Sacrifice of the Innocents: Drugs, Money and Murder in Mexico

In Roberto Bolano's novel 2666, the women of the city of Santa Teresa are being brutally raped and relentlessly killed. The culprits are unknown, but a shadowy alliance of drug dealers, police officers and local government officials is never far from the scene. The discovery of each new corpse is as regular as a martial beat, and the reader needs to summon courage to press on through the unfiltered descriptions of a seemingly never-ending atrocity. Emerging on the other side, one feels as if they have just been released from being held underwater.

Santa Teresa is a literary construction of Hell. Or rather it would be, if it were not in fact nestled next to El Paso, Texas. Santa Teresa is a fictionalised Ciudad Juarez, described by El Notre as "the most violent zone in the world outside of declared war zones." The battle for the control of the drug trade is tearing the city, and the rest of Mexico, apart. Bolano's terrifying recitation of gruesome discoveries is made real in an Amnesty report on the murders of an estimated four hundred women of the city of Ciudad Juarez.

Shockingly, we do not even have a full picture of the carnage. Mexican intelligence agency director, Guillermo Valdes, yesterday put the number of Mexico's drug-war related murders since 2006 at 28,000. In mid-June, official statistics put the number at 24,800. This sudden jump in a little over six weeks is indicative of the difficulties of quantifying the dead whilst the threat of assassination, vanishing morale and all-pervasive corruption paralyze the authorities' efforts to get their hands around this problem.

When drugs are illegal there are vast profits to be made in their production, transport and sale. In areas of Mexico with high levels of unemployment and drug addiction there is a virtually unbounded supply of labour for the cartels. The vast sums of money needed to bribe large tranches of the police and civil society are considered to be simply the cost of doing business.

The victims of this legal distortion of supply and demand are not just thugs and gangsters, but innocent women and children living in a society where rape, torture and murder are committed with wild impunity. The suffering families of the dead cannot even expect justice. Most of the four hundred murders of women and girls in Ciudad Juarez remain unsolved. Drug money has destroyed the rule of law.

On Wednesday, Felipe Calderon bravely accepted the need to open the debate on legalizing drugs:

"It's a fundamental debate in which I think, first of all, you must allow a democratic plurality [of opinions]... You have to analyze carefully the pros and cons and the key arguments on both sides."

In response to President Calderon's call to open up this debate, we should examine some of the potential benefits of legalization in the Mexican context. Producing a legal commodity is cheaper than producing an illegal one because there is no need to bribe the police and officials to avoid arrest, or keep a standing army to protect the operation. As the cost of producing drugs falls, so does their value and the incentive to use violence to control the trade.

By undermining the profitability of the drug business and giving it a legal status, corruption is both unaffordable and unnecessary. The cartels will cease to be a major employer and the rule of law can be given the chance to re-emerge. Instead of vast revenues flowing to the drug cartels, they can flow into the state coffers to be used for security, education and treatment services.

The cons of legalization are more uncertain, but we should be open-minded and sober about them. The main threat is an increase in the misuse of drugs, and the concomitant social and health problems that can result. Many studies indicate that the consumption of drugs is linked to price, lower prices leading to more consumption.

Since no country has legalized drugs it is impossible to predict the outcomes in Mexico, but a study by The Beckley Foundation which examines the effects of the decriminalization of all drugs in Portugal, concludes that whilst usage rates of marijuana have risen mildly (which may be in part due to increased reporting and rising rates of usage in Europe as a whole), rates of heroin use have fallen sharply as addicts seek treatment, and rates of cocaine use have remained stable.

The debate on legalization needs to happen soon and should be pursued with a spirit of informed inquiry. President Calderon deserves praise for joining former presidents Cesar Gaviria of Colombia, Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico and Fernando Cardoso of Brazil in acknowledging the value of putting this option on the table.

No-one can say for sure whether legalizing drugs will prove to be the magic bullet that breaks the grip of the drugs cartels on Mexican civil life. What is certain is that at this very second, the profits of illegality are causing dead bodies to rise to the surface like bubbles on a pond.

This sacrifice should not be allowed to continue.

For more information on the work of The Beckley Foundation visit our website.