Mexico’s anti-drug strategy upside down after Colorado legalizes marijuana

The legalization of the use of recreational marijuana in Colorado and Washington states has changed the rules of the game for the anti-drug efforts in Mexico.

Mexico spends billions of dollars each year confronting violent trafficking organizations whose main market is the United States, the largest consumer of drugs in the world.

“Obviously, we can’t handle a product that is illegal in Mexico, trying to stop its transfer to the United States, when in the United States, at least in part of the United States, it now has a different status,” said Luis Videgaray, Mexican President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto’s top adviser. Analysts generally agree that about half of all the marijuana consumed in the United States comes from Mexico.

Washington supports Mexican soldiers in the destruction of clandestine marijuana plantations whose crops are destined for the United States. The U.S. government has delivered only about 9 percent of the $1.6 billion in drug-war aid promised to Mexico and Central America as Mexican executives say increasing violence is the greatest threat to the economy.

About 60,000 Mexicans have been killed in drug-related violence, and tens of thousands have been arrested and incarcerated. The drug violence and the country’s response to narcotics trafficking and organized crime have consumed the administration of outgoing President Felipe Calderon.

Peña Nieto is not easily intimidated. After Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) questioned the PRI’s crime-fighting resolve at a House subcommittee hearing over the summer, Peña Nieto dispatched envoys to the congressman’s Capitol Hill office to insist that Sensenbrenner was mistaken, according to Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Tex.), one of the few U.S. lawmakers who has a relationship with the Mexican president-elect.

Peña Nieto has stressed that his main goal is not to confront smugglers but to reduce the sensational violence and rampant crime — such as extortion, kidnapping and theft — that have soared in Mexico during Calderon’s six years in office.

“I think more and more Mexicans will respond in a similar fashion, as we ask ourselves why are Mexican troops up in the mountains of Sinaloa and Guerrero and Durango looking for marijuana, and why are we searching for tunnels, patrolling the borders, when once this product reaches Colorado it becomes legal,” said Jorge Castañeda, a former foreign minister of Mexico and an advocate for ending what he calls an “absurd war.”

“There is a sense of frustration throughout Latin America about the steep costs of confronting drug trafficking. And these votes in the United States, and the reaction to them, might signal a willingness for the countries to think outside of the box on drug policy,” said Eric Olson, associate director of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington.

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