I breathed in the brisk and cool mountain air as we drove down the jam packed roadways of bustling Mexico City. I was indulging in the pace of this thriving metropolis when I came face to face with my first machine gun. A large and open flat bedded truck made Mexico's military presence known as riders of this armed vehicle pointed their weapons intimidatingly at other cars as they passed.
I reacted more out of awe than fear. Perhaps this is the sign of a well-seasoned traveler, ready to roll in any scenario. I even thought of taking a picture, but figured that the military might not appreciate this and instead kept my camera tucked away inside my purse.
When I got to my friend Mariana's apartment, we went up to her building's rooftop which overlooked the skyline of Mexico City. It was filled with various skyscrapers. Some appeared to be brand spanking new, and reflected the bright February sunshine off their shimmering panel windows. Others looked old and decrepit, covered in graffiti, as if they'd been neglected and not properly maintained.
Mariana lived in a nice apartment with her mother. She had light colored skin and curly brown hair. Mariana worked as a poker dealer, which scared me a little at first with consideration to my previously experience with gambling scammers back in Saigon. I decided that her character seemed well intentioned and opted to give her the benefit of my doubt.
That afternoon, Mariana took me on a walking tour of her neighborhood. Later in the evening, Mariana left for work, and her mother asked if I'd like to smoke a joint. This wasn't the first time I'd been offered drugs in Mexico.
When I was eighteen, I went to visit my friend from childhood in Orange Country, California. He was only sixteen at the time. One night, we ventured across the border into Tijuana looking for excitement. We got more than we had bargained for, finding ourselves at some seedy strip club in downtown TJ. I remember my friend pointing to all of the dollar bills that hung from the stripper's g-strings.
"Notice how half of them are glowing in the black lights?" he said, "That's because they're counterfeit!" It was my first time at a bar, and I went a little crazy ordering all of those fancy mixed drinks I had never before encountered on my previous drinking excursions, which pretty much consisted of nothing more than suburban high school keggers. I was totally out of my league partying in Tijuana.
We were hanging in the VIP lounge, which was more like an assortment of disgustingly dirty couches on a rooftop sheltered by a poorly fastened tarp, when someone pasted me a pipe. I thought it was pot. I was about to hit it when my friend sprang into action.
"Nooooo!" he shouted, diverting my attention.
"What is it?" I asked.
"That's meth!" he exclaimed. I looked down at the pipe.
"Should I hit it?" I asked. Not only was I pretty drunk, but I had lived a fairly sheltered adolescence and had yet to comprehend the major difference between smoking marijuana and doing hard drugs.
"No, dude," said my friend, "You'll start seeing zebras and shit!" And that's the story of how my friend saved me from smoking meth when I was a teenager.
My behavior in Tijuana wasn't very admirable. I was young and quite ignorant to the rest of the world. Fortunately for me, Mariana's mother wasn't trying to offer me hard drugs this time around. She was more interested in sharing a friendly joint and conversation. I gladly accepted.
The middle aged woman led me into the bathroom. We huddled together in the shower stall where the pungent scent could be best contained. We were able to blow the smoke from our hits out the tiny slot window. Mariana's mother told me about how dangerous it was to have marijuana in Mexico City, and warned of the violent ramifications if anyone were to catch us. It was not so much the police she was afraid of; it was the gangs she feared most.
She went on to describe, in depth, the seriousness of the problem generated by the illegal drug industry and indiscriminate cartel warfare. It was not so much an issue of people dying from the use of drugs themselves, especially in the case of marijuana. It was the cold hard fact that people were being brutally murdered for the purposes of illegal trafficking and control of the market. Innocent people - men, women, and children - were caught in the crossfire every day. Mariana's mother had known many of them personally. She took a drag, inhaling deeply. Their deaths had been in vain.
It's not that we shouldn't be allowed to do drugs, she explained, people are going to do drugs no matter what. However, we should be aware of the violence that our demand is inciting. It is crucial that we take responsibility for our recreational desires by calling for legalization and regulation. Only then will there be peace.
The whole conversation reminded me of American probation era. During the 1920's, alcohol became illegal in the United States. As a result, the illegal trafficking of liquor generated violent crime and gang warfare. Thousands of people were killed. Perhaps the most famous of warlords was the notorious Al Capone, who terrorized the streets of Chicago in an attempt to dominate the black market by savagely violent force. It wasn't until the Great Depression that alcohol prohibition was finally reversed, partly as a means for generating additional market revenue in a struggling economy.
