- The Washington Times - Monday, February 2, 2009

EL PASO, Texas | “Are you on drugs?”

That was the question raised at a meeting of the El Paso City Council by resident Armando Cordoza after the council voted 8-0 earlier this month on a resolution asking the federal government to begin an “open, honest national dialogue on ending the prohibition of narcotics.”

The contentious measure - drafted by the city’s Committee on Border Relations, comprising local businessmen, academics and lawyers - was meant to respond to escalating drug violence in El Paso’s Mexican border city, Ciudad Juarez.

Juarez, across the Rio Grande from El Paso, is the murder capital of Mexico. There were more than 5,600 drug-related homicides in Mexico in 2008, by the count of the Mexico City newspaper El Universal - more than 1,500 in Juarez alone, according to Chihuahua state police.

Those killed included journalists and city, state and federal officials caught up in a battle between rival Sinaloa and Juarez drug cartels and Mexican troops.

The violence is grisly and intended to shock and intimidate.

Journalist Armando Rodriguez, who was covering crime for the El Diario newspaper in Juarez, was assassinated while seated in a car with his 8-year-old daughter on Nov. 13, 2008.

The severed head of a police officer from the border town of Guadalupe Distrito Bravos turned up on the steps of a police station just east of Juarez on Jan. 18.

Public display of bodies in high-traffic areas has become common. But when drug lords want bodies to disappear, they are never found. A hit man jailed in Tijuana has reportedly admitted he disposed of 300 bodies in vats of acid.

Mexico has seen a dramatic rise in homicides since President Felipe Calderon declared a war on drugs in early 2007. About 45,000 troops and $7 billion have been committed to fight cartel-linked corruption and drug trafficking that reaches into the Mexican government.

Last year, Congress approved the $1.5 billion Merida Initiative, a three-year program to help Mexico and other Central American countries that are actively fighting the drug trade.

The impact of Mexican drug violence has become palpable on the U.S. side of the border.

A recent report by The Washington Times highlighted the growing potential of cross-border spillover, with Mexican drug cartels representing a growing threat to both citizens and law enforcement agencies in the United States.

In its original form, the El Paso resolution expressed sympathy for the residents of Juarez, condemned violence and proposed steps the U.S. and Mexican governments could take to regain control.

“As good as the resolution was, it didn’t have anything that significantly changed the status quo that’s led to this unprecedented brutality and terrorism on the border,” said El Paso Council member Beto O’Rourke. “So we asked that one other policy consideration be made, and that was having an open and honest debate on ending the prohibition of illegal drugs.”

Mr. O’Rourke conceded that drug legalization might not be the silver bullet that kills cartel violence and stressed that neither he nor the City Council advocated drug use.

“We need to look very soberly at what drug policy over the last 40 years has wrought, good and bad,” Mr. O’Rourke said. “Then, look at some decriminalization experiments and see where they’ve succeeded and failed.” He cited the decriminalization of marijuana in California.

Spending $40 billion annually as a nation on the drug war at a time of spiraling U.S. debt and incarceration levels might not make sense after closer inspection, Mr. O’Rourke said.

“We will have a failed state on our southern border, and our current undocumented immigration problem will pale in comparison,” he said.

Though El Paso Mayor John Cook initially requested the resolution, he vetoed it a few hours after the council’s unanimous vote.

“People knew we were going to discuss stopping guns from going there or stopping chemicals from going there,” Mr. Cook said. “They had no idea we were going to discuss lifting the prohibition on narcotics.”

A week after the mayor’s Jan. 6 veto, City Council representatives reconvened to try to override his decision.

Upon hearing of the override attempt, Rep. Silvestre Reyes, Texas Democrat, and state politicians threatened drastic cuts in funding for El Paso. The override attempt failed on a 4-4 vote.

“There are statistics that show drug use in the United States is actually down. So on that side of the argument, I think we might be winning the war on drugs,” Mr. Cook said.

Mr. Cook also said that drug use among teens is down from what it used to be, that cocaine and heroin addiction is decreasing and that interdiction policies have been working. He also said that the cost of marijuana has been “skyrocketing.”

However, data on drug use and drug prices is contradictory.

A study last year by the U.S.-funded Monitoring the Future project, which conducts national surveys, found 900,000 fewer teenagers using illicit drugs in 2008 than in 2001, a 25 percent decline.

However, the same study found marijuana and cocaine use had remained relatively constant going back more than a decade.

Moreover, wholesale prices for commercial-grade marijuana have not significantly changed during the last decade, running between $400 and $1,000 per pound in U.S. Southwest border areas to between $700 and $2,000 per pound in the Midwest and Northeast, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

Tony Payan, a professor at the University of Texas at El Paso and the Universidad Autonoma de Ciudad Juarez, has witnessed everything from daily drug-fueled violence to vehicles stolen from the U.S. and driven through Juarez before being abandoned on the street.

“We seem to have a virulent, allergic reaction to anything that may even suggest a certain level of tolerance for drug use. Drug use and drug abuse continues,” said Mr. Payan, who is also a member of El Paso’s Committee on Border Relations.

“Why isn’t this a good time to talk about how to deal with drugs?” he asked. “The resolution did not call for the legalization of drugs. It called for an open and honest debate on dealing with drugs.”

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