This article is adapted from the book "This Is Your Country on Drugs: The Secret History of Getting High in America."
When President Barack Obama traveled to Cartagena, Colombia, this past spring, the big headlines were made by allegedly coked-up Secret Service agents who balked at paying a prostitute.
The scandal overshadowed real news: an organized attempt by several leaders of Latin American countries to publicly pressure the United States to end its drug war, blaming that battle for violence and lawlessness within their borders.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos wanted the summit in his country to focus on alternatives to the drug war. He had the backing of a surprising number of regional leaders, including at least two conservatives, Panama’s Ricardo Martinelli and Guatemala’s Otto Perez, along with Costa Rica's centrist President Laura Chinchilla. Mexico's Felipe Calderon has called for a debate on legalization. Bolivia's Evo Morales, who came to power as the head of a coca growers' union, has been harshly critical of U.S. drug enforcement.
Forced to address the issue, Obama declared at the summit, "Legalization is not the answer. The capacity of a large-scale drug trade to dominate certain countries, if they were allowed to operate legally without any constraint, could be just as corrupting, if not more corrupting, than the status quo."
Obama did allow, however, that he would be willing to ask whether the drug war is "doing more harm than good in certain places."
The families and friends of the more than 50,000 people who have died in Mexico's drug war wouldn't have to search hard for those certain places. Mexico is right to credit U.S. drug policies for its rampant trafficking. As far back as the early 20th century, traffickers began moving illicit products across the U.S.-Mexico border. The smuggling routes were created to ship opium, widened to move booze during Prohibition and finally opened wide up by a policy that wasn't supposed to have anything to do with drugs.
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During the first year of his administration, President Bill 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 Clinton 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 Drug Enforcement Administration’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 leftist Zapatistas rose up in Southeast Mexico. With its passage, more than two million trucks began flowing northward across the border annually. Only a small fraction of them were inspected for cocaine, heroin or methamphetamine.
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 U.S. 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 began to waft across the country, Mexican meth smugglers seized a perfect opportunity.
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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 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.
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, the country 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 a year, while only about 100 tons flowed across the southwestern border. By the end of the decade, just under 200 tons came across each border. In subsequent years, the amount coming through the Caribbean steadily fell, and, by 2004, the Interagency Assessment of Cocaine Movement determined that the route accounted 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 up north. But it had an important impact south of the border: 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 anti-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 U.S. Among 19- to 28-year-olds in a 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.
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The war on drugs is often characterized as the product of a reactionary, possibly racist set of administrations. But it's important to remember that, in the '80s, the feds were responding to intense political and cultural pressure. American conservatives have a long history in the defense of individual liberty, and they've generally been opposed to both prohibition and the expansion of the federal government needed to regulate and outlaw drugs. However, the modern religious right, whose long-term goal is to shape the government into an institution that promotes Christian virtue, has demonstrated a keen willingness to sacrifice personal freedom for moral correctness. Its political rise began following the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. By the '80s, it had become a powerful player in the coalition that gave rise to the third wave of the American temperance movement.
The movement's aims were threefold: to reduce teen drug use, to raise the drinking age and to stop drunk driving. Newly formed organizations and educational programs such as National Families in Action (founded in 1977), PRIDE (Parent Resources and Information on Drug Education, 1978), D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education, 1983), the Just Say No Club (1985), and the Partnership for a Drug-Free America (1986) worked toward the first goal. MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving), perhaps the most visible and influential member of the movement, worked toward the second and third.
Just as a century before, it was women who led the charge against immoderation. Candy Lightner, a resident of suburban Fair Oaks, Calif., whose daughter Cari was run over by a drunk driver in 1980, founded MADD, the 20th-century equivalent of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union: a media-savvy organization that was quickly wielding substantial influence over lawmakers. MADD's pressure on states and the federal government led to some notable successes. Penalties for drinking and driving were increased, blood-alcohol levels defining intoxication were lowered, and the national drinking age was boosted from 18 to 21. Nowadays, it's difficult to imagine that drunk driving once went on with little in the way of afterthought or recrimination. Just a few decades ago, cops were as likely to help you home as they are today to lock you up, sometimes for serious stretches of time.
Like those who led the American temperance movement in earlier eras, shifting its goal from mere moderation to out-and-out prohibition, MADD and its allies quickly broadened their aims. By 1985, many activists wanted to make a criminal of anyone who drove after drinking anything at all. Lightner herself began to worry that what she had created had "become far more neo-prohibitionist than I had ever wanted or envisioned. I didn't start MADD to deal with alcohol. I started MADD to deal with the issue of drunk driving." Typically, American idealism could brook no compromise.
