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May 12, 2008 -- Wall Street Journal (US)

Column: The U.S. Role In A Mexico Assassination

By Mary Anastasia O'Grady

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Stories of campus drug use in the U.S. are so common that last week's arrest of 75 alleged dealers at San Diego State University was shocking chiefly due to the number netted.

The occasional big bust aside, the long running drug war has become almost background noise.

At least in this country. American nonchalance about drug use stands in sharp contrast to what is happening across the border in Mexico. There lawmen are taking heavy casualties in a showdown with drug-running crime syndicates.

On Thursday the chief of the Mexican federal police, Edgar Millan Gomez, was assassinated by men waiting for him when he came home, becoming the latest and most prominent victim of the syndicates.

What the activities of the San Diego students demonstrate is that here in the land of demand, the "war" isn't taken nearly as seriously as in the land of supply.

The Associated Press reported that when undercover agents decided to investigate drug dealing on the San Diego campus, they were surprised at how easy it was to "infiltrate" the crime ring. All they had to do was to reflect interest in a given substance and suppliers appeared.

The transactions at the university went on "in front of dorms, in parking lots or behind frat houses, sometimes in broad daylight in full view of surveillance cameras," the AP reported.

It's no secret that the narcotics trade is like a roach infestation. If you see one shipment or dealer, you can be sure that there are many others that go undetected. That's why such brazen behavior at the university should be disturbing to America's drug warriors.

The signs of an infestation are everywhere, making a joke of their 40-year claim that any day now they will wipe out American drug use.

Yet if prohibitionists should find this lack of results troubling, imagine how Mexico must view it. That country doesn't even produce cocaine, but it became a transit route to the U.S. when enforcers had some success in curtailing supplies coming through the Caribbean in the late 1990s.

That success didn't change the U.S. appetite for the mind-altering substances. Instead, drugs started flowing over land routes and Mexican cartels took charge.

Now they are rumored to be in control of most of the traffic from the Andes northward.

They are also suppliers of marijuana and synthetic drugs.

Prohibition puts value in their product, because customers at places like San Diego State are willing to pay the premium that illegality exacts.

A U.S.-Mexican joint assessment estimates that more than $10 billion in cash from drug sales flow from the U.S. to Mexico every year. The upshot: Americans underwrite Mexico's vicious organized crime syndicates.

The gringos get their drugs and the Mexican mafia gets weapons, technology and the means to buy off or intimidate anyone who gets in their way.

Caught in the middle is a poor country striving to develop sound institutions for law enforcement.

The trouble for Mexico is that, even if it understands that U.S. demand is not going away, it cannot afford to cede large swaths of the country to the drug cartels.

Thus Mexican President Felipe Calderon has made confronting organized crime a priority since taking office in December 2006. His attorney general, Eduardo Medina Mora, told me in February that the goal is to reclaim the state's authority where it has been lost to the mafias.

But after 17 months of engagement, while San Diego students party on, victory remains elusive and the Mexican death toll is mounting.

Most of the drug-related killings since Mr. Calderon took office seem to be a result of battles between rival cartels.

Still, the escalating violence is troubling. The official death toll attributable to organized crime since the Calderon crackdown began now stands at 3,995. Of that, 1,170 have died this year. Especially alarming are the number of assassinations among military personnel and municipal, state and federal police officers.

The total is 439 for the 17 months and 109 so far this year. Many of these victims have been ordinary police officers whose refusal to be bought off or back off cost them their lives.

But as the murder of police chief Millan makes clear, high rank offers no safety. Two weeks before he was gunned down, Roberto Velasco, the head of the organized crime division of the federal police, was shot in the head. The assailants took his car, which leaves open the possibility that it was a random event, but most Mexicans are not buying that theory.

Eleven federal law enforcement agents have been killed in ambushes and executions in the last four weeks alone.

If U.S. law enforcement agencies were losing their finest at such a rate, you can bet Americans would give greater thought to the violence generated by high demand and prohibition. Our friends in Mexico deserve equal consideration.

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