Drug Warriors Just Don’t Get It

by | Mar 21, 2014


U.S. Marine Corps General John F. Kelly, commanding general of the U.S. Southern Command, just doesn’t get it. Testifying before Congress, he lamented the movement toward legalizing drugs here in the United States. He suggested that Latin American officials, who have long been exhorted to fight the war on drugs, are losing faith in the United States and are viewing Americans as hypocrites. He also asserted, “The levels of violence that our drug problem has caused in many of these countries is just astronomical.”

Kelly is certainly right about the widespread violence in Latin America. Where he misses the boat, however, is his belief that the violence is due to drugs. It isn’t. The violence is due to thewar on drugs, not drugs themselves.

That’s obviously a critically important difference. It’s akin to going to a doctor with an ailment. The prescription that the doctor gives is obviously going to turn on his diagnosis. If he gets the diagnosis wrong, it’s a virtual certainty that he’s going to get the prescription wrong.

Kelly looks at all that Latin American violence — robberies, gang wars, assassinations, and kidnappings — and concludes that it’s because people are buying, selling, and using drugs. His prescription follows from his diagnosis. He wants governments to continue waging the war on drugs, notwithstanding its manifest failure to accomplish its purported end after several decades of warfare.

I grew up in Laredo, Texas, which is situated on the Mexican border. In the 1950s and 1960s, tourists from all over the country would come into Laredo and other border cities in order to cross the river and get a taste of old Mexico. Laredo teenagers would oftentimes take their dates across the river for a fun evening of dinner, drinks, and a floor show. It was a peaceful and harmonious experience. No kidnappings, robberies, gang wars, etc.

As the drug war ramped up in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, all that changed. Today, the tourist business along the border has dried up. A cousin of mine in Laredo tells me that no one is dumb enough to go into Nuevo Laredo for a social evening.

A few days ago, the Associated Press published a story entitled, “Would You Spend Your Spring Break in Mexico?” The article pointed out:

The sidewalks are empty on Alvaro Obregon Avenue. Restaurants and souvenir shops lining the once popular thoroughfare are gutted and shattered. The sign in front of an abandoned karaoke bar is ripped and dilapidated, riddled underneath with three spray-painted tombstones.

The thousands of spring breakers who flooded over each March from the nearby Texas resorts are gone. The drug war drove them off, leaving a void of tourism in a city that, years ago, gave up trying to cater to such crowds. (Emphasis added.)

The Associated Press gets it. It’s not drugs that have caused the problem, as Kelly believes, it’s the drug war itself.

By getting the diagnosis wrong, Kelly gets the prescription wrong. It’s like telling a patient with cancer that all he’s got is a cold and prescribing some cold medicine for him.

With a free market in drugs, the production, sale, possession, and consumption of drugs is much like those of alcohol and tobacco. Everything is legal and above-board. The establishments producing and selling the products are reputable and credible. There are no gang wars, turf wars, kidnappings, and the like. Winos and other alcohol addicts don’t rob or mug people to get the money to pay for their habits.

But as soon as you make any of these items illegal, everything changes. Now the producers and sellers become the type of people who operate illicitly in a black market. The more violent the gang, the more successful it is in capturing market share. The more the state cracks down, the higher the black market price. The higher the price, the higher the profits. The stakes get bigger. The violence grows larger.

That’s what has happened throughout Mexico and the rest of Latin America. Mexico is the classic example. At the urging of the U.S. government, the Mexican government went on a multi-year, vicious drug-war campaign, even utilizing the Mexican military. They were finally going to stamp out drugs, once and for all. It was a military campaign that undoubtedly warmed the heart of Marine General Kelly.

It was a disaster. 60,000 dead people in the course of about six years. And no effect on the supply and production of drugs. 60,000 people who died for nothing. That’s not to even mention all the robberies, gang wars, and other acts of drug-war violence.

There is one — and only one — way to end the violence in Latin America. There is one — and only one — way to terminate the drug gangs. That way is by legalizing drugs. Legalizing drugs today would put an immediate end to the drug gangs and the drug-war violence.

Of course, that’s why drug gangs oppose drug legalization. They know that it would put them out of business immediately. But what Kelly obviously fails to understand is that that is also why many Latin American officials also oppose drug legalization. They know that it would bring an end to the drug-war related bribes that they have become dependent upon. By the way, it’s also why many drug warriors oppose legalization. They know that ending the drug war would put them out of business too.

Finally, while we are on the subject of hypocrisy, we shouldn’t fail to notice the hypocrisy relating to the role that the U.S. military plays in the drug war in Latin America. Here in the United States, the American people have prohibited the U.S. military from participating in the drug war because Americans think that would be a very bad idea, which it would be. Yet, the U.S. military is sent into Latin American to do what it is prohibited from doing here. It would be difficult to find a better example of hypocrisy than that. Latin Americans should bring an end to this hypocrisy by immediately kicking the U.S. military out of their countries.

There’s the old saying that doing the same thing over and over again and expecting the same results is the definition of insanity. There are few better places to apply that adage than the drug war. It’s time to end it. It’s time to restore peace and harmony to Latin America and the United States. It’s time to end the failed war on drugs. It’s time to legalize drugs.

Reprinted with permission from the Future of Freedom Foundation.


  • Jacob G. Hornberger

    Jacob George Hornberger is an American attorney, author, and politician who was a Libertarian candidate for president in 2000 and 2020. He is the founder and president of the Future of Freedom Foundation.

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