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Know the West

Legalize It


It sure didn't seem like the kind of place where bloodied drug smugglers stumble out of the scrub after shootouts.

But it was.

On a holiday road trip to Mexico, my family and I stopped for the night at some friends' house near Tubac, Arizona, a small community south of Tucson, about 15 minutes north of the border. It's the last house in a little development, way up on the hillside; their backyard, literally, is a national forest, serene and scattered with ocotillo and mesquite and cacti in the shadows of rugged crags.

It's also is a major drug trafficking route. Smugglers move between the houses and the cliffs on foot and sometimes horseback in order to bypass a border patrol checkpoint down on I-19. For the most part, the narco trail is not noticeable to residents. Occasionally, though, machine gun fire echoes against the cliffs, and the cactus forest turns bloody.

About a year ago, a border patrol officer shot and killed a drug smuggler nearby. A month earlier, some bandits opened fire on nine drug runners, killing two and wounding two others. The survivors, soaked in blood, went to the neighbors' house to get help.

That's just a faint echo of what's happening on the other side of the border. Ten people were killed in a rolling shootout in Nogales this fall, just down the road from Tubac. Cananea, not far south of Nogales, was invaded by a paramilitary convoy of narcos. Things are even more grisly along the Texas border. During the past two weeks, these headlines have appeared in Juarez news outlets: Five motorcyclists slain in front of seafood restaurant; 11 slain in Juarez in 20 hours; Three severed heads found in ice chest. All in all, at least 5,000 people have died in the narco violence over the past year.

It's gotten bad enough that last month, El Paso town board members tried to pass a resolution that would (among other things) begin the discussion of decriminalizing drugs. The resolution passed unanimously, but the mayor, worried about the decriminalization language, vetoed it.

That's too bad, because it's a discussion we all -- not just those near the border -- need to have.

Billions of dollars and thousands of lives have been lost in the so-called War on Drugs. Hundreds of people have been locked up and many tons of illicit substances confiscated and burned. And still, the only real result of the war has been to raise the stakes of drug trafficking, making it more enticing to large organized crime networks, and making it more prone to violence.

On a large scale, there are plenty of reasons to decriminalize all or some drug use, production and trafficking. For starters, it's wildly hypocritical to incarcerate someone for smoking a joint, for example, when he can readily buy and use alcohol and tobacco without any recrimination. On a macro-level, the drug war has made for a crooked dynamic for U.S. foreign relations: Our government gives aid to and supports others, primarily in Latin America, based on their efforts to eradicate drug production and trafficking, not on human rights records or efforts to democratize or other more reasonable standards. And, the war on drugs is fiscally irresponsible, costing billions each year, but achieving very little.

In the case of Mexico and the border region, decriminalizing drugs would at the very least allow law enforcement to shift their priorities. Rather than chasing drug smugglers through the desert, they could focus their attention on those who are ordering mass murders and dismemberment. Because they wouldn't have to worry about being locked up for simply conducting their business, drug traffickers would have less incentive to bribe and corrupt -- let alone murder -- local police officers. Drugs may be bad for you, but they don't cause the violence of the type we're seeing in Mexico; criminalization of those drugs does. After all, who's ever heard of tequila wars?

Though most of the violence has occurred south of the border, those of us up north have something at stake here. The violence itself has emptied out entire villages, creating more pressure within Mexico pushing people to migrate to the U.S. Meanwhile, tourism in Mexico, especially northern Mexico, has dropped considerably because Americans are afraid of being caught in the crossfire or kidnapped. Our aforementioned journey ultimately took us to Alamos, Mexico, where gringo tourism -- a primary economic driver -- was noticeably scant. That further damages the already decrepit Mexican economy which, again, pushes more people to try to cross the border for better opportunities up north.

All of this, combined with the fact that the global recession has severely curtailed the amount of money immigrants in the U.S. are sending back home, has combined to create an unsustainable, volatile situation in Mexico. That's bad for the U.S. as a whole because, though the anti-immigrant folks may not like to hear it, our economies and cultures are closely linked (if you don't believe me, then check out where that cucumber in your salad came from). That's especially true in the border region.

Is decriminalization the perfect solution? Certainly not. It would facilitate the flow of drugs across the border, which, in turn, may increase drug use here. Still, I'd rather see a few more heads cloudy from smoking dope, and a few less heads showing up on people's doorsteps. Wouldn't you?

The guy in the photo is Jesus Malverde, the narco saint, or the saint -- not recognized by the Catholic Church -- of drug traffickers in Mexico. Some narcos stop at Malverde shrines to have their bullets blessed. J. Thompson photo.