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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Sunday 11th December 2011 

I’ve mentioned before that I don’t mark anniversaries of any sort and, on that occasion, I said that I only become aware of annual events, like Christmas, because the media goes on about them so much. That blog entry was inspired by the media coverage of the tenth anniversary of the invasion of Afghanistan.

Today, I want to write about an anniversary that has received little or no attention in the media, certainly as far as the UK is concerned, but deserves to be on the front page of every newspaper in the world and lead item on every TV news broadcast.

Five years ago, today, Mexican President Felipe Calderon ordered 4,000 troops to go to the western state of Michoacan and tackle lawlessness and drug violence that had claimed an estimated 500 lives in the previous year. His Attorney General, Eduardo Medina Mora, said that the operation was aimed at "reconquering territory" controlled by drug gangs and that it was "not just a war against drug lords; [i]t's a war against the entire criminal structure."

Calderon became president on 1st December 2006 in spite of a near riot when opposition politicians tried to prevent him from reaching the swearing in ceremony. This was the culmination of a series of uprisings, occupations and protests over the disputed election result with the defeated candidate, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, claiming to be the true winner and participating in a 47 day blockade in Mexico City after the election that took place on 2nd July.

It was recognised that Calderon’s predecessor had failed to deal with Mexico’s problems by being too weak but it was thought that Calderon risked creating complete collapse in Mexico if he acted too harshly to deal with the unrest.

So, needing to show strength without alienating the ordinary masses of Mexicans, Calderon decided that the drug cartels were the ideal target. Within hours of being sworn in he had announced that he intended to take action against them but it was 11th December when the first actual deployment of the military to deal with a civilian problem began.

It should be said, of course, that his actions also helped to build bridges with his neighbour to the north after the American ambassador to Mexico complained about ‘near lawlessness’ in the five Mexican states along the border with the USA.

Psychoactive substances have travelled across the border from Mexico to the USA for at least one hundred years. On 22nd July, I explained how the name marijuana, the most commonly used name for Cannabis sativa in the USA, came from the euphemism used in Mexico to describe a visit to a brothel.

Against that background, it might have seemed optimistic to believe that Calderon’s crackdown could bring an end to the trafficking and the criminal activity associated with it. It is, therefore, no surprise at all to find that five years of this ‘war on drug lords’ has not, in any measurable way, affected the ability of Americans to get access to chemicals to change the functioning of their brains. They may have changed the actual substances they use choosing methamphetamine and ‘legal highs‘ as well as cocaine but there is no evidence that the use of psychoactive substances is constrained by supply issues.

There is no need to go into the absolute level of harm caused to the users of these substances because it is enough to say that the relative level remains broadly unchanged over the five years since 2006. Calderon’s policy has, therefore, achieved nothing in the USA.

So, what about in Mexico? How successful has the clampdown been in dealing with those 500 deaths a year in Michoacan?

In 2010, the Mexican government claimed that there had been 34,612 deaths ‘due to criminal rivalry’ but has not updated that figure. Without being able to determine its reliability, this site says that the total is 53,610, or rather ‘was’ 53,610 because at an average rate of 61 deaths per day any number is out of date as soon as it is uttered.

With so many deaths occurring even the local media has trouble reporting on them. Discoveries of severed heads or people left hanging merit no more than a few paragraphs and ordinary citizens who use social networks to spread news about deaths incur the wrath of the cartels.

In any area of violence, estimates are hard to rely on but it is generally agreed that the total death toll in Afghanistan from ten years of fighting is in the region of 20,000 including civilians. Reported deaths in Iraq since 2003 are about 120,000, or 15,000 per year, so Mexico is a little behind at just over 10,000 per year but the amount of coverage of the situation in Mexico is a tiny fraction of that given to Iraq and Afghanistan.

It would be stupid and naïve to claim that ending prohibition would bring an end to all deaths from criminal activity in Mexico but it is more stupid to pretend that continuing current policies will bring an end to the carnage.