Since 2006, more than fifty thousand people have been killed due to drug related violence in the country of Mexico alone (Becker: 2013). To put this perplexing statistic into better perspective, that is more than three times the amount of American casualties from the Vietnam War (Becker: 2013). Another five thousand individuals have gone missing in Mexico as a result of the war on drugs, an industry that annually generates a mind blowing profit of thirty-nine billion dollars (Fantz: 2012). Countless more have been kidnapped and murdered in other vulnerable Central American nations for the purpose of this illegitimate prosperity.
"For most of us, Mexico is reduced several times a week to a sickening barrage of horror flick headlines. Thirty-five bodies left on the freeway during rush-hour in a major tourist city. A person's face sewn onto a soccer ball. Bodies found stuffed in barrels of acid.Heads sent rolling onto busy nightclub dance floors" (Fantz: 2012).
We smoke our bowls and say we're glad it wasn't us. I think back to the drug tourism in Vang Vieng, and find a parallel in how the market effectively isolates consumers from the dire world of distress and animosity that their carefree escapes directly finance. The War on Drugs has created a similar turmoil in Central America, a genocidal tragedy where thousands of individuals from the lowest rungs of society are swept away into the horrors of black market warfare. All this must occur so that the privileged can unwind from the stress of prosperity by consuming mind altering substances without need to consider the people who suffer.
It is also important to consider that it is one thing for tourists to go to the drugs, as evidence suggests that domestic consumption is far less detrimental. The situation is amplified even further once trafficking becomes involved, and the drugs are brought to them. According to CNN,
"There are seven cartels in Mexico vying for control of smuggling routes into the United States, a bountiful sellers' paradise. South of the border it costs $2,000 to produce a kilo of cocaine from leaf to lab, the DEA said. In the U.S., a kilo's street value ranges from $34,000 to $120,000, depending on the ZIP code where it's pushed" (Fantz: 2012).
There is a price to pay when the government steps in to prosecute the proprietors of this multi-billion dollar, and violently competitive, industry. The market is strengthened by criminal sanctions, because the value of this product is directly proportional to the risk involved. An article, entitled Have we Lost the War on Drugs, published by the Wall Street Journal, describes how the market is only strengthened, and not at all weakened, by criminal sanctions.
"Prices of illegal drugs are pushed up whenever many drug traffickers are caught and punished harshly. The higher prices they get for drugs help compensate traffickers for the risks of being apprehended. Higher prices can discourage the demand for drugs, but they also enable some traffickers to make a lot of money if they avoid being caught, if they operate on a large enough scale, and if they can reduce competition from other traffickers. This explains why large-scale drug gangs and cartels are so profitable in the U.S., Mexico, Colombia, Brazil and other countries. The paradox of the war on drugs is that the harder governments push the fight, the higher drug prices become to compensate for the greater risks. That leads to larger profits for traffickers who avoid being punished. This is why larger drug gangs often benefit from a tougher war on drugs, especially if the war mainly targets small-fry dealers and not the major drug gangs. Moreover, to the extent that a more aggressive war on drugs leads dealers to respond with higher levels of violence and corruption, an increase in enforcement can exacerbate the costs imposed on society" (Becker: 2013).
So long as they are addictive, the demand for drugs isn't going to magically disappear. Why not consider an alternative culture where profits are made on a legal and regulated platform? This would in effect remove violent criminals from controlling an industry that, in a legal setting, has the potential to create jobs and stimulate the economy. Just look at how much revenue marijuana legalization has generated for the state of Colorado in the past few weeks.
"Taxing legal production would eliminate the advantage that violent criminals have in the current marketplace. Just as gangsters were largely driven out of the alcohol market after the end of prohibition, violent drug gangs would be driven out of a decriminalized drug market" (Becker: 2013).
The illicitness of the drug trade only generates greater profits for bellicose tyrants, along with duress for control, in an industry driven by the more elite populace who are so far separated from the horrors of the drug war that they fail to recognize the contention they're inciting. It is the privileged consumers who are in a position of power. Like delinquent street children in The Philippines (see book), the criminals involved with the Central American drug war are merely guilty of trying to survive.
It is the responsibility of society, especially those who have access to choice and political clout, to demand drug regulation and legalization from our lawmakers, particularly in the case of marijuana. Only then might there be an end to the senseless violence and irreprehensible mayhem which currently plagues the entire American continent.
Becker, Gary S., and Kevin M. Murphy. "Have We Lost the War on Drugs?" The Wall Street Journal, 4 Jan. 2013. Web. 13 Mar. 2013.
Fantz, Ashley. "The Mexico Drug War: Bodies for Billions." CNN. Cable News Network, 20 Jan. 2012. Web. 13 Mar. 2013.