Some Advice for Mexico’s Next President

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Analyst Alejandro Hope makes some suggestions to Mexican president-elect Enrique Peña Nieto about constructing a more effective and coherent drug policy when he takes office in December.

Enrique Peña Nieto and his transition team have alternated between celebration and defense, preoccupied with the current situation [his party has been accused of buying votes for Peña Nieto in some areas] and the most pressing tasks at hand. But at some point, they will have to address more substantive issues like public security. And in Mexico, the issue of public security cannot be addressed without referencing drugs and drug trafficking. To save them some time, I will give them some humble advice. None of it is of great magnitude, but it might help them to form their stance on the issue:

The eradication of illicit crops is useless: More than that, it’s counterproductive. The producers adjust to the intensity of eradication efforts: the more crops are destroyed, the more crops are grown. The only thing this policy achieves is to spread the phenomenon, reducing the size of the average field of drug crops and affecting more communities while diverting valuable human resources to gardening chores. You may have to keep eradicating something to please your peers in Washington, DC, but my recommendation would be to gradually reduce superficial eradication.

Seizing more drugs is not a good sign: The same logic to that of eradication applies here: there is evidence to suggest that when more drugs are seized, more drugs are trafficked. Ultimately the amount of seized drugs, as a percentage of the total trafficked, tends to be constant. Therefore, an increase in the drugs seized is usually a sign that more drugs are passing through the country. It’s not something to brag about, under any circumstances. Believe me you want less seizures, not more.

The number of drug users is a statistic that says very little: When the National Survey of Addictions 2011 is presented (note for CONADIC: could you explain the delay in the report’s release, or at least give us a date to expect it?), one figure will dominate the headlines: the number of Mexicans that have used a drug at least once. The media will talk about millions of “addicts” and legions of commentators will tell us, with expressions of grave concern, that we are already a “country of consumption.” Don’t listen to them. That fact means very little: it lumps together those who injected heroin yesterday with those who last smoked marijuana in 1973 while listening to the Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd. It is more useful to observe the indicators on consumption in the last year and in the past month, but that data also has to be taken with a grain of salt: in the United States, 75 percent of consumers of cocaine in the last month took cocaine less than two days a week on average. The users of drugs that have a serious problem of abuse or dependency are a minority of a minority of a minority. It is a population that can generate many problems for others and that requires special attention, but they average in the thousands, not the millions. Moreover, one can’t look at how many people take drugs, and how many drugs they take, without also considering how they take them. As the classic assertion of psychologist Norman Zinberg notes, the danger of drugs depends on the substance, the mental state of the user, and the context of use (drug, set and setting). Shooting up heroin of dubious quality while sharing needles in a secluded crack house is not the same thing as doing it in a clinical setting and with clean syringes. It is also important to note that it is possible to reduce the harm caused by drugs, without necessarily reducing the level of consumption (see here for different ways to do so). Public policy should aim for that and not obsess over the prevalence of use.

The drugs with the largest impact on public health are legal: If you are really concerned by the impact of drug consumption on public health, I would recommend that you start with those that generate most aggregate damage: alcohol and tobacco. Alcohol causes 30,000 deaths a year in Mexico, tobacco 60,000. There are four million people dependent on alcohol and six million habitual smokers. These facts outweigh all the other health costs generated by illegal drugs (in part due to the fact that they are illegal, it is worth noting).

There’s drug dealing and then there’s drug dealing: Drugs are sold in many ways. On the street, in commercial establishments, in open-air markets, in small stores, in home deliveries etc. Ceteris paribus, the more visible the transactions, the more violent the business: in the street, the sellers (or “puchadores,” as they are called in Ciudad Juarez) are permanently exposed to being arrested by authorities, or attacked by rivals, or even by their customers. They therefore tend to be armed and disputes tend to dissolve into violence. If instead the transactions are made by telephone or by e-mail, and the drug is delivered to the house, few find out and few shots are fired. The objective to pursue does not need to be thereby to end the drug dealing (something incompatible with the preservation of public freedoms), but to push it toward discrete methods. You can find a way to do it here.

Cocaine is still the queen of illegal drugs: We are not still in the ’80s and cocaine has lost a good part of its appeal. In the United States, the number of habitual consumers has decreased 25 percent since 2006 and maybe more than 50 percent in the last 20 years. Still, it remains the drug that generates the most revenue for drug trafficking gangs. According to estimates by investigators of the RAND Corporation, cocaine probably represents more than half of Mexican criminal groups’ gross income from drug exports ($3.4 of 6.6 billion). It’s true that the production and trafficking of methamphetamines appears to be on the rise, but it’s not a business than can substitute cocaine sales. Seven times fewer people consume methamphetamines than cocaine in the US and the number of users has stopped growing for more than half a decade. The apparent increase in production in Mexico is a gain of market share, and does not demonstrate a rising consumption. Despite all the spectacular seizures of synthetic drugs or precursor chemicals, cocaine is and will be the heart of the problem of drugs in Mexico and that is where you should focus your concern.

Drug traffickers have less money than you realize: Of course, you have heard estimates that place the income of drug traffickers in ten of billions of dollars (including some people that claim the Mexican economy, the 14th largest in the world, depends almost entirely on drug trafficking). Don’t listen to them. The best available estimate of the gross income of drug exportation is 6.6 billion dollars. Mexican cartels could only make tens of billions of dollars if they controlled all the wholesale transactions and a good part of the secondary sales within the United States. There are numerous reasons to believe that this is not the case, but one appears definitive: a revenue of tens of billions of dollars in the Mexican economy implies a sustained and systematic strengthening of the exchange rate. Of course, drugs are not the only source of income for criminal groups: they profit from kidnapping, extortion, robbery, human trafficking, etc. But even including these hardly accounts for the huge revenue of tens of billions of dollars, that is attributed to them. Yes, the cartels are very large, but not gigantic, and they do not have intergalactic sophistication. Don’t underestimate the risk, but maintain a sense of proportion.

Drug trafficking does not necessarily produce (much) violence: In Mexico, we identify drug trafficking with massacres, shootings and beheadings. In Colombia they do as well. But this is not a universal constant; 75 percent of the heroin consumed by Europe passes through Turkey and that country has a homicide rate of 2.9 for every 100,000 inhabitants (eight times less than that of Mexico). Morocco is a large exporter of hashish and its homicide rate is similar to European countries (1.4 for 100,000 inhabitants). Peru is the primary producer of coca leaves in the world and its levels of violence are much lower than those of Colombia and Mexico. These cases demonstrate that even if wiping out drug trafficking is a pipedream for the foreseeable future, we can contain the violence. In fact, that should be the primary objective of our security policy, not stopping the flow of drugs.

And there you have it. Hopefully this reaches you and you find what I’ve said useful. And if not, then so be it. Either way, now you can’t accuse me of not making the effort and contributing.

*Translated and reprinted with permission from Alejandro Hope, of Plata o Plomo, a blog on the politics and economics of drugs and crime published by Animal Politico. Read the Spanish original here.

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