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Originally published Saturday, May 21, 2011 at 5:00 PM

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Neal Peirce / Syndicated columnist

Misguided U.S. drug policies afflict Mexico, Central America

The war on drugs in Mexico, partially funded by hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. government assistance, has not only failed to curb the trade but intensified horrific violence, corruption and human rights abuses, writes Neal Peirce.

Syndicated columnist

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For most Americans, the recent news of popular demonstrations in Mexico was probably a small diversion from the daily tide of bloody global reports from such faraway hot spots as Pakistan, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan and Bahrain.

Why worry, most of us likely concluded, if thousands of Mexicans are marching in the streets, protesting the horrific violence and high death toll in their nation's raging drug war? Isn't that their problem?

It's true, the news reports focus less on the American role, more on growing anger with the government of President Felipe Calderón and the meager returns from the massive police and military crackdown on the drug trade he inaugurated in 2006.

Since then, more than 37,000 Mexicans have been murdered, often tortured and brutalized before their deaths, as cartels battle for control of drug smuggling routes and brazenly assassinate anyone, official or average citizen, they think is in their way.

The hard lesson is that the war on drug dealers, decreed by Calderón and partially funded by hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. government assistance, has not only failed to curb the trade but intensified horrific violence, corruption and human-rights abuses.

There's no evidence the grip the drug gangs have over Mexico's politicians, judiciary and security forces has been seriously weakened. Indeed, there's widespread belief and some evidence, confirmed by an NPR report, that the Mexican police forces appear to "go easy" on the Sinaloa cartel, allegedly the largest exporter of cocaine to the U.S. The cartel's head is Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, the world's most wanted drug lord.

The Mexican poet Javier Sicilia, who stopped his writing after his 24-year-old son was gunned down by drug terrorists earlier this year, catalyzed the May marches. He articulated a Martin Luther King-like answer to the violence convulsing his country:

"We will not turn this pain in our souls, in our bodies, in hate nor in more violence, but in a vehicle to help us restore love, peace, justice and dignity and the stuttering democracy that we're losing."

And Sicilia had a stern judgment to make — as King did in his time — about the U.S. government: "Since the war was unleashed as a means to exterminate (drug trafficking), the United States, which is the grand consumer of these toxic substances, has not done anything to support us."

There, indeed, is the rub: Americans' complicity, their attitude that the Mexican drug nightmare is someone else's problem, or as both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama seem to believe, a situation with a military solution.

A group of 20-plus U.S. experts and advocates in drug policy and Latin American affairs has weighed in on Sicilia's side, calling on the U.S. to drop "failed prohibitionist drug policies" on our home turf "so that violence, corruption, assassinations and the degradation of Mexico's fragile democratic institutions" can be curbed.

As first steps, the group suggested curbing "wasteful and harmful supply-side programs such as aerial fumigation and military aid."

On its home turf, it was suggested, the U.S. should take a "first step" by legally taxing and regulating marijuana — noting that marijuana is reportedly the leading source of profit for Mexico's traffickers.

A sad reality — underscored by a recent report in The Economist — is that the drug-running and drug wars between cartels are now infecting virtually all of Central America. The route to the U.S. used to be from Colombia, the world's top cocaine producer, across the Caribbean to the tip of Florida. But the U.S. Coast Guard shut that route down by the early 1990s, so that shipments began to flow directly north, through Mexico, into the United States.

Somewhere between 250 and 350 tons of cocaine, The Economist notes, now pass through Guatemala on the way to the United States. Mexico's Sinaloa, Gulf and Zetas mobs operate through much of the Central American isthmus and — unlike the Colombians — pay their help in drugs, not cash.

The results have been devastating. Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador all have murder rates more than double that of Mexico, and Nicaragua's has spiked in recent years as well. All are among the world's poorest nations.

Guatemala, for example, is plagued by malnutrition rates of up to 80 percent in some rural villages. The country's average schooling rate is just 4.1 years.

With shaky regimes and political deadlock, plus high susceptibility to hurricanes, floods, landslides, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, Central America has only two nations — Costa Rica and Panama — with relative stability and sound living standards.

Yet with Mexico, these are our continental neighbors. U.S. aid is at low levels, compounded by our blithe assumption that the drug running and killing is their problem, not ours. Arguably it's high time for the United States, the mega-world power, to start paying more (and smarter) attention to close neighbors.

Neal Peirce's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His email address is

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