Former President Bill Clinton apologized to Mexico during a speech there last week for a backfired U.S. war on drugs that has fueled spiraling violence.
“I wish you had no narco-trafficking, but it’s not really your fault,” Clinton told an audience of students and business leaders at the recent Laureate Summit on Youth and Productivity. “Basically, we did too good of a job of taking the transportation out of the air and water, and so we ran it over land.
“I apologize for that,” Clinton said.
Clinton was referring to U.S. drug enforcement policy that began under his predecessors, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, who invested heavily in shutting down the Caribbean Sea as the favored trafficking route between the U.S. and South America and Central America. That effort pushed smuggling west, over land in Mexico.
Clinton made his own contribution. Opening Mexico's border with the U.S. encouraged land-based trafficking, and enforcement efforts that broke up Colombian cartels empowered Mexican drug gangs, who until then had largely been middlemen. With more power came more money. With more money came more violence.
Mexico, home to about a half-dozen extraordinarily powerful and violent cartels whose influence reaches well beyond narco-trafficking, has since the 1990s been a major focus of the U.S. war on drugs. Last month's discovery of 43 missing college students from rural Mexico, all found to have been killed and incinerated after being seized by state law enforcement, exposed a shocking level of Mexican government corruption.
The U.S. government spends roughly $40 billion to $50 billion each year fighting the war on drugs around the globe. The battle has taken a particularly devastating toll in Mexico. In recent years, at least 60,000 to 100,000 people are believed to have been murdered in Mexico, many in drug-related violence.
Despite -- or, more accurately, as a result of -- years of fighting against the narco-traffickers, 90 percent of the cocaine that arrives in the U.S. travels through Mexico and Central America, according to a recent State Department report. Cartels also continue to deliver a significant amount of heroin, marijuana and methamphetamine into the U.S.
"Of course, one wishes he and his counterparts would have done the right thing when they wielded the power to do so," Daniel Robelo, research director at the anti-drug war advocacy group Drug Policy Alliance, wrote in a blog post responding to Clinton's remarks. "But it’s better to apologize than pretend he did nothing wrong at all. Yet we need much more than apologies -- especially from those who currently hold office, or who might in the near future."
While Clinton expanded the drug war during his presidency, it’s not the first time he has criticized it since leaving office. In an interview for the 2011 documentary “Breaking The Taboo,” chronicling drug policies around the globe, Clinton flatly said the policy was a failure.
“Well obviously, if the expected results was that we would eliminate serious drug use in America and eliminate the narcotrafficking networks -- it hasn’t worked,” Clinton said.
During the first year of his administration, Clinton made free trade a top priority, pushing for the passage of the controversial North American Free Trade Agreement. It wasn't an easy task. Having helped Democrats take the White House for the first time in 12 years, organized labor was in no mood to see manufacturing jobs shipped to Mexico. The debate was difficult enough without having to talk about the sprawling Mexican drug trade and its attendant corruption and the fact that the agreement would also end up benefiting the cartels.
And so he ordered his people not to talk about it.
“We were prohibited from discussing the effects of NAFTA as it related to narcotics trafficking, yes. For the godfathers of the drug trade in Colombia and Mexico, this was a deal made in narco heaven,” Phil Jordan, who had been one of the DEA’s leading authorities on Mexican drug organizations, told ABC News reporter Brian Ross four years after the deal had gone through.
The agreement squeaked through Congress in late 1993 and went into effect Jan. 1, 1994, the same day that the Zapatistas rose up in Southeast Mexico. With its passage, more than 2 million trucks began flowing northward across the border annually. Only a small fraction of them were inspected for cocaine, heroin, or meth.
The White House, in a 1999 report, estimated that commercial vehicles brought roughly 100 tons of cocaine into the country across the Mexican border in 1993. With NAFTA in effect, 1994 saw the biggest jump in commercial-vehicle smuggling on record -- a 25 percent increase. The number of meth-related emergency-room visits in the United States doubled between 1991 and 1994. In San Diego, America's meth capital, meth seizures climbed from 1,409 pounds in 1991 to 13,366 in 1994.
The opening of the border came at an opportune time for Mexican drug runners, who'd recently expanded their control of the cocaine trade and made major investments in large-scale meth production. Both were unintended consequences of U.S. policies in the '70s and '80s aimed at crushing meth and cocaine with a militarized, enforcement-heavy approach. The return of meth across the Mexican border was one more sign that the get-tough policies of the '80s had backfired.
