Is it a safe place? This question arises as soon as going to Mexico comes up in a conversation. I reply with another question: Compared to what? I was travelling on the luxury ETN bus from Puerto Vallarta pronounce Vajjarta) to Guadalajara, equipped with free Wifi, two spotless bathrooms in the back, (one for males, one for females), with individual screens for TV and movie channels in front of each seat, and roomy, softly padded seats with more legroom than I could use, suitable for a large man. I felt completely safe and comfortable.
When I paid for the bus fare with Visa, I had to show my photo ID for verification, just like air travel. I received excellent, polite services at the sales wicket, as well as from the bus driver loading the bus, who, by the way, sits completely separate from the passengers during the ride in his own closed compartment, no distractions possible. The bus was about a fifth full.
The bus ride to Guadalajara took five hours and I paid $40. On boarding, all passengers received a lunch bag with a fresh ham and cheese sandwich and a canned beverage of our choice. Most passengers were working on their computers, or sleeping, and the whole scene looked more like first class airline travel, more luxurious than any bus ride I have ever had in any other country. It was certainly much more comfortable than the air flight to PV. We were packed in like sardines in a can on the Westjet flight.
WAR ON DRUGS
Using the Wifi connection, my friend Kim and I checked the stats on criminal deaths both in the US and in Mexico, as recent reports in the Canadian news media pointed out that last year 36,000 violent deaths occurred related to the drug trade in Mexico. It sounded like a lot. Our quick research told us that a significantly lower rate of deaths took place in Mexico compared to the US in the same time frame, when translating the number of deaths to proportion of the population and calculating the numbers per year.
Mexico has a population of 108,700,891. The drug war related death toll in Mexico in 2008, was 5,612 (Narcosphere.narconews.com in an article of Dec, 2010), with a significant increase in 2009 and 2010. The (Mexican) federal attorney general’s office said 12,456 people were killed through that year until Nov. 30, 2010, the worst year so far. The overall (accumulated) death toll since the launch of the drug war in 2006 stands at 30,196, according to figures given to reporters during a year-end breakfast session with Attorney General Arturo Chavez in November 2010. (www.Articleslatimes.com).
In comparison, the US has a population of 307,006,550, almost three times (2.82) Mexico’s population. Data on the death toll from the drug trade are hard to find, as nobody wants to explore those numbers, least of all government institutions, while the Mexican situation is over-exposed and makes the US front pages.
Data published for the violent deaths and murders in the US for the year 2009, was 1,318,398. This number is not separated out, but likely for large part drug trade related. (www.disastercenter.com). This is not 2.82 times, but more than 105 times Mexico’s death toll, however, this number includes other violent deaths, such as spouses killed.
Yet, if travelling to Las Vegas, or any other place in Nevada, the state with the highest crime rate in the US, or to New Orleans, city with the highest murder rate, or Arizona, number 6 from the top with a significant overall crime rate (http://www.walletpop.com), do tourists also ask that question: Is it safe?
The War On Drugs, the prevalent approach in the US dealing with the extensive drug problem, is notoriously ineffective and considered a failure. Most of the drugs get through police, coast guard and custom barriers; only a small proportion of the product is intercepted by the police and at the borders by customs.
Hugh O’Shaughnessy in the London Independent of January 18, 2010:After 40 years of defeat and failure, America’s “war on drugs” is being buried in the same fashion as it was born – amid bloodshed, confusion, corruption and scandal. US agents are being pulled from South America; Washington is putting its narcotics policy under review, and a newly confident region is no longer prepared to swallow its fatal Prohibition error. Indeed, after the expenditure of billions of dollars and the violent deaths of tens of thousands of people, a suitable epitaph for America’s longest “war” may well be the plan, in Bolivia, for every family to be given the right to grow coca in its own backyard. Prepare to shed a tear over the loss of revenue that eventual decriminalisation of narcotics could bring to the traffickers, large and small, and to the contractors who have been making good money building and running the new prisons that help to bankrupt governments – in the US in particular, where drug offenders – principally small retailers and seldom the rich and important wholesalers – have helped to push the prison population to 1,600,000; their imprisonment is already straining federal and state budgets. In Mississippi, where drug offenders once had to serve 85 per cent of their sentences, they are now being required to serve less than a quarter. California has been ordered to release 40,000 inmates because its prisons are hugely overcrowded. Hugh O’Shaughnessy in the London Independent.
Ioan Grillo in his book El Narco (2011) that recently won several journalism awards also compared the US official crime stats with those of Mexico and came to the same conclusion; he stated that the murder rates in the US are ten time that of Mexico, per capita. Not there’s no problem, there is, but that is of a different nature: read the book to see his explanations.
