinton is well qualified to talk to Calderon, since he speaks…English. Further, I concede that she does have a grasp of things Latin American, engendered by many years in…Arkansas. Aaagh.
May I suggest that the former First Basilisk had no idea where she was or what she was doing? Oh god, oh god. Oh god.
To show that utter futility can, if not be fun, at least serve to pass an idle hour, let me express the common Mexican and indeed South American view of the, oh god, War on Drugs. It goes thusly:
Latin America does not have a drug problem. It has a United States problem. The problem is that Americans want drugs. The US is a huge, voracious, insatiable market for drugs. Americans very much want their brain candy. They will pay whatever they need to pay to get it. All the world knows this.
Why, Mexicans wonder, is America’s drug habit Mexico’s problem? If Americans don’t want drugs, they can stop buying them. Nobody forces anyone to use the stuff.
Ah, the rub is that Washington doesn’t want Americans to have drugs. All right, say Mexicans, that is a problem between the American government and the American people. Let America solve it.
Why, Mexican’s ask — read this sentence carefully — should Mexico tear itself in pieces, lose thousands of dead annually, and turn into a war zone to solve a problem that America refuses to solve?
Think. Why doesn’t the American government run sting operations at, say, Berkeley and Stanford, and Rice and George Washington U., and put those students caught using drugs in the slam for two years per? How about a sting at your daughter’s high school, with a year in some nasty reformatory, which is to say any reformatory, for those caught? It could be a family sort of thing. You could visit her and hear what fascinating things she had learned about compulsory Lesbian sex.
The reason of course is that any effort to punish large classes of politically influential people would result in a revolution. You can’t jail Harvard. So Washington doesn’t. Instead it expects Mexico to do something about drugs.
Now, on the off-chance that you live in an impermeable bubble, and don’t know who uses drugs, I will tell you. I note that I am not speculating about this. I spent eight years working as a police reporter from Anacostia to South Central, and know whereof I speak.
Blue-collar people use drugs — crack, for example. I’ve spent whole days arresting down-scale beauticians in rattletrap Chevys as they bought the stuff from black dealers in the grubby satellite towns outside Chicago. High rollers in Houston use as much powder as they ski in (and it happens to my certain knowledge on Capitol Hill). White professionals have bags of grass in the garage. So, most likely, do their children: In the suburban high schools of metro Washington, e.g., Yorktown and Washington and Lee, kids have easy access to Mary Jane, acid, shrooms, nitrous, Ecstasy, crystal. Good ol’ boys in Texas make, grow, and use drugs. Country kids in Virginia have a few plants out in the woods. And so on.
Don’t I remember that Hillary’s husband used to smoke chunky interns — marijuana, I meant to say, marijuana — but didn’t inhale?
Which is to say, as Mexicans know, drugs are about as illegal in the US as is the downloading of music. It is punished by very light sentences for first-time users (which of course means first-time caughters). High-school kids get a week of “community service,” perhaps, which they regard as both amusing and a badge of honor. In general, little real effort is made to apprehend respectable white transgressors.
In short, the WOD is a fraud. In America the drug racket is a mildly disreputable business, tightly integrated into the economy, running smoothly, employing countless federal cops, prison guards, ineffectual rehab centers and equally ineffectual psychotherapists, and providing bribes to officials and huge deposits of laundered money to banks. Narcos in the US do not engage in pitched battles with the army because they have no reason to. The government barely inconveniences them.
So why should Mexico fight this war for Washington?
In a column, Pat Buchanan addresses the violence in Mexico, and asks:
“Which is the greater evil? Legalized narcotics for America’s young or a failed state of 110,000 million on our southern border? Some choice. Some country we’ve become.”
Some country indeed, on many grounds. And the WOD might be a good idea if it did anything beyond keeping the price of drugs up. But it doesn’t. I suggest two things to Pat:
First, Mexico suffers narco-violence only because Washington expects Mexico to do what Washington won’t. Failed state? Take away the narco wars and Mexico is a reasonably successful upper-third-world nation. If it fails, it will be because we pushed it into failure.
Second, America’s young already have almost unlimited access to drugs. Many students experiment with them. Few become addicts. Why? Because they don’t want to. How is that for simple?
It is common sense (the young actually do have some of it) and not the DEA that prevents addiction. Do you think that few kids become alcoholics because they need an ID to buy booze?
Mexicans know all of the foregoing. Remember that there is a steady flow of Mexican nationals in both directions across the border. Americans are out of touch with Mexico, but Mexicans are not out of touch with America. They also know, as Americans seem not to, that corruption runs wide and deep north of the Rio Bravo. (A common story: when you cross the border illegally with the coyote, you wait behind a bush until the Border Patrol guy who has been bribed comes on duty.) They know that when narcos can offer bribes running into the millions, American officials will accept them as readily as anyone else. Would you refuse a million inflating green ones to unobserve a truck crossing the border? I would.
A business with that much money isn’t going to be shut down, obviously, which is why fifty years on, the WOD has accomplished exactly nothing. And South America knows it.
The Latin American attitude toward the largely imaginary War on Drugs could be summed up thusly: “Solve your own problems, gringo. We aren’t your mother. Leave us alone.” Fat chance.
Fred Reed is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well and the just-published A Brass Pole in Bangkok: A Thing I Aspire to Be. Visit his blog.