Study Casts Doubt on Efficacy of Mexico’s Drug Laws

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A new study of Mexico’s justice system suggests that the government disproportionately targets and punishes low-level dealers rather  than the high profile cartel figures and major smugglers, which may actually be a strategy to reduce violence. (Editor’s note, the study’s author responds below)

According to a study published on October 3 by Mexico’s Center for Research and Teaching in Economics (CIDE), the vast majority of drug offenders in the country are small-time dealers and consumers of drugs, and the threat they present to society is disproportionate to the penalties they receive. Catalina Perez Correa, the report’s main author, points to Mexican federal law enforcement statistics, which show that in 2010, 74 percent of arrests were for drug-related crimes, and 41.9 percent were for small-scale drug dealing.

“These drug dealers are usually street corner vendors, and the time of their arrest had not committed other crimes. They did not have, at least proven, links to organized crime,” said Perez Correa.

Despite this, many of these individuals received prison sentences for possession and distribution charges that are greater than those generally reserved for violent criminals. For instance, the study notes that the maximum sentence reserved for adults convicted on drug charges (25 years in prison) is 11 years more than those convicted of rape (14 years) and 10 years more than those convicted of armed robbery or illegal possession of automatic weapons (15 years).   

“We are using law enforcement resources to prosecute and punish consumers and small-scale sellers of marijuana and cocaine. This means fewer resources to investigate and punish crimes that are so hurting Mexican society, ” said Perez Correa.

InSight Crime Analysis

Such strict drug laws are more than a human rights issue, they are directly contributing to a crisis in Mexico’s prison system. In 2011, the country’s 430 penal facilities were capable of housing 184,193 inmates.  Today the prison population numbers 224,246.  Overcrowding has contributed to deadly riots, and has allowed many criminal structures to manage their businesses directly from prison. According to a September report by the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH), some 60 percent of prisons in the country are out of state control and effectively governed by criminals. Reforming drug laws which penalize small-scale dealers, as well as reducing the emphasis on pre-trial detention in the country’s legal system, would likely prove an important step in improving prison conditions in Mexico.

But while Mexico’s drug laws should be streamlined to more proportionally reflect the violence they cause to society, Perez Correa’s premise that small-scale drug dealers are not a threat to the country’s internal security may not be accurate. Officials and analysts in Mexico have become increasingly concerned about the potential for smaller, localized drug gangs to become the main drivers of violence. As authorities focus law enforcement efforts on large cartels like the Zetas or Sinaloa Cartel, the theory goes, these larger groups fragment, breaking into splinter gangs who fight among themselves in local and regional turf wars. In a January report forecasting the future of citizen security in the country, Southern Pulse predicted that these smaller gangs would be the main cause of violence in Mexico by 2014, arguing: “at the hyper-local level, super-powered street gangs, armed with Twitter, You Tube, the weapon of fear, and an enviable armory, will man-handle local politicians and municipal police.”

Even President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto has recognized the potential for this, and vowed that his administration will focus more on the violent activities of smaller gangs like La Linea and La Resistencia.  

There is already evidence of this occurring in Tijuana. In September, Bajo California Attorney General Rommel Moreno announced that shootouts between rival small-scale drug gangs had become the main form of drug-related violence in the city, accounting for some 80 percent of murders in 2011 and 2012. 

Catalina Perez Correa Responds:

To the editor:

I would like to refer to Geoffrey Ramsey’s article published the 13th of October by InSight Crime entitled “Study Casts Doubt on Efficacy of México’s Drug Laws” which comments a paper of my authorship on drug crimes and proportionality in Mexico: (Des)proporcionalidad y delitos contra la salud en México ((Dis) proportionality and drug crimes in México).

In his article, Mr. Ramsey states that “Perez Correa’s premise that small-scale drug dealers are not a threat to the country’s internal security may not be accurate. Officials and analysts in Mexico have become increasingly concerned about the potential for smaller, localized drug gangs to become the main drivers of violence.” A clarification should be made regarding this statement.

It is not a premise, but a conclusion, of my study that the Mexican state is mainly prosecuting petty dealers and/or consumers.  The difference between a premise and a conclusion is not marginal –especially in academic literature- so is important to clarify that my conclusions are not starting points but ending points of my research; reached by reflecting on the available data.

As can be seen in the following table, in 2010, possession and consumption represented 71% of investigations initiated by the public prosecutors for drug related crimes. That year, consumption represented 26% of investigations initiated for drug crimes. In 2011, possession and consumption represented 74% of investigations initiated for these crimes, 23% were exclusively for consumption. Most of these cases are non-violent cases, where no other crimes were involved. As my text, (Dis) proportionality and Drug crimes in Mexico, notes, in 80.7% of sentences passed for drug crimes in 2010, no other crimes were implicated. It is not therefore possible to affirm, as Mr. Ramsey does, that these are cases of “smaller, localized drug gangs”. The data, in any case, suggests otherwise. It suggests that the state is prosecuting many consumers, even when legal reforms have taken place to decriminalize use. 

chart

One can agree with Mr. Ramsey’s contention that small-scale violent drug gangs should be a priority of the state. But this should be so, not because of their petty dealings of illegal substances but because violent crimes are socially harmful and reprehensible. Their persecution should be prioritized over non-violent crimes, such as the drug offenses currently prosecuted by the state. Today, however, the evidence points to the conclusion the Mexican state is focusing resources on prosecuting and punishing petty non-violent drug criminals or consumers instead of investigating homicides, kidnaps, rapes or other crimes more significant to society, whether perpetrated by small or large gangs. More importantly, there is no evidence to posit that this apparent persecution of consumers and non-violent petty dealers is a strategy consciously devised to curtail violence by authorities.

Catalina Perez Correa

Professor/Researcher, Centre for Teaching and Research in Economics (CIDE)

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