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Is the Drug War Now Over?

Miguel Angel Trevino MoralesDrug-war proponents are going through one of their periodic paroxysms of ecstasy over the capture this week near Nuevo, Laredo, Mexico, of a man alleged to be one of Latin America’s biggest and most brutal drug lords, 40-year-old Miguel Angel Trevino Morales. Mainstream journalists are even wondering what effect the arrest might have on the decades-old drug war.

Permit me to put their minds at ease. The arrest means nothing insofar as the drug war itself is concerned. It certainly does not mean that the drug war is now over. On the contrary, if anything it will inspire drug-war proponents to carry on the drug war more fiercely than ever, in the attempt to arrest even more powerful and dangerous drug lords