This article just appeared in the CS Monitor about how increased enforcement in Mexico has led to increased drug violence and crime in other parts of Central America – i.e. it has caused a “balloon effect” whereas the trade simply shifts to less governed areas.
This is something that is hammered on over and over: current counter-drug policy doesn’t address the roots of the problem. Instead of decreasing the demand and limiting supply, current policy overly focuses on the middle of the production cycle. Instead of treatment and public education campaigns that stigmatize drug use, counter-drug policy focuses on interdiction at the worst points in the supply chain (i.e. land borders and coastline) – at best this reduces supply but raises prices, which in turn increases dealer profit margins. Instead of focusing on the beginning of the production cycle (the actual growers and producers of narcotic substances or pre-cursor chemicals) the current approach emphasizes extradition and arrest of cartel leaders and under-bosses, as if by eliminating these guys will get rid of the economic incentive for distributing narcotics.
The Merida Initiative, in my view, concentrates too much of our combined efforts on the border and middle-road interdiction. Perhaps this aid is needed and does help reduce distribution, but it should at least be accompanied by a more comprehensive approach that hits the key nodes in the drug cycle: consumption and production.
To start, the US should conduct a greater strategic assessment of how to combat drug gangs and illicit networks, not just with border enforcement or with Mexico’s rule of law institutions, but in greater Mexico and moreover in Central and South America. To avoid shifting distribution chains – or the balloon effect – will take extensive cooperation amongst multi-national partners and better defined objectives. We cannot expect to achieve the results we want if wide differences in priorities exist, not just at the international level, but additionally at the federal, state and local levels.
If priorities need to be focused, then what should they be? Well for starters, the goal should be a gradual reduction in drug use. Anything more is unlikely to succeed. Second, the violence that accompanies the trade has deleterious effects on the functioning of the state and public confidence in the rule of law. This in turn creates a vicious cycle in which the trade can flourish. Tackling the economic incentives of the drug trade by trying to offer economic alternatives, such as crop replacements haven’t worked. Maybe what is required is an approach that doesn’t try to create alternatives but reduces the rents received from trafficking. Thus, try not to incentivize leaving the trade but dis-incentivize staying in.