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Mexico debates legalizing drugs although president rejects idea

Mexico is caught up in a battle with drug gangs that has killed tens of thousands. The country is watching California and an upcoming vote on drug legalization as some wonder if it could be one way to stop the bloodshed.

Mexican naval officer before burning drug stash

Mexico's drug war continues to get more violent, and deadly

Ever since Mexican President Felipe Calderon mobilized the army four years ago in an all-out war on the country's drug gangs, almost 30,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence - and the situation does not appear to be getting any better.

In early August, former President Vicente Fox called for the full legalization of all drugs in Mexico, saying it would cut the financial pipelines of illicit drug-trafficking groups.

Mexico is awash in a sea of drug-related violence and many Mexicans feel helpless in the face of the increasing brutality that is touching increasing numbers of them. At the beginning of this month, 21-year-old Lucila Ocanas was killed in the northern Mexican city of Monterrey when she was caught in the crossfire during a battle between police and drug traffickers.

"The government has got to be able to do something about this," said Ocanas' mother, calling on security forces to negotiate with drug traffickers or for officials to legalize drugs in order to put a stop to this lucrative, illicit business.

"If someone wants to die from taking drugs, he should be able to do that. It's his decision," she said.

Calls for legalization

Five one-time Latin American leaders are now calling for the legalization of drugs, including Fox and former Brazilian leader Fernando Cardoso. They say it is the only way to tackle the problem and prevent a further escalation of violence.

In Mexico, the government removed the penalty for possessing small quantities of a range of drugs, including marijuana but also heroin and cocaine. But that is as far as President Calderon wants to go.

Felipe Calderon, Mexican president

Felipe Calderon says legalization would boost demand for drugs

"Many experts argue that legalization and the resulting societal acceptance would lead to more consumption," he said. "This decision could endanger several generations of young people."

Calderon has said he is open for a debate on the matter, but several weeks later his health minister called the idea of legalization "absurd."

In the US, Californians are soon to vote whether to legalize small amounts of marijuana for recreational use. Supporters of Proposition 19 say it could raise $1.4 billion (997 million euros) in taxes and allow the justice system to concentrate on more serious crimes.

Some say if California does legalize small amounts of marijuana, it could financially harm Mexico's drug traffickers, although a new study by a non-partisan drug policy research group doubted that Mexican drug gangs' pocketbooks would be hit too hard. Other say if marijuana is legal, drug gangs will just focus on harder drugs, such as heroin or cocaine.

There are also questions about Mexico's having the institutional framework to regulate marijuana if it did legalize it. Right now, the country has difficulty collecting existing tax revenues and regulating legal medications.

Unwinnable battle?

Calderon is continuing his fight against the drug cartels, and has been critical of the US government for not focusing more on treatment and prevention. He said easing drugs laws would have "serious consequences for American and Mexican society."

Mexican marijuana

Much Mexican marijuana is meant for the US market

Despite his all-out fight against the drug traffickers, results have been disappointing. Since he took office, some 28,000 people have died, and that number climbs every day.

Some are killed in clashes between rival gangs, others in raids by security forces and increasing numbers, such as Lucila Ocanas, die because they happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The president's policy is coming under increased criticism and security experts and newspaper columnists warn that the fight against the cartels will not be won with police forces and 50,000 soldiers. Drug gangs have an almost endless supply of new recruits in a country where almost a third of the population has no steady employment and many young people have little faith that they can secure their futures through legitimate means.

Inequality and widespread poverty are rampant in Mexico, according to writer Juan Villoro, who considers Calderon's drug-fighting policy a failure.

"Most people think that the moment Calderon leaves office, this war will be over," he said. "He has not been able to get Mexican society on his side."

A new Colombia?

Mexico's neighbors are eyeing the situation uneasily. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton compared the situation in Mexico today with that in Colombia 20 years ago, when drug cartels controlled parts of the country and the streets in cities like Medellin were deadly places.

drug boss Edgar Valdez Villarreal in custody

Some say police might catch some drug kingpins, but won't win the bigger drug war

Colombia also brought in its military to fight cocaine gangs and the "Colombia Plan" which was launched in 1999 received massive support from the United States. Colombian drug expert Camilo Gonzales says that while the program did reduce the influence of the cartels, it did not wipe out the drug trade. Cocaine is still produced in Peru, Bolivia and Colombia.

Ten years of the "Colombia Plan" has not brought the drug cartels to their knees, critics say, but it has killed thousands and caused hundreds of thousands to flee from the violence.

Mexico should not follow Colombia's example, Gonzales said, adding that President Calderon is going to lose this drug war if he maintains his current strategy. He said Mexican authorities might catch or kill a few drug bosses, but the spiral of violence will continue to be ratcheted up.

"This is a business, not a war and so we have to know where the profits are going," he said. "If I had to give the Mexican president one piece of advice, I'd tell him: war is not the way, war is the worst kind of business."

Author: Martin Polansky (jam)
Editor: Rob Mudge

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