Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Legalization as Solution

ED Kain calls for an end to the drug wars in Mexico:
Now the Mexican government is passing up on an opportunity, however vague, to find some sort of peaceful resolution with the cartels:

Mexico’s federal security spokesman on Monday rejected a state prosecutor’s call for drug cartels to join in some kind of truce, saying the gangs must be arrested and disbanded instead.

Security spokesman Alejandro Poire was reacting to questions about a call made by Alberto Lopez Rosas, the attorney general of the violence-wracked southern state of Guerrero.

In comments to local media over the weekend, Lopez Rosas asked drug cartels for a truce, "to respect the life of a city, the life of the populace, the life of society."

Poire told a news conference on Monday that such entreaties wouldn’t lead anywhere.

"Regarding calls by authorities for the criminals to change their behavior, I think it couldn’t be clearer that peace is not going to be achieved by asking the criminals for something," Poire said.

"Peace is going to be achieved by bringing the criminals to justice … that their thinking will not be influenced by appealing to their interests by calling on them to change their ways, but by giving them no choice but to submit to the law and stop their crimes."

Making peace with the cartels can’t happen in a vacuum. That’s the trick. If you simply allow the black market and the smuggling and violence to continue and don’t oppose it, that’s no better than state-sponsored organized crime. That was the status quo under previous governments, and the reason that Felipe Calderon is so passionate about fighting the war on drugs. The concurrent policy would need to be an end to prohibition, something Mexico can’t really do with the US standing over its shoulder.

Still, it would be good to end the violence, and the way to do that isn’t to bring every cartel and criminal to justice. That’s a fool’s errand, impossible and unrealistic. The way to end the violence is to wipe out the black market altogether by ending prohibition.
The first thing is that Kain's facts are mixed up. Poiré didn't have anything like the opportunity to end the violence through a truce; he was responding to the musings of a relatively minor, state-level official, which he subsequently clarified to mean nothing like Kain thinks. Also, his version of the previous status quo is overly simplistic; in fact, Fox declared war on the Arellano Félix gang in the early stages of his presidency, and the government has fought criminal groups in fits and starts for a generation. (See, for instance, the three big-time bosses of the Guadalajara cartel, all of whom have been in jail for more than 20 years.) The idea that the criminal justice agencies were like a lamp turned off, before Calderón arrived and turned them off, is not right. This is an important point, because if you believe that, it also becomes much easier to conclude that all Mexico needs is a president to abandon Calderón's policies so as return to the relative peace of the past, through a truce or legalization or whatever alternative you like.

Second, with regard to legalization, it's odd that Kain would link the back-and-forth between Poiré and López Rosas to prohibition, because that wasn't what they were talking about. I'm sympathetic to many arguments for legalization, but I don't like to see them tossed off without any consideration of their near-term impact. What happens, for instance, if the gangs double down on extortion and kidnapping on after prohibition?

Lastly, this line: "[I]t would be good to end the violence, and the way to do that isn’t to bring every cartel and criminal to justice. That’s a fool’s errand, impossible and unrealistic." That's a straw man argument. Obviously, no one sentient thinks Mexico is capable of completely wiping out crime through the present policies, but of it could achieve convictions on more than 2 percent of crimes nationwide, there would a much stronger disincentive against criminal activities. In other words, Mexico is capable of engineering the growth of a more defensive industry and reducing (though not eliminating) the present levels of violence. As many nations have shown, though a painstaking process, it is not a fool's errand to reform ineffective institutions. And insofar as improving the police agencies and the criminal justice system will make for a safer Mexico both during and after prohibition (should we ever live in such a world), that's where the focus should be right now.

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