If it is part and parcel for democracies to (1) protect individual rights, (2) safeguard its citizenship from serious abuses of power, and (3) produce fair and reasonable laws which are impartially enforced, then we can assert that the misnamed “war on drugs” severely corrodes Mexican democracy.
In general, the “war on drugs” is a punitive strategy which aims to increase drug prices and punish consumers, under the assumption that attacking supply can create a world without drugs. In Mexico, what is referred to as the “war on drugs” escalated in 2006, when then-president Felipe Calderón started “a frontal war against organized crime”, allegedly, to “keep drugs from reaching our children”. Calderón did so right after a highly competitive election with a controversial outcome, which had discredited his incoming administration and Mexico’s fragile democratic institutions among a large part of the population.
Rather than increasing democratic legitimacy and governability, as punitive measures carried out by state authorities have intensified and multiplied, Calderón’s “war on drugs” has negatively affected several key dimensions of democracy in Mexico.
The protection of fundamental individual rights
Important privacy protections have been sacrificed on the altar of supposed grater effectiveness in the drug war. Article 16 of the Mexican Constitution establishes that “No person shall be disturbed in his/her private affairs, his/her family, correspondence, properties or be invaded at home without a written order from a competent authority” and guarantees that “private communications shall not be breached”. However, in March 2018, Mexico’s Supreme Court declared that stop and search and vehicle inspections are constitutional without a court order. Moreover, in April 2014, the Mexican Congress issued a new Law on Telecommunications and Broadcasting. This law allows the government to force telephone providers to hand over sensitive information about their customers without a prior search warrant. Both measures, which were justified by the necessity of waging the “war on drugs”, directly violate the abovementioned constitutional guarantees.
The safeguard from abuses of power
Democratic norms have been further eroded by the militarization of punitive anti-drug measures and sanctioning of abuses of power. Article 21 of the Mexican Constitution establishes: “It is the Public Prosecution Service’s responsibility to investigate crimes alongside police forces, who shall work under the Public Prosecution Service’s command”. However, in December 2017, the Internal Security Law (LSI) was passed. Above all, this law allows and promotes the presence of the armed forces in public security tasks, and grants them broad and indeterminate powers. Among other things, Article 26 of the LSI empowers the Armed Forces to perform wide range of security tasks without the need of explicit authorization or civilian oversight. Insofar, militarization of public security seems to violate the Constitution. Increased involvement of the military has led an explosion of the abuses of power by government officials: For example, before the war on drugs began, 20% of the arrests made by the army were accompanied by torture. After the war was declared, this figure reached almost 70%.
The production of fair and reasonable laws that are impartially enforced
Last but not least, the war on drugs undermines Mexican democracy because it has produced unjust and disproportionate laws that apply to anyone and anything even remotely related to drugs. Both, the incidence of sentences for so-called “crimes against health”, such as – but not limited to – non-violent, simple possession of cannabis, and their severity have increased systematically. For example, the maximum sentence for drug crimes increased from 25 years in 1990, to 40 years in 2012. Additionally, the Mexican state increasingly relies on incarceration to deal with drug-related activities. For instance, between 2001 and 2012 the number of people incarcerated for drug offenses rose by 19%. And, in 2012, approximately 60% of inmates in federal prisons had been convicted for so-called “crimes against health”.
If we want Mexico to succeed in establishing a government that protects fundamental rights against abuses of power and produces fair laws, it is necessary to concede that the “war on drugs” in its current form has been an unmitigated disaster. In other words, to rescue the democratic project in Mexico, it is imperative that we stop focusing our efforts on fighting the supply of drugs and condemning its users, and instead fight the demand for drugs with evidence-based public policies seeking to prevent use, educate users, reduce concomitant harms and treat addictions. Otherwise, if the war continues, anti-democratic practices, reminiscent of Mexico’s authoritarian past, will persist and carry on eroding Mexico’s democracy.
A slightly different version of this article was originally published in Spanish by Animal Politico.