First, the good news: Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the notorious Mexican drug lord, is still behind bars (Guzman escaped from prison once before, in 2001, so the authorities are not going to let that happen again).
The bad news, however, is that the race is on in Mexico to replace him as the head of the Sinaloa cartel.
The worst news is that more and more people in the United States are smoking marijuana – many of them legally – which means that El Chapo’s capture last month in a seaside condo in Mazatlan will have little impact in Mexico’s war against the drug cartels, if it’s not actually counterproductive.
Now, I don’t want to rain on President Enrique Pena Nieto’s parade: Capturing one of the world’s most-wanted men is a huge accomplishment, and it was done without a shot fired. That should be celebrated. But the occasional capture of a prominent drug lord will not curb violence in Mexico, nor will it end the war on drugs. Every time an El Chapo is arrested, a number of small-time Chapos try to take his place, and they do so by any means necessary, which is why peace and safety rarely follow a cartel leader’s elimination. The trafficking of illicit drugs does not decline, nor does the violence.
In January, 1,366 people were killed in Mexico, and 132 were reported kidnapped, according to official data. Those statistics are similar to those from January 2013, and the trend will not change this month, or next month, or the month after that. There is simply too much demand for drugs in the United States, and Latin America will fill it.
Just look at the numbers. In 2012, 18.9 million Americans used marijuana, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. That’s a sizable increase from the 14.5 million who said that they smoked pot in 2007. The states of Colorado and Washington have legalized the purchase of marijuana for personal use, with restrictions, and 18 more states allow the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, so pot consumption will keep increasing. Meanwhile, thousands of people in Mexico will be killed so that the cartels can keep their products flowing north.
Essentially, the drug war has already been lost, yet the body count in Mexico and other Latin American countries continues.
In the United States, perceptions of marijuana are changing quickly. There used to be a stigma associated with pot smoking, but there was no scandal last month when President Barack Obama acknowledged that he did drugs as a teenager. “I got high without always thinking about the harm that it could do,” he told students during a speech at the White House. Nationally, that statement was met with a collective shrug.
The idea that marijuana laws should be relaxed is gaining more and more support in American society, and someday soon, the word “pothead” will no longer be considered pejorative. Unfortunately, the price for the Americans’ changing attitudes is being paid beyond the country’s borders.
El Chapo rose to power by selling his products to millions of American drug users. There is an ongoing war between the cartels over who has rights to supply that product – one in which more than 18,000 Mexicans were killed last year; more than 60,000 were killed during the previous presidential administration of Felipe Calderon. And while Mexicans die, the United States is benefiting from the trade through taxes.
Perhaps the rest of Latin America should take a cue from the United States. If marijuana were legal throughout the Americas, El Chapo wouldn’t be an imprisoned drug lord, but the CEO of a multinational corporation. If that were the case, perhaps thousands of Mexicans would now be employed in the business, or in related industries, rather than dead.
But that is only a dream. In reality, Latin Americans will keep trying to fight the drug traffickers while people in the U.S. keep getting high.
By Jorge Ramos Avalos.
(February 26, 2014)