In true '80s fashion, the fight went Madison Avenue: The Partnership for a Drug-Free America (PDFA), a campaign launched by the American Association of Advertising Agencies, produced one of the decade's indelible images with its 1987 public service announcement depicting a frying egg. And in true American fashion, many big-time drug, alcohol and tobacco producers allied themselves with the movement. The PDFA's major -- and, for a time, private -- donors included Philip Morris, Anheuser-Busch and R.J. Reynolds. After their involvement was exposed in 1997, the partnership dropped the booze and smokes sponsors, but it retained plenty of pharmaceutical funders: the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the National Association of Chain Drug Stores Foundation, the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, Purdue Pharma, the Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation, the Procter & Gamble Fund, the Bayer Corporation, GlaxoSmithKline, Kimberly-Clark, Pfizer Inc., Endo Pharmaceuticals, Hoffmann–La Roche, Merck & Co., King Pharmaceuticals, Reckitt Benckiser Pharmaceuticals, Walgreens.
For Big Pharma and other substance pushers, allying with the ostensible enemy made good political sense: It's better to be on the side that seems to be winning, and you might even earn a legislative loophole or two for your willingness to help out.
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Throughout the '80s, Democrats in Congress and state governments around the country increased prison sentences for drug offenses, coming down particularly hard on crack. In 1986, Congress instituted mandatory minimum sentences for powder and crack cocaine. To trigger the powder cocaine minimum, a dealer needed to possess 500 grams. For crack, just five grams. Two years later, the law was extended to anybody who was associated with the dealer -- girlfriends, roommates, what have you.
In 1991, Michigander Allen Harmelin argued that his life sentence for possessing roughly a pound and a half of cocaine was cruel and unusual under the Eighth Amendment. The Supreme Court ruled that it was neither. California enacted its three-strikes law in 1994 -- a third felony conviction led to a minimum of 25 years -- and then the feds one-upped the state, handing down life without parole for a third felony conviction. Twenty-three more states enacted three-strikes laws by 1995.
In 1984, just over 30,000 Americans were in prison for drug crimes; by 1991, the number had soared to more than 150,000. The Department of Justice found in a study of the prison population that the average length of a federal stay drastically increased between 1986 and 1997. If you walked into prison in 1986, your average stay would have been 21 months. In 1997, it was 47 months. For weapons offenders, the rise was from 23 to 75 months, and for drug offenders, it was from 30 to 66 months. Not all criminals faced such huge sentencing increases, however: A bank robber could expect 74 months in 1986 and only 83 months a decade later.
Three-strikes laws and lengthening prison sentences explain what appears to be a contradiction: U.S. crime rates were falling while U.S. incarceration rates were rising. It stands to reason that if fewer people were committing crimes, then fewer people would be locked up. But putting those fewer criminals away for much longer sentences caused the prison population to mushroom.
The result is that more than one out of every 100 Americans is currently in prison. If you're a black male between ages 20 and 34, there's a better than 1-in-9 chance that you're imprisoned. To keep all of these people behind bars, states spent a combined $44 billion in 2007.
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For a hot minute in the early '90s, however, it looked as if the lock-'em-up-forever approach might be shelved. President Clinton selected as his drug czar Lee Brown, who had a background in law enforcement, sociology and criminology, and told his staff to rethink some basic assumptions. The first one was the militarized approach being used in Latin America, aimed at increasing the cost of drugs.
Brown's people began passing around a study by the private think tank RAND Corporation that came to some hopeful conclusions: An overwhelming proportion of drug use is done by a small but dedicated group of users. Therefore, getting that group to reduce its use -- even to a small degree -- can reap big dividends. RAND estimated that the United States, for instance, could decrease cocaine use by 1 percent either by spending $34 million on drug-treatment programs or by spending $783 million going after drugs at the source. Fiscally, the choice seems obvious.
Rolling Stone reporter Ben Wallace-Wells, who wrote an in-depth feature in 2007 called "How America Lost the Drug War," has characterized Brown's time as drug czar as a window of opportunity that never fully opened. "When I worked as an undercover narcotics officer, I was living the life of an addict so I could make buys and make busts of the dealers," Brown told Wallace-Wells. "When you're in that position, you see very quickly that you can't arrest your way out of this. You see the cycle over and over again of people using drugs, getting into trouble, going to prison, getting out and getting into drugs again. At some point I stepped back and asked myself, 'What impact is all of this having on the drug problem? There has to be a better way.'"