In my view, other approaches than warfare have been proven to work better to decrease drug use, as demonstrated in Scandinavian and European countries. One strategy is to decrease the market (by making soft drugs legal) and addressing addiction by treatment, such as offering detoxification at no cost, followed by addiction treatment, starting at the street level. When some addict becomes caught and enters the justice system, treatment could be offered, instead of incarceration, and diversion of sentencing implemented, strictly for addiction related illegal activities. As an addictions counselor in a previous lifetime, I know that addicts also need after-care to prevent relapses. Prevention should be the focus; the provision of a social safety network is essential to adolescents, to prevent those youths-at-risk (not yet addicted) from falling into the trap of drug use.
In countries such as The Netherlands, my home country, so called “soft” drug use is NOT seen as a criminal act and is treated as a health issue, with treatment and other social supports readily available.
Research has compared the numbers of first time pot users and their ages between various nations, notoriously between the Netherlands and the US; the numbers of first time users were significantly higher in the US and their ages much lower in the US. The Netherlands have a tolerance for soft drug use, which is regulated, but not illegal. Age for alcohol consumption is also lower, at 16, while driving age is set at 18.
This seems to fly in the face of reason to many people who believe in the power of negative reinforcement: undesirable behaviours should be punished and then the behaviours will disappear; they would believe that tolerance to the undesirable behaviours only breeds more of that behaviour. Not so!
The explanation for the reverse phenomenon can be found by looking at the issue in the context of human development, and not in the model of behaviour theory. The teenage stage (adolescence) is a developmental stage were youths are searching to distinguish themselves from their parents (individuation) and are looking for adventures, possibly find some rebellious causes, are exploring their own opinions, developing a world view of their own. They are looking for challenges that they can measure their strengths against and ways to build capacity for adulthood.
If drugs, including alcohol, are strictly forbidden, or seen as only allowed for mature people (adults), or strictly associated with a negative image, such as criminal, substance use just might become the ticket for youth to challenge their elders and themselves, while creating an image of power and danger.
The Mexican government has tried to emulate the US model of war against drugs (really war against drug users in the US) and many, many pesos were allocated to the military and to federal drug enforcement forces, in an effort to meet the demands from the US for secure borders and for stopping drugs from entering that way into US territory. Mexico had become a haven for drug traders with little to stop them, corrupting government officials and others. The trade of the drugs from South American producers (notoriously Columbia) through Mexican territory to the US, and also to some extent to Canada, where the cocaine and other drugs are mostly consumed, is an unfortunate by-product of Mexico’s geographic location. The fact of Mexico ratifying the North American Trade Agreement between Canada, the US and Mexico, raises expectations for collaboration and the streamlining of policies between trade partners. The Mexican government had to do something.
THE MEXICAN SITUATION
The effects of the war on drugs can be seen in Mexico; we see now many more federal policemen heavily armed with large automatic weapons and in new vehicles, even in the small villages where I am spending my vacation time.
The successful, wealthy wholesalers of illegal drugs are moving into nice locations, aware of how to enjoy the finer things of life, and are buying large homes in wealthy neighbourhoods, where previously mostly foreigners and wealthy upper class nationals exclusively lived, exactly like in other nations around the world. Yes, also in Ajijic, Manzanilla, Acapulco and Puerto Vallarta, just as in West Vancouver, Richmond, Surrey and Kelowna. Too bad we could not keep these quaint Mexican villages unchanged, just for the pleasure of the tourists.
With the crime bosses, also the lower peons arrived and we can see the effects: a few junkies begging for money to keep alive (not nearly as many as I see daily in my home town of Kelowna), while enforcers are patrolling the streets in fancy trucks (only visible to those with some knowledge about the industry), the first indicators of a drug scene in this pristine corner of the world, much to the chagrin of tourists and locals alike.
However, the extent of local drug use by its citizens in semi-public seems much less in Mexico than I know from the Canadian situation, judging by the wafts of marijuana smoke seldom hitting my nose in the large city of Guadalajara and in the small town of Ajijic, and others, while walking through the streets (no car), where all windows are open in the warm climate and few houses are equipped with A/C.
Mexico is making tremendous efforts to beat the drug trade on other fronts. I have seen patrols at the outskirts of Guadalajara with federal police heavily armed with machine guns, checking the vehicles coming to the city and stopping suspected ones.