Meth production had been driven underground and pushed into Mexico in the late '60s and '70s as a result of federal legislation. It fell into the waiting arms of a drug-smuggling establishment that itself had also been created by U.S. drug policy. The 1914 U.S. law that banned opium had created a situation in which the drug was illegal on one side of the border and legal on the other, where it had been grown since the 1800s. The Mexican government was in the midst of a revolution and unable to stop northward smuggling. Sociologist Luís Astorga, in his study "Drug Trafficking in Mexico: A First General Assessment," cites Los Angeles customs officials claiming that Baja California's then-governor, Esteban Cantú, a Mexican army colonel, was suspected of playing a major role in the drug trade by reselling product seized from other traffickers.
Mexican smugglers got another boost when the United States banned alcohol with the 18th Amendment. It took them decades, though, to get into the cocaine business. In the '70s, South American cocaine producers were running almost all of the cocaine imported into the United States through the Caribbean, into Miami, and then out to the rest of the nation. The feds brought the hammer down on the mound of coke that was Miami and the Caribbean smugglers in the '80s. While the government focused on the powder that then began to waft across the country, Mexican meth smugglers seized a perfect opportunity.
The opening salvo of the U.S. war on coke might well have been a 1981 Time magazine cover story on Miami's burgeoning drug trade, which put an intolerable situation before the eyes of the whole American public. The report, titled "Trouble in Paradise," led directly to federal intervention, with Vice President George H.W. Bush repeatedly traveling to Miami to oversee the response personally.
Unsettling and shifting a multibillion-dollar drug trade, however, is no simple affair. With tighter enforcement in Florida and the Caribbean, producers increasingly moved their product by tuna boat or airplane to Mexico or another nearby nation and then overland across the U.S. border. Mexico had the infrastructure ready: By the late '70s, it was the world's largest heroin exporter, with thousands of acres of poppy fields. The late '60s and '70s had also seen a dramatic increase in demand for Mexican marijuana; by the mid-'70s, it was among the world's foremost pot exporters.
The extensive South and Central American smuggling network was built while the United States' primary foreign-policy goals were to oppose communism and to support enemies of communism—regardless of whether they were also drug traffickers. When relations with the Soviet Union began to thaw, in the mid-'80s, the United States was left with a superpower-sized military that had no obvious enemy. Drugs would have to do.
"Two words sum up my entire approach," President George H.W. Bush's drug czar, William Bennett, announced in 1989: "'consequences' and 'confrontation.'" He and Bush doubled annual drug-war spending to $12 billion and pressed fighter planes, submarines, and other military hardware into service for the cause. In 1989, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney secured $450 million to go after Caribbean smugglers; billions more were spent in the source countries of South America.
In the early '90s, a White House report notes, more than 250 tons of coke were smuggled into the United States through Florida in a year, while only about 100 tons flowed across the southwestern border. By the end of the decade, just under 200 tons each came across both boundaries. In subsequent years, the amount coming through the Caribbean steadily fell, and, by 2004, the Interagency Assessment of Cocaine Movement determined the route to account for less than 10 percent of all coke smuggling into the United States.
Spreading the market out didn't have a noticeable effect on supply north of the border. But it had an important impact south of it: It solidified the strength of Mexican drug-running organizations, which quickly realized that they could make a nice extra profit by packing another drug with their shipments of cocaine. U.S. restrictions on pharmaceutical companies, which had lowered domestic meth production, had also created a thriving Mexican meth industry. The Mexican cocaine cartels were flush with capital, having taken over major portions of the business from the Colombians—thanks, in large measure, to successful U.S. efforts to decapitate Colombian drug organizations. These two circumstances led directly to the industrialization of the meth trade.
The Mexican traffickers renegotiated their deals with the Colombians, taking an ownership stake rather than a flat fee for transport, and then reinvested some of this capital in building meth factories. Their product was then shipped northward in unprecedented volumes.
The return of meth -- or, more precisely, the evolution of meth -- was a throw-your-hands-up moment for drug warriors. Federal surveys show a long and slow decline in the use of amphetamines in the United States from 1981 to the early '90s. But between 1994 and 1995, meth use jumped in the United States. Among 19- to 28-year-olds in the Michigan survey, annual use ticked up by a third. (It remained lower, however, than the American media would have you believe: Even after the jump in meth use, only 1.2 percent of the survey's total respondents admitted to using it.)
The shift of meth from localized production in California to big-time assembly lines in Mexico didn't go unnoticed by enforcement agents in the United States. But the eventual crackdown brought another unforeseen consequence: As California tightened its border in response to both drug smuggling and illegal immigration in the '90s, the drug runners gradually moved east. "The eastward expansion of the drug took a particular toll on central states such as Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska," notes the 2006 National Drug Threat Assessment. The Midwestern methedemic, as it came to be dubbed, was born.
Portions of this article are excerpted from the book This Is Your Country On Drugs