Brown's 1994 drug-control budget sought to cut spending on Latin American military efforts, to emphasize treatment over incarceration for small-time offenders, and to dedicate $355 million toward treating the core group of addicts. A Democratic Congress emphatically rejected it, sending Clinton a budget that instead prioritized the same old militarized approach. The next year, House Speaker Newt Gingrich and his Republican revolutionaries were running the show. Despite Gingrich's public support of medical marijuana in the early '80s, he and his colleagues had little appetite for anything but the hard line. More than 80 percent of their drug budget went toward enforcement and interdiction.
Even if the GOP had been open to drug-policy reform, the Clinton administration was by then no longer interested. A noted user of the strategy of triangulation -- undercutting your opponent by agreeing with him on some crucial issues -- Clinton increased his emphasis on crime fighting following the 1994 Republican electoral revolution. In his 1996 State of the Union address, Clinton made it official: Brown was out and the war would be rejoined in earnest, under the leadership of retired U.S. Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey. McCaffrey was enamored of the theory that marijuana is a gateway drug and that attacking it was the best way to beat drugs back.
Consequently, meth was off the federal radar. But the real-world consequences of meth addiction in the heartland would soon drive a grassroots movement determined to undermine the enforcement-heavy approach that Clinton had embraced.
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Gene Haislip, a revered DEA figure, is credited with crushing Quaaludes in the early '80s by persuading every company that made the necessary precursor ingredients to halt production. He tried to do the same thing with meth in 1986, but his effort was stymied by the pharmaceutical lobby. He'd hoped to strictly regulate all ephedrine-related precursors, but after two years of negotiations, he'd succeeded only in regulating the sales of bulk powders.
Mexican cartels, however, had no problem buying bulk powders from nations such as China and India. And U.S. producers could still get unlimited quantities of legally marketed pills, which were exempted from the Haislip agreement and could easily be crushed into a precursor-laced powder.
In 1990, the federally funded Monitoring the Future report first began asking about crystal methamphetamine or "ice." Use rose over the decade, ticking dramatically upward after NAFTA was implemented. Arrests and convictions rose, too, but the prison industry couldn't keep up, creating a strong incentive at the local level to find alternatives to incarceration.
In media accounts, meth is sometimes described as sparking a nearly incurable addiction. "You have a better chance to do well after many types of cancer than you have of recovering from methamphetamine dependence," psychiatrist Martin Paulus told Time in 2007. But meth users, it turns out, respond just as well, if not better, to treatment as other addicts do. "Claims that methamphetamine users are virtually untreatable with small recovery rates lack foundation in medical research. ... [S]everal recent studies indicate that methamphetamine users respond in an equivalent manner as individuals admitted for other drug abuse problems," a group of 92 prominent physicians, treatment specialists and researchers wrote in a 2005 open letter to the media.
State legislators who need a cost-effective way to deal with drug addiction have been much more willing to take a chance on that "equivalent manner" than anyone in Congress. Indeed, meth addiction has helped build a nationwide system of local drug courts that divert offenders from incarceration to treatment. Drug courts began in response to cocaine, with the first established in Miami in 1989, but they rose in tandem with meth use and continued upward even after the numbers for speed began to decline. By 2005, there were more than 1,500 drug courts in operation. By 2008, there were nearly 2,500.
In 2000, California voters approved a program to provide treatment, rather than prison time, for nonviolent drug-possession offenders. A study of the law found that it saved the state $1.3 billion over its first six years and that for every $1 invested, California saved $7 thanks to reductions in crime and health care costs. Oregon, also hit hard by meth, factored in savings on prison costs and health and welfare spending and found that treatment returned $5.62 on every dollar spent. Maryland, Texas and Utah followed by passing their own treatment-over-incarceration laws.
A two-year study, published in the journal Addiction in 2008, found that those parts of the country that relied on enforcement rather than treatment fared poorly. Researchers looked at several counties in Arkansas, Kentucky and Ohio that had tightened laws around meth in an effort to curb supply. They discovered that, when confronted by a shortage of their favored drug, meth users simply switched to snorting coke. Overall, such areas saw a 9 percent increase in cocaine use after their meth laws were enacted.
As the local movement toward treatment gained strength, it finally received some notice in Washington with the 1994 institution of the federal Drug Court Program. But the way the program was structured and funded reflected the movement's grassroots nature: The program launched no nationwide effort to establish a system of drug courts, but rather allowed localities to apply for federal grants for their own projects. In 2007, the entire federal program cost $10 million -- at $200,000 per state, that's about as paltry a sum as Washington can conjure.