One strategy used is to cut off avenues for money laundering, so the proceeds of crime can then be traced and confiscated. I have to conclude that Mexico is way ahead of Canada in cutting off the options for laundering of illegally acquired funds through casinos. The Winland casino I visited in Guadalajara was managed very strictly: every customer must register before they can place a bet. Every better must show an ID on registration. This way, every person of interest to the drug enforcement squad can be tracked and their money traced.
No individual casino personnel is allowed to touch cash, not even at the Roulette table, at the Winland casino. After registration, a customer must submit their cash that they allocate for gambling, to the wicket clerk at the strictly monitored cash wickets. The money then is loaded onto an electronic card, much like a department store gift card, strictly for use at that casino. After finishing their gambling day, when leaving the casino with a balance left on the card, the customer can claim the balance, to be cashed in at the wicket.
In Canada, no restrictions are put on the amount of actual bank notes, cash, one can put directly into the Canadian gambling machines. Load up a large amount of bank notes, cash out after a few bets, and then cash in your printed ticket at the cash cage: this way money can be laundered. Recently, the Canadian media reported that this option for money laundering, now widely used, had attracted the attention of the Canadian police. In Canadian and US casinos, one can give the croupier at the roulette tables a wad of cash (under a certain amount, but still up to a fair amount, which the croupier then converts into chips for placing bets. A quick way to launder is to place a few bets for a small amount (by placing chips on numbers on a field at the roulette table), tell the croupier you want to cash out, receive chips in the value of the amount left, then cash the chips in at the cash wicket, and voila, illegally obtained cash has now been whitewashed and is legal! One can walk out with cash and nobody can trace whether indeed one made a legitimate gambling win or not, the money is not tracked or traceable, and no tax is paid over it either.
Another difference is that croupiers in the US and Canada are allowed to accept money as a tip from customers at the roulette and card tables. Nothing prevents a customer from giving a large tip to a croupier, no questions asked, which might be a bribe of some kind for some favour. Such practices would be completely impossible at the Guadalajara casino at the roulette. The roulette table is strictly electronic; the bettor places bets by pushing numbers on an electronic field and the amount of the bet is then drawn from the balance off the bettor’s electronic card. Only within the last months was the roulette made strictly electronic here in Kelowna. No cash whatsoever changes hands at any time. The card tables were not used, so I had no first hand experience how that would work in the Winland casino.
ALTERNATIVES TO WAR ON DRUGS
Recently, a handful of local youth of Ajijic who had become entangled with the criminal newcomers and their drug world, were killed, much to the shock of the locals. How could that have happened?
Local citizens, parents, aunties and uncles of the youths, suggested to make pot and soft drugs legal, to prevents more of their youths to be tangled up in the drug trade and be possibly killed, the harm not coming from the actual use of pot, but from the trade, and due to the temptations of making some quick money.
Would it not be marvellous, if Mexico and Canada would form an alliance and make a pact passing legislation to regulate soft drugs, thereby squashing at least part of the drug trade’s income earning capacity? If marijuana and its products are legal and traded at decent prices, its quality controlled in Mexico and in Canada, the traffickers won’t be able to use the potent, home grown BC bud anymore to pay for the cocaine that goes northwards–a practice widely spread.
Legalization would take the wind out of the sails of the drug trade by organized crime in Mexico and in Canada, to a large extent, and relocate the focus of the trade where it should be: in the US, where the largest number of users are and the largest market thrives in North America. The pact between Canada and Mexico would pressure the US to follow that lead.
Frontline, a publication of PBS.org states: According to the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, in 1999 an estimated 14.8 million Americans were current illicit drug users, meaning they had used some illicit drug during the month prior to the survey. This represents 6.7 percent of the population 12 years and older.(1) In 1999, Americans spent (see the chart) $63.2 billion on illicit drugs: $37 billion on cocaine, $12 billion on heroin, $10.2 billion on marijuana, and $4 billion on other drugs(27) The vast majority of that spending comes from hard-core addicts. Hardcore addicts make up less than quarter of the drug users in this country, but consume over two-thirds of the illegaldrugs. (28)http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/drugs/buyers/whoare.html#ixzz1JdEoKWT1
In the event of legalization of marijuana and related products, the Canadian and Mexican governments could re-allocate the revenues from collecting the taxes on the soft drug trade (potentially, billions of dollars are now lost annually to the underground trade in Canada alone) and finance the cost of addiction treatment facilities for hard drug users, to beat their addictions and to address their emotional and social problems that led to their drug use in the first place. Mexican government could start better education incentives and assist locals in starting legal businesses for providing an income, instead of the drug trade. With a vast, young population, Mexico has the labour reserves at competitive wages and this great potential to be successful in the time of economic downturn and compete with the rest of the globe.
A long term plan with a consistent approach and alternatives offered to the Mexican youth for making a living would undercut the number of drug users and spoil the market. As well, the allure of drug use to youths, and its association to danger, would have disappeared, and being an addict would be associated with being a pathetic victim, not a rebel.
Above strategies would keep the simple criminals, who committed property crimes to finance their addiction, out of the justice system–a much cheaper and more practical solution to the social problem of addicts in our communities. Funds and time of the courts would better be spent on pursuing hardened criminals and the big crime bosses. Confiscating all of the properties of those at the top of organized crime, who are caught and sentenced, would then provide additional revenues for subsidizing those alternative strategies. Corruption is a large problem. People that live in fear, are easily corrupted and made to oblige; reporting corruption must be made easier and safe, with relocation for protection if needed etc.
The drug trade can be very tempting and offers an almost irresistible avenue for earning a living to many local, young Mexicans that are still living in Mexico, but are influenced by the US materialism: the many products have to give happiness, as seen on the TV channels and in movies. Yes, that place (Wal-mart) also has an outlet here in Ajijic. It’s easy for a young Mexican to fall for the trappings of a brand new pick-up truck–loaded–or a chunky, solid gold chain around your neck, and the assurance of a great, easy income from a bit of illegal activity. That’s how it starts, but often it ends with death.
Mexico has the lowest wages of the three NAFTA (North American Free Trade Alliance) countries and is in many ways behind in its economic development; many Mexicans had to go abroad to improve their living situation, and most went to the US, now “undocumented” and not able to obtain citizenship. However, Canada and the US depend for large part on cheap agricultural Mexican products and for labour in other sectors, to meet the demand for food and other products. With improving agricultural practices and a higher quality of the products, achieved in recent years, higher wages might be justified, so Mexicans can get ahead and remain in Mexico, raising their families in relative economic security, at home.
In my view, NAFTA should be the vehicle to align the wages and to obtain more wage parity for Mexicans within NAFTA, similar to the European Community and its member nations. Yes, we will have to pay more than $3.50 for a large clam shell of strawberries in February in Canada. Cry me a river!
Negative publicity has stalled the tourist industry in Mexico, in my view completely unnecessary. The local area’s bars and restaurants seem quite empty, tourists reluctant to chose the destination, affected by the media hype about the Mexican government’s attempts to curb the drug trade and the gang wars over expanding territory that caused many deaths.
A noticeable downturn of tourism has taken place in the area where I am vacationing; a drop in real estate values and in selling/buying activities, due to the US economic downturn, is quite obvious.
To all those tourists who like the security, predictability and sameness of luxury resort life, nothing has changed for you. The beaches are still there and the locals still rely on your spending while you are away from your home country.
The Gringos, a name that identifies Americans/non-natives who are looking down on Mexicans, still live in their enclaves of walled cities with large homes, on the outskirts on Ajijic. A few braver ones live right in town. Quite a few of their properties are for sale and this would be an excellent time for buying a property.
If you are scheduling a trip to Mexico, be sure to give a bit bigger tip, treat your hosts fairly, as their costs have gone up, due to the Americans and I am sorry to say, the Canadians as well, staying home, afraid for the “crime wave”. Please, don’t bargain down too hard for that trinket that is already very cheap.
If you plan to get drunk outside of your resort and behave like an idiot, you might get ripped off here, as well as anywhere else in the world. But, do come and spend your dollars here in Mexico, regardless of however you prefer to spend your vacation time. There are bargains everywhere to be had. Staying away now does not seem fair, after the current government of president Calderon has made tremendous efforts to battle the corruption that was condoned by previous, weaker, more corrupt governments.
Some Mexicans, tired of the battle and of the effects of bad press on their economy, are suggesting that the president should close a pact with the drug lords and allow them to ply their drug trade, as before. Alas, there is no looking back now. Granted, the solutions might be found in other strategies than the bloody US style War On Drugs. Hopefully, NAFTA can bring solace here as well and its leadership will commence with the streamlining of alternative policies that will improve the life of Mexican citizens, so drug use and trafficking do not offer such an attractive life style.
I am happy to be here in Mexico and I am slowing down to a more leisurely pace of life. I was received by my hosts and their local relatives with grace and with good, simple food, always freshly made. I intend to proceed in the coming years with preparations to stay here for after my retirement, as the sun is reliable and the temperature warm, the food good and cheap, the people kind, and live takes place at a slower, more enjoyable pace.