Our View: Time for change in drug war strategy
Vice President Joe Biden was in Mexico City on Monday to visit with Mexican President Felipe Calderon and to interview the top three presidential candidates. Mexicans elect their next president July 1, and Biden scheduled meetings with Josefina Vazquez Mota of Calderon's National Action Party, Enrique Peña Nieto of the old-guard Institutional Revolutionary Party, and repeat candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the Democratic Revolutionary Party.
From there, Biden was in Honduras Tuesday to meet with leaders of that country, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala and Panama. U.S. officials said the vice president would discuss "the full range of issues of crime and violence," and "reaffirm the commitment from the United States to work with whoever the Mexican people elect to lead their country."
It might be interesting to see how that commitment is reciprocated. While Calderon's government is touting a recent report that a drop in cocaine seizures suggests that the cartels finally are being driven to other countries, meaning the government is winning the drug war.
However, this past weekend saw more killings, more mass graves found and banners hung in major cities promising more of the same.
The U.S. seems committed to a drug war based on interdiction, a policy that Calderon stepped up by deploying Mexico's military against the cartels. The result: more than 50,000 deaths and fears Mexico's government might collapse unless changes are made.
Peña Nieto's PRI has long criticized the drug war and has gained public favor by promising to end it. Lopez Obrador, who's backed by a leftist coalition, also has promised to "send the soldiers back to their barracks" and replace them with social workers and jobs.
"You can't fight violence with violence," he said recently. "We need a loving republic. We need opportunities for young people so they don't fall into the arms of organized crime."
Biden might have heard more of the same in Honduras; the cartels operated in Central America long before they moved into Mexico, and officials there seem to recognize the futility of interdiction efforts. Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina, a retired general, like Calderon has engaged his country's military against drug gangs, but he also has called for discussions on decriminalizing drugs. Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla also has said that decriminalization deserves serious discussion.
The Organization of American States last week declared that continued drug violence had become a threat to stability and democracy in Latin America.
Could a change in Mexico's presidency, along with growing numbers of national leaders calling for legalization, bring a new approach toward international drug policy? We hope so. More than a half century of prohibition has done little more than fill prisons and graveyards with proof of its ineffectiveness.
It's time to try a new approach. Officials don't have to look at it as a failure in the drug war, but rather as recognition that the violence is driven not by addiction, but by the economics of the black market. As in the attempted prohibition of alcohol nearly a century ago, we can expect more reasonable policies, that include decriminalization, to reduce the pain, the violence, and even the prevalence of harmful drugs.