* * * * *
As meth use rose nationwide, Clinton's law-and-order drug czar had little interest in either the drug or the drug courts. Of more pressing concern to McCaffrey was the November 1996 passage of ballot initiative in California and Arizona to legalize medical marijuana. In typical drug-warrior style, the Clinton White House became determined to go after Americans' changing attitudes toward drugs at the source -- so much so that it had no qualms about covertly placing anti-drug messages into popular prime-time TV shows such as "Beverly Hills 90210" and "ER."
Just after the elections in California and Arizona, McCaffrey called a meeting that included the head of the DEA and three other DEA staffers, White House advisers, and people from the FBI and the departments of Justice and Health and Human Services. The private wing of the war on drugs was represented, too, by eight senior executives from and the president of the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. Drug-reform organizations got word of the meeting and went to the press about it. Reporter Daniel Forbes broke the story for Salon.com.
The consensus at the meeting was that medical marijuana was a spike that could be driven into the heart of drug prohibition, and that the legalization movement knew it. "Need to frame the issue properly -- expose this as legalizers using terminally ill as props" was the thinking of James Copple, then-president of the Community Anti-Drug Coalition of America, according to the minutes. Maricopa County District Attorney Richard Romley, representing the Arizona delegation, suggested, "Even though California and Arizona are different props, the strategy of proponents is the same. It will expand throughout the nation if we all don't react." His remedy: "Need to go state by state. $ to do media."
Two approaches were chosen to prevent the medical marijuana movement from spreading to other states: ramping up a national anti-pot public relations campaign and threatening doctors with the loss of their licenses if they recommended marijuana to patients. The latter strategy was announced in a press conference a month later and led to the lawsuit that eventually uncovered the minutes of the meeting. The doctors won, asserting a First Amendment right to recommend whatever legal remedy they believed would be effective.
The PDFA's president tossed out one idea of how much the PR component of the effort might cost: "$175 million," he suggested, according to the minutes. "Try to get fedl $." That's exactly how much the drug czar later requested for the new media campaign, and Congress helpfully added another $20 million. The effort, which grew within a year into a billion-dollar public–private partnership, became mired in an accounting scandal and then ran afoul of public opinion when its strategy to pay TV networks as well as film producers for propagandist portrayals of drug use was exposed. And it certainly didn't slow the medical marijuana movement.
With the federal government fighting this losing battle, meth use was slowly increasing in rural America, mirroring the rise of cocaine in urban areas that had accompanied the federal war on pot a decade earlier. With it came local dealers' and addicts' efforts to supplement the already plentiful supply of Mexican speed. The federal government has figures for meth-lab seizures beginning only in 1999, but some states' records go back further. Kansas recorded four seizures in 1994 and seven in 1995. The number peaked at 846 in 2001. In 2004, the national number topped 17,000.
A year later, Congress finally overcame pharmaceutical-lobby objections and voted to tightly control pseudoephedrine distribution with a law tied to the USA Patriot Act. It went into effect the first day of 2006.
"It was almost like throwing a switch," said Larry Rogers, an Iowa narcotics cop who's been chasing drugs since the '70s. Statewide, the number of labs seized fell by more than 50 percent from 2005 to 2006, and then dropped another 60 percent or so in 2007, down to just 138. Did that reduce the availability of meth? "No," Rogers said, "even at the peak of our meth-lab problem, most of the meth that we were dealing with -- 80 to 90 percent of the meth we were dealing with -- always has been imported."
The 2006 National Drug Threat Assessment found as much. Citing DEA and other federal data, the report concludes that "Mexican criminal groups are the predominant wholesale methamphetamine distributors in the country -- even in the Northeast and Florida/Caribbean Regions -- supplying various midlevel distributors, including other Mexican criminal groups, with powder methamphetamine and, increasingly, ice methamphetamine."
That doesn't mean that the pseudoephedrine regulations were completely useless, however. "The labs just presented a unique risk for us in terms of being first responders," Rogers said. "They presented environmental risks in terms of exposure, not only for the responders but for the people living at the location -- children, spouses, the people actually involved. Fires, explosion -- these were the ancillary problems associated with meth labs. We're glad to see them go, because now we don't have to deal with that risk. But ... the majority of meth has always been imported."
Seizures fell by 50 percent nationally, too, down to fewer than 6,000 in 2005. The government often bandied about the large seizure numbers to give the impression of a serious problem, but the labs that were typically busted weren't massive enterprises. “A lab can be something as small as somebody trying to cook something up in a milk jug,” said DEA spokesperson Steve Robertson.
