The Mexican government's reluctant release of updated homicide statistics reveals the grim costs of the failed drug war -- and the growing need for an exit strategy.
As The Times notes, at least 50,000 people have been killed because of the drug war in the last five years -- nearly as many casualties as the U.S. suffered in Vietnam. Many of these victims had no connection to the drug trade.
Though the Mexican government announced a slightly lower figure (47,515 people as of September), experts and advocates suggest the actual death toll may already be much higher, as only 2% of crimes in Mexico even get investigated. Further, the government has shown a total lack of transparency, exemplified by its drawn-out refusal to make these damning data public.
Regardless of the exact figure, the death toll is incomprehensible and unacceptable. And to this toll must be added the thousands of people disappeared, the hundreds of thousands displaced and the hundreds of thousands of children left orphaned during this same five-year period.
This crisis will only continue unless the U.S. works with Mexico to address the root cause: drug prohibition.
These murders are not drug-related, they are prohibition-related -- committed by cartels that were spawned by drug prohibition, that derive their power from the inflated profits of prohibited but highly demanded commodities, and that operate in an underground economy in which violence is routinely employed to resolve disputes or remove business opponents. It's similar to what occurred in the U.S. during alcohol prohibition, but on a far more horrific scale.
Meanwhile, Mexico's U.S.-backed military response, rather than reducing violence, has resulted in systematic and documented violations of human rights, including rape, extrajudicial killings, disappearances and torture. Abuses have been so grave and widespread that human rights attorneys have asked the International Criminal Court to investigate President Felipe Calderon for crimes against humanity.
What are Mexicans getting in return for this unthinkable price? Not much. Cartels show no signs of weakening, while drugs remain as widely consumed and available in the U.S. as ever before.
The numbers, of course, cannot tell the true story of what this violence means for Mexico. Each person killed was, after all, a son or daughter, brother or sister, father or mother. The Times' article highlights one such person, Juan Francisco Sicilia, a 24-year-old student killed last March, whose father, Javier, has become a leader of the national popular movement against the war on drugs. United with family members of other victims, along with everyday citizens fed up with being afraid, the elder Sicilia's movement seeks to humanize each victim. Drawing inspiration from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, this growing movement has been commemorating each victim by nailing a plaque with his or her name to the walls of public buildings across Mexico.
Sicilia has also proposed the regulation of drugs as a way to reduce the devastation that prohibition has inflicted on Mexico.
Regional leaders agree that many of these deaths could have been prevented -- not by hitting the cartels harder but by being smarter about U.S. and global drug policy. In late December, Mexico, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Chile and all of Central America issued a joint declaration urging the U.S. to rein in its demand for drugs or, if it cannot do so, "explore the possible alternatives to eliminate the exorbitant profits of the criminals, including regulatory or market oriented options to this end."
The American public is ready for such a change. According to a Gallup poll in October, 50% of Americans favor legalizing marijuana like alcohol -- a modest step that could deprive cartels of their leading source of revenue, diminishing their ability to buy weapons, hire recruits, corrupt officials and terrorize the Mexican people.
These U.S. citizens, no longer the minority, wait impatiently for their government to join the rest of the hemisphere in rethinking the failed drug war. Our southern neighbors cannot afford to wait any longer.
A version of this Op Ed previously appeared in the Los Angeles Times.