Development & Aid, Headlines, Health, Latin America & the Caribbean

DRUGS-MEXICO: United States Behind on Its Homework

Adrián Reyes

MEXICO CITY, Aug 2 2006 (IPS) - As drug-related violence in Mexico spirals out of control and the drug cartels increase their pressure on the government, fingers are being pointed north at the United States, a key player in the global drugs trade.

Success in the war on drugs depends on the United States exercising tight control on the transfer of technologies and chemical precursors to countries where traditional and synthetic drugs are produced, and applying prevention strategies to its domestic consumption, Mexican Deputy Lucio Lastra Marín, of the governing National Action Party (PAN), told IPS.

So far this year, there have been more than a thousand killings linked to disputes between drug traffickers in this country. The Office of the Attorney General has identified gunmen in the service of the Gulf, Sinaloa and Tijuana cartels among the main combatants engaged in turf wars in tourist areas.

The United States is the biggest market for drugs, and also plays a key role in the distribution of the ingredients for their manufacture.

In June, the director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, John Walters, praised the Mexican government for its cooperation in the war on drugs and against traffic in chemical precursors (substances required for manufacturing different drugs) since Vicente Fox became president in 2000.

The U.S. drug tsar emphasised the cooperation between the two countries to curb production and distribution of methamphetamines, and said that the production in Mexican pharmaceutical laboratories of substances like ephedrine, and their distribution in the United States, were under constant surveillance.

Walters stressed that binational cooperation was essential for the success of the Synthetic Drug Control Strategy backed by President George W. Bush.

Ephedrine is a building block in the manufacture of illicit methamphetamines, which are synthetic drugs of low-grade purity that cause irreversible brain damage.

After a violent robbery of one ton of ephedrine from the premises of a laboratory in Mexico City, the secretary of public security, Joel Ortega, said that addiction habits had changed, with more methamphetamines and less cocaine being consumed.

According to Luis Astorga Almanza, of the Institute of Social Studies at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, governments have focused on combating drug consumption and arresting as many drug traffickers as possible. This strategy has not worked, he said, and has had the effect of exacerbating reprisals by organised crime.

Astorga Almanza proposed focusing on the alternatives suggested by researchers at different institutions, and put forward the idea of creating, in Mexico, a specialist centre for research into drug trafficking problems.

In contrast, he was against imitating policies implemented in other countries, such as Colombia or the United States, because they were designed for different contexts.

Rosa Hilda Valenzuela, of the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) which governed Mexico for seven decades, until 2000, remarked that the drug trafficking problem “is no longer a national, but an international one,” requiring the design of global strategies aimed at the root of the problem.

A report released in June by the Ministry of Health said that in Mexico, 3.5 million people aged between 12 and 65 had taken drugs at some point in their lives, and within this population, 500,000 were addicts.

To address this problem, the National Council Against Addictions was created, as part of the Ministry of Health.

The council states that its National Survey of Addictions, to be presented this month, found that there has been a fall in cocaine consumption since 2003, but warned of the risk that this trend may be reversed, since the drug is easily available.

Attorney General Daniel Cabeza de Vaca told legislators in February that retail drug sales had tripled in the last eight years, as 13,228 transactions were registered in 1997, and 33,885 in 2005. He said illegal drug dealing had become a matter of national security.

The attorney general urged legislators to approve a legal reform to penalise the sale of small amounts of drugs as a serious crime, and to allocate more resources to fight small-scale drug dealing. The draft law also specified what kind of drugs, and in what quantities, users could legally possess in their homes or carry around for personal consumption.

But this facet was frowned on by Washington, and also met with domestic resistance.

“We failed to inform people properly about this legal reform, it was misinterpreted and created confusion, that’s why President Fox decided to veto it after it had been passed by the Chamber of Deputies,” Lastra Marín said.

It was not about legalising drug use, but about accepting that there are addicts who need treatment, he explained.

The deputy added that if the law were reformed in this way, “as has already been done successfully in the Netherlands,” drug dealers would see their illegal market shrink drastically.

Mexico is working to fight drug trafficking, and it is also focusing on measures to prevent addiction, and to provide for rehabilitation, as well as new laws to provide greater resources and broader powers for the state to combat drug-related crime.

The U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Antonio Garza, has said that drugs threaten the countries’ bilateral relations, destroy families, generate crime and make the border zone extremely dangerous.

According to official figures from the state Youth Integration Centres (CIJ), which treat young drug addicts, in the border cities of Tijuana and Mexicali, 80 percent of drug consumers use amphetamines.

The 2006 World Drug Report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, released in July, notes that 162 million people worldwide use cannabis (marihuana), 35 million are addicted to amphetamines, 16 million to heroin, and a further 13 million are cocaine addicts.

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