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November 17, 2008 -- San Diego Union Tribune (CA)

OpEd: Saving Lives And Billions Of Dollars

By Mike Gray

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

In case you haven't noticed, there's a low-level civil war under way south of the border, and the bad guys seem to be winning. In the 24 months since President Felipe Calderon launched an offensive against Mexico's drug cartels, over 6,500 soldiers, narcos, cops, judges and innocent bystanders have been gunned down, beheaded or blown up.

Absolutely no one is safe. In May the country's top law enforcement officer was riddled with bullets after his bodyguards dropped him off at home. The assassins were waiting on the other side of the door -- literally an inside job.

Incidents like this make it painfully clear that Mexico's police agencies have been thoroughly infiltrated, but last month the staggering extent of the dry rot got everyone's attention. Two of the country's top anti-narcotics officials were charged with spying for the cartel they were supposed to be prosecuting. Thirty-five of their subordinates are under investigation.

How is it possible for the most sensitive units within the Attorney General's Office to be so easily penetrated? Simple. The amount of cash afloat in the illegal drug market is almost beyond imagining. Even the low level officials in this debacle were taking home $150,000 a month -- and apparently had been for years. Their bosses, drawing three times that amount, had become double-digit millionaires.

The acid truth is, the narcos stand astride such a thundering river of cash that they can easily outbid the state for the services of anyone they need. In a country where the average police officer gets less than $200 a week, what sort of monumental integrity must it take to turn down $150,000 a month? And imagine how much more attractive the offer becomes when the narcos promise not to kill you if you'll just close your eyes and take the money.

President Calderon responded to the arrests with appropriate outrage -- - "to stop the crime, we first have to get it out of our own house" -- a statement that has the ring of ritual. In fact, the president's attempt to root out corruption has not only failed, it has apparently backfired.

When Calderon took office in 2006, he was determined to tackle the drug lords head on. He sent 24,000 federal troops to replace entire police agencies that were too corrupt or too terrified to take on the narcos. But replacing poorly paid police officers with poorly paid soldiers simply exposed the army to the lure of high living.

Calderon surely knew this was a risky move because one of his predecessors had fallen into the same trap. In 1994 President Ernesto Zedillo turned the nation's drug war over to a top military man with a record of ruthless aggression against the narco-traffickers. General Jose Gutierrez Rebollo was a man of such impeccable integrity that U.S. drug czar Barry McCaffrey gave him access to the Drug Enforcement Administration's most sensitive intelligence.

Eleven weeks later, Gutierrez Rebollo was in a maximum security prison. Yes, the general had been tough on traffickers, but selectively. It seems his lavish Mexico City love nest was a gift from the Juarez cartel the one group he never touched. In effect, he had become their top enforcer.

Anyone who thinks this cancer can be safely contained south of the Rio Grande is not paying attention. The United Nations estimates the worldwide illegal drug trade at more than $250 billion a year. This is not a problem that can be fixed by just tightening the screws.

History shows that major crackdowns have little impact other than to increase the gunplay as the survivors fight over turf. When the killing finally stops, it just means a new pecking order has been established. The flow of drugs and cash remains undiminished.

It is now clear that whatever strategic cards we play, the narcos will see that and raise us because they have virtually unlimited funds. Gomez Hurtado, a Colombian High Court judge who survived a bomb sent by the notorious Pablo Escobar, summarizes our problem succinctly. "With this financial power they can suborn the institutions of the State and, if the State resists . . . they can purchase the firepower to out-gun it. We are threatened with a return to the Dark Ages."

As we contemplate the abyss it's important to remember that this creeping assault on civilization itself could be terminated by a simple majority vote in the U.S. Congress. Alcohol Prohibition lasted just 13 years. By 1933, we'd had enough of the machine gun shootouts and bombings and the acid bath of corruption. We made liquor legal for adults, taxed it, regulated it, and pulled the rug out from under Al Capone and his boys -- and the U.S. murder rate dropped by 50 percent.

We could repeat that success -- and save some $70 billion a year in enforcement costs -- by just giving the drug problem back to the medical profession and letting our beleaguered police concentrate on robbery, murder, rape and mayhem.

Mike Gray is chairman of Common Sense for Drug Policy. He is a documentary filmmaker and wrote the original screenplay for "The China Syndrome." He became involved in drug policy reform while researching his book, "Drug Crazy" (Random House).

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