Spiegel has vivid and gruesome coverage of the continuing violence in Mexico. Several things are clear at this point
1. The violence has become to some extent self-sustaining because several of the cartels are fighting each other. Whether the government ramps up or rolls back its heroic efforts, there will be violence as the cartels battle for territory as well as perpetuate the we-commit-atrocities-as-vengeance-for-past-atrocities cycle.
2. Had Proposition 19 passed, the cartels would still be there and Mexico would still be enduring horrific violence. I personally expected a modest drop in violence if the initiative passed, although people who study the cartels tell me I am wrong about that. They forecast that the effect of a small loss of business would be akin to taking away a few street corners from a drug market, which tends to increase violence as the remaining players fight it out over the reduced territory.
No matter who is correct about that issue, California’s marijuana business is just one of many lines of activity for the cartels. To wound them seriously the U.S. as a whole would have to legalize marijuana, heroin and cocaine (which isn’t going to happen and shouldn’t), and even then the cartels would have income from human trafficking, black market movies and cigarettes, kidnapping for hire, drug trafficking within Central and South America etc.
3. But even presuming national legalization in the U.S. of all drugs, the idea that the removal of the drug business would wipe out the cartels is an example of the “reversability fallacy” (which probably has a proper name in logic but I don’t know what it is). Reversability was also invoked during alcohol Prohibition in the U.S. Repeal advocates promised that re-legalizing alcohol production would eliminate the Mafia. But once a process has been put in place, removing an original cause does not logically imply that the process will stop. The Mafia was enriched by Prohibition, but by the time of repeal it had a life of its own and survived for decades afterwards as a force in American society. (Note, same fallacy applies to human activity and climate change…whether we caused it is irrelevant, all that matters is whether changes in our behavior now will make a difference…it’s entirely possible that we caused it to start but no longer have the power to stop it).
4. The basic problem in Mexico is not drugs but endemic corruption and weak governance in the states. Visting a peaceful city there a few years ago, I was informed by a police officer that he and the other officiers paid 10% of their salary each month to the sergeant who hired all the officers. The sergeant did the same for the captain. This was not considered remarkable, it was just the usual way of doing business, the culture of mordida.
As the Spiegel article notes, the corruption and weak states result in impunity for most crimes and widespread distrust of police and judges. This means that if drugs magically disappeared tomorrow, the cartels would still have enormous revenue available to them by tapping the legal economy – shaking down big companies, charging protection money to local merchants, supporting corrupt candidates who would siphon tax revenue to the cartels, and so forth.
How does a society with this level of in-built corruption correct itself? Can it? I have the same question about Iraq. A Mexican friend tells me that aguantar (to endure) is the most important verb in Mexican politics — the people expect little, demand little, and get little. If some RBCer has a compelling, relevant example of a society that made a successful cultural and political transformation from corruption at all levels to strong, honest, government, this would be a great time for you to share it and cheer me and lot of other people up.