Questioning the Theory that Distracted Army Equals More Drugs

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The Washington Post argues that Mexico’s policy of deploying the military to address violence and insecurity has taken the focus off efforts to eradicate illegal marijuana and poppy cultivation, but the criticism is based on flawed premises.

The Post ties recent increases in domestic marijuana and poppy production to President Felipe Calderon’s militarized security strategy. Mexico’s long-standing eradication policy primarily relied on military personnel to manually eliminate illicit crops. Over the past five years, as Calderon deployed the armed forces to the country’s most violent areas, often replacing Mexico’s notoriously corrupt civil police forces on the front lines of the fight against drug cartels, fewer troops are available to focus on crop eradication. According to the article, the acreage dedicated to growing marijuana doubled during the same period (see Congressional Research Service report on this subject in pdf here), while poppy cultivation doubled in just one year, between 2007 and 2008.

Mexico’s decreased attention to eradication has caused concern amongst drug enforcement officials in the United Nations, who say the increasing availability of heroin on U.S. markets signals Mexico’s importance as both a transit and source country for illegal drugs, especially as production declines in Colombia. Others, such as the researcher Vanda Felbab-Brown at Brookings, are concerned that Mexico has not replaced eradication efforts with alternative livelihood programs that would incentivize the cultivation of legal crops in the country’s impoverished, remote drug production zones (see Felbab-Brown’s recent testimony touching on this subject here in pdf).

Although supply-side interventions may not be Calderon’s top priority, the article points to a causal effect between reduced eradication·and a surge in cultivation: If Mexico’s armed forces had not been redeployed to wage war against the drug cartels, manual eradication efforts would have reduced (or maintained) the·supply of illicit poppy and marijuana crops. However,·the United Nations documented increased poppy cultivation beginning in 2000 (see report here in pdf) and the spike in marijuana cultivation was first seen in 2006, according to a 2010 U.S. Justice Department report. Mexico’s control over the supply of heroin in the U.S. has expanded over three decades, and the country now produces an estimated 39 percent of the total.

Mexico’s share of the U.S. drug supply market has been growing for years, long before any major troop redeployment by President Calderon, meaning that the country’s eradication policy only partially explains supply market trends. There are a number of other factors that affect drug supply in Mexico, not the least of which is demand for drugs.

Many of the factors that influence whether an individual farmer will cultivate illicit crops are affected by unique socio-economic conditions. Farmers in remote, sparsely populated areas often lack access to legal markets because of rural underdevelopment. It would be illogical to invest time and labor into the cultivation of perishible food crops without ready access to markets where product can be sold quickly. In contrast, drug trafficking networks are able to purchase illicit products directly at the farm-gate. Drug production is also highly profitable. For example, poppy can be harvested in successive growing seasons and is less labor intensive than many legal crops. When factoring in market access and profit potential,·the decision to grow poppy may be the most logical.

U.S. officials interviewed for the Post article praised Colombia’s eradication policy, linking recent data regarding the higher price of cocaine per gram to eradication efforts that destroyed 146,000 hectares of coca plant in the country last year (an assessment that will have more than one researcher scratching their head). What’s more, the Post’s article makes an underlying assumption that the market for drugs is increasing by the same rate as that of production. In reality, the number of hardcore and moderate drug users in the U.S. has changed very little during the last three decades and, although demand has experienced minor fluctuations during this time, the price of drugs has trended downward, while purity has risen. Despite the virtual duopoly formed by suppliers in Mexico·and Colombia, centralized distribution and large-scale supply networks have ensured that illicit drugs continue to be widely available on the U.S. market.

Stability in the U.S. demand market raises questions about the reliability of production statistics on Mexico. Why would producers inflate the supply of illicit drugs without corresponding demand? While emerging European and domestic markets may justify small increases over production for the U.S. market, supply still far exceeds demand. The statistics have been questioned by officials in Mexico, including one who told InSight that the U.S. and UN overestimated·production statistics in what may, unfortunately, be a political ploy intended to sustain supply-side intervention policies.

Finally, the Post article makes no mention of the questionable effectiveness of eradication policies, which have significant unintential consequences. In a devastating demonstration of what’s know as the balloon effect, Mexico’s poppy growers have taken over for Colombia’s heroin producers, just as decreasing coca production in Colombia has been accompanied by increasing production in Peru.

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