Opinion: Is Mexico in denial? Reactions to pope’s comment certainly suggest so

The Mexican government has complained about remarks by Pope Francis, in which he expressed concern over a possible “Mexicanization” of his native Argentina due to rising drug trafficking activity.

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Pope Francis

Mexico rarely registers diplomatic protests with the Vatican, yet the foreign ministry sent a note expressing “sadness and concern” at comments which “stigmatized” the country.

The controversy comes in the same week as director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu made critical references to the government in his Oscar acceptance speech. It follows the same line of thinking that saw Uruguayan President Jose Mujica describe Mexico as a “kind of failed state” in November last year.

Vatican press spokesman Federico Lombardi said that Pope Francis did not intend to hurt the feelings of the Mexican people, whom “he loves very much.”

The government accepted the clarification. “The Holy See considers the term ‘Mexicanization’ in no way to be intentionally stigmatizing,” it announced.

Yet the initial reaction to the remark shows the current administration’s profound concern with disseminating a sanitized image. Public figures should certainly acknowledge the drug crisis in Mexico. Pope Francis is fully entitled to highlight problematic situations in the world. Every country should seek to protect themselves from the scourge of drug cartels and his concerns for Argentina are perfectly understandable.

The pope’s comment showed an awareness of the gravity of the Mexican situation. Former President Felipe Calderon’s aggressive military-led confrontation of cartels greatly exacerbated the crisis. The current administration has offered no alternatives. The official stance is to continue prohibition and tackle drug traffickers head on.

The decision to protest the pope’s remarks suggests an acute level of denial. Unfortunately, while the Mexican public is aware of a crisis, it is also badly misinformed about its nature. Although Mexico is the country worst affected by the U.S. led war on drugs, most Mexicans remain timid about reform.

A 2009 bill decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana, cocaine and other drugs. Yet five years later, a poll conducted by the Jalisco Electoral Institute showed that 60% of residents were against raising the legal limit for marijuana possession from five to 30 grams.

This reflects national trends, where surveys have shown for years that a majority of the population opposes legalization.

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Roberto Saviano

As Italian writer and drug war expert Roberto Saviano has said: “In Mexico there is not an anti-mafia culture, there is an anti-drug culture, and that is different.”

Yet the authorization of marijuana sales in the U.S. states of Washington and Colorado has had a real impact on drug cartels.

In 2014, U.S. Border Patrol saw a drop in seizures of cannabis heading north. Its agents seized 1.9 million pounds of pot, a 24 percent reduction since the reforms were introduced.

Retired federal agent Terry Nelson was asked by Vice news whether legalization was hurting the cartels.

“Yes,” he responded. “The cartels are criminal organizations that were making as much as 35-40 percent of their income from marijuana. They aren’t able to move as much cannabis inside the U.S. now.”

Even former Mexican President Vicente Fox has advocated reform.

“The path toward legalizing drugs is irreversible,” Fox said. “Prohibition must be replaced by regulation.”

Evidence suggesting what legalization would look like has trickled in from around the globe.

“The experiments in Colorado and Uruguay are really good,” Saviano said. “In Colorado they had a crisis phase, with kids spending all their money on marijuana. It created a problem, but after the first year it is regular again. In Uruguay everything’s normal.”

Portugal, which decriminalized all drugs in 2001, is often used to illustrate the benefits of reform. While there has been a slight increase in overall drug use, from 3.4 to 3.7 percent, the number injecting heroin, (previously a major problem in Portugal) has almost halved, while cocaine use is also down since decriminalization.

Moreover, under the policy, crime has been greatly reduced. Chief of the Lisbon Drug Squad Joao Figueroa reported that “crimes related to drug consumption are now finished. It doesn’t happen.” Addicts no longer need to “rob cars or assault people. This is a complete change.”

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Portugal – trends in adult drug use, 2001–2012 (Source: EMCDDA Statistical Bulletin)

For drug reform advocates, there is a sense that the winds of change are blowing. Western economic policies of the past sixty years have shifted decidedly in favor of the right, yet progressives have secured important advances in other areas. On civil concerns such as racial equality and gay marriage, governments are far more reactive to public opinion.

Bankers may not be giving up their bonuses any time soon, but drug reform is mostly discussed as a social issue, and is therefore an easier sell.

From an economic standpoint, it clearly makes sense. According to calculations by Harvard Professor Jeffrey Miron, taxing drugs and ending criminalization would save the U.S. government $87.8 billion a year.

Yet while drug liberalization experiments have shown considerable successes, Mexico’s situation is uniquely unfortunate.

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A drug reform protestor in Mexico City

If marijuana, or all drugs for that matter, were legalized tomorrow, there is no denying that Mexico would still have a problem. Most of the drugs produced in the country are smuggled abroad, so the cartels mainly depend on the U.S. market. It is also unknown how criminal groups would react to the curb in profits. It could trigger a rise in kidnappings, extortions and other crimes. In the long term however, cutting the supply of money from the U.S. market is the only way to disempower and dismantle the cartels that have grown, in recent years, to monstrous proportions.

The government’s war against drug gangs should be accompanied by a fight for a solution to the problem of prohibition. The country should lift the veil of denial that sees it protesting the pope’s remarks and move towards making the case for legalization and regulation. It is an argument that needs to be made to the U.S., to the U.N. and to the Mexican public.

Change is on the horizon. Attitudes in the United States are rapidly changing. President Peña Nieto even hinted in June that he was open to liberalizing marijuana laws.

Yet Mexico, which has suffered greatly under prohibition, should take a leading, rather than a backseat role in reform.

Complaints about the pope’s labelling badly miss the point. The problem is there. Yet in the long term, there can only be one solution. It’s time for Mexico to raise its voice on what will surely become one of the key civil rights issues of the 21st century.

Twitter: @Stephentwoodman

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