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José Fernando López Headshot

The Ignored War

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In one of his widely read columns, journalist Andrés Oppenheimer complained last week that President Barack Obama, in his speech to the United Nations, didn't mention Mexico at any time and the impact that the war on drugs is generating in the country. "President Obama talked at length about Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Cote D'Ivori -- about almost every major conflict, except the one right next to the United States," wrote Oppenheimer.

After clarifying the importance of all the issues raised by the President, Oppenheimer showed surprise that "Obama did not mention the words drugs, cartels, organized crime, or Mexico even once in his U.N speech, ignoring a war that has caused nearly 40,000 deaths in Mexico alone over the past five years -- much more than all recent Middle Eastern uprisings -- and that is becoming one of the biggest hurdles to economic growth in the region."

Oppenheimer stressed that the war on drugs "is a bloody conflict that, in addition to leaving a huge death toll, is becoming the biggest obstacle to economic growth in the region by draining government resources away from education and health, scaring away investments, and killing tourism." Nothing is truer than this. But in my opinion, this is not the only reason why it is inexcusable that the American presidents -- the current and the previous -- take the ostrich position and decide to ignore the problem on stages as big and important as the United Nations meetings.

There are internal political reasons that are as powerful -- though not as visible -- as the number of deaths in Mexico. In a recent post on the website of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, its director, Gil Kerlikowske, known among us as the antidrug czar, recalled that "in 2007, the most recent year for which we have data, the economic impact of illicit drug use on American society totaled more than $193 billion, more than the estimated annual costs of diabetes, obesity, or smoking."

The data is contained in the report of the US Department of Justice National Drug Intelligence Center published in April this year -- with 2007 information -- titled The Economic Impact of Illicit Drug Abuse on American Society. The report distinguishes costs as follows: $113 billion for expenses related to crimes connected to illegal drugs; $68 billion for productivity problems generated by its consumption and $12 billion to expenses burdened upon the health system.

These numbers are significant, and their magnitude is terrifying in a fiscal crisis such as the current one. In times during which the educational system suffers budget cuts to the left as well as to the right, with mayors and governors trying to save a few dollars to balance their budgets, the issue of the war on drugs and its economic and social impact is far from been heard of in politicians' speeches.

The mouths of the xenophobes are always full of blabber related to the costs that the justice system must endure on account of crimes committed by illegal immigrants, and this issue has been part of political speeches for many years. One just has to revise jail statistics of a state like Arizona, one of the places that holds the most aliens in prison, to see that the number of alien inmates is less than the number of citizens incarcerated on drug related charges.

Referring to the relations between United States and Mexico, Oppenheimer wrote in his article that, "despite the Obama administration's 2009 public recognition that the United States shares responsibility for Mexico's drug violence, not much has changed." It is difficult for things to change when said recognition -which was given to please the public but not meant- has come accompanied by aid that in its peak reached the sum of $400 million per year through the Mérida Initiative, a laughable sum when compared to the $193 billion that this problem costs for the country.

But if on the external level little has changed, in the internal level nothing has, and this is very worrisome. Until the war on drugs stops being an internal policy issue, one that may be discussed in all political stages, including the debates between presidential candidates, it will be very difficult to find a solution for this problem and there is little the presidents south of Rio Grande should expect.