That's what they mostly found in Iowa. "Most of the labs we dealt with here were small labs, capable of generating an ounce or less per cook," said Rogers. "Not the super-labs you hear so much about in Mexico and the Southwest United States. They produce meth by the pounds. We haven't ever dealt with labs on that level."
In fact, few American police forces have ever had to deal with super-labs. Only around 250 were busted in 2001, according to federal data. In 2003, Canada restricted bulk pseudoephedrine exports, and the next year the number fell to 55.
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As the Iowa cops understood, wiping out meth labs in the U.S. did almost nothing to reduce meth supply. It only strengthened the hand of the Mexicans. Ever since the U.S. crackdown in Colombia, which led to the death of drug lord Pablo Escobar in 1993 and the arrest or killing of many other narco-leaders, the Mexicans had gradually been taking control of the illegal drug trade. During the same decade, one-party rule in Mexico was coming to an end, as the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) lost its grip on power. By 1997 the party no longer controlled the legislature, and by 2000, for the first time in more than 70 years, it lost the presidency.
Democracy was an open door through which the drug traffickers walked to take control of the Mexican state.
Under the PRI, there had always been a level of look-the-other-way corruption that tolerated the drug trade. So long as the traffickers only killed each other and sold largely to gringos up north -- where the money was, anyway -- all was well. The opium boom of the late 19th century, the liquor trade in the '20s and the pot trade in the late '60s and '70s had all been good for Mexican farmers. A stable level of criminality was understood to be the norm.
President Jimmy Carter helped to change that by funding a full-scale war on the traffickers. The many operations authorized by him and by President Ronald Reagan -- Operacion Intercepcion, Operacion Cooperacion, Operacion Condor, etc. -- had the impact that such actions always do: The drug trade spread out. Arellano Felix, Joaquin Guzman and Amado Carrillo, who had all been regional traffickers contained in the state of Sinaloa, scattered throughout Mexico and went to war with each other, creating the drug cartel structure that exists today. "That was when the drug trade really began to expand," reporter Javier Valdez Cardenas told a New Yorker writer for a 2008 article. "Because the few traffickers who remained here were killed, but all the rest of them emigrated. Now they're all over the country."
Just as the cartels were rising in power, Mexico was democratizing. Running for office democratically -- in a contested race, that is -- costs serious money. When the PRI was in power, it could fund itself largely with the fruits of the state that it controlled. It didn't need to raise outside money to win elections. Today in Mexico, a simple campaign for the legislature can cost between $10 million and $20 million. That money naturally comes from the people who have it, the traffickers, who now control untold numbers of politicians and major parts of every significant political party. They are even said to have infiltrated the Mexican Embassy in Washington, D.C.
When Felipe Calderon became president in late 2006, he vowed to go to war with the cartels, backed by a $1.4 billion investment in arms from the U.S. government dubbed "Plan Mexico."
That war touched off violence once thought unimaginable in North America. Modeling their behavior after al Qaeda insurgents in Iraq, cartels began beheading opponents and posting the videos on YouTube. Signs of gruesome torture are routinely found on dead bodies. Upwards of 5,000 people were killed in 2008 alone and the blood started to run in the streets of Mexico's tourist towns -- the kind of thing that gets attention.
In response, though, the U.S. and Mexico have only stepped up combat, vowing to go ever harder after the cartels. But the state and the cartels are often the same people. As one retired PRI man told The New Yorker: "When you see what amounts to a military parade in these towns, in which the Army is trooping along on the main avenue while on the side streets people are killing each other ... when I see how these [traffickers] are climbing up right into the very beard of the state, I think, 'Holy fuck! This country could really collapse!'"
The drug war has brought the Mexican government to the brink of collapse, making the prospect of a failed state on the U.S. southern border a very real possibility at a time when the country has enough foreign problems -- Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan -- to deal with. Meanwhile, the war costs the U.S. billions to wage at home and in Mexico and has swelled the prison population, busting state budgets at the seams.
It would be one thing if these tragedies were collateral damage in an otherwise successful effort to reduce drug use. But the party goes on as if none of it were happening. An estimated 30 percent of Mexico's arable land is being used to grow illegal drugs today, and drug use in the U.S. remains about as steady as it has always been.
HuffPost Live will be taking a comprehensive look at America's failed war on drugs on Sept. 4 from 12-4 p.m. EDT and 6-10 p.m. EDT. Click here to check it out -- and join the conversation.
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