Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Drugs and Fear in Paradise

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, February 23, 2010 --  

American drug policies are destroying lives and tourism in Mexico.

As Americans shake their heads in fear and disgust at the violent carnage on the streets of Mexican border cities, Mexico's tourist industry is reeling. Mexico's tourism department said yesterday that the country received 15 percent less revenue from foreign tourists last year than the year prior -- a loss of $2 billion for the developing country.1

To be fair, some of these losses may be due to other causes. 2009 also featured two other tourism squelching events: the outbreak of the swine flu virus near Mexico City, and a deep global recession. But judging by the fearful comments I received from skittish acquaintances when I told them I was vacationing in Mexico early last year, fear of violence is clearly a big factor in the downturn.

It's not hard to understand why this fear exists. In Ciudad Juarez, just over the border from El Paso, 2,500 people were murdered last year, as 9,000 federal troops and police have battled with the drug gangs.2 The violence has spilled over to innocents. Last month, 15 people were killed at a party of high school students, when a gunman in a SUV pulled up and opened fire.3 This incident has gripped already shell-shocked residents of Juarez, especially after President Filipe Calderon dismissed the victims as "gangsters," then had to apologize after reports that there were no links between the victims and the drug gangs.4

And while Juarez is certainly the most besieged Mexican city, similar violence is facing Tijuana, parts of the Mexican state of Michoacan, and the Pacific coast. Even tourist cities like Acapulco and Cancun have reported drug-related murders, albeit in smaller numbers, spooking tourists into believing there may be similar danger as in the drug hot spots.

The violence has led some pundits to suggest that Mexico may become a failed state. This is unfair. One of the main reasons that the violence has flared up is because president Calderon was strong and bold enough to take on the drug traffickers rather than tolerate them like his predecessors.

Criticism and derision from Mexico's northern neighbor is especially unwelcome because America is part of the problem. Drug violence exists in Mexico largely due to the voracious appetites of drug users in the United States. And it isn't just the drug users who share the blame, but the supporters of America's prohibitionist drug policies.

It is an established fact that outlawing a substance in high demand leads to a black market and smuggling. When violence is used to suppress this black market trade, violent gangs result. It happened on the streets of Chicago with the illicit alcohol trade in the 1920s, and it is happening now on the streets of Juarez with marijuana, cocaine, and heroin. Those who support these policies while washing their hands of the inevitably tragic consequences share in the responsibility.

The money lost by the tourism industry is a relatively minor consequence compared with the lives shattered by the violence. Yet is still a shame, not just because of its impact on the livelihoods of those working in tourism, but because it robs the people of the world of the chance to visit one of the most rewarding destinations on earth.

Mexico has had a world-class cuisine since before the arrival of conquistadors -- it is blessed as the origin of chocolate, the tomato, the avocado and the chili pepper. It contains incredible ruins of the most advanced cultures in the Western hemisphere, beautiful white sand beaches, picturesque colonial towns, and a rich culture of incredible folk arts, music, and mesmerizing festivals. As a tourist destination, it has it all. It is an utter shame that people are frightened away from paradise as a consequence of the policies of American do-gooders -- do-gooders who advocate violence to control the substances other people choose to ingest.


1. USA Today, Mexico Saw 15% Drop in Tourism in 2009, February 22, 2010

2. Wall Street Journal, Mexico Gunmen Kill 14 Teens, Young Adults, January 31, 2010

3. Lost Angeles Times, Juarez Massacre May Mark a Turning for Mexico, February 19, 2010

4. The Economist, A "Dying" City Protests, February 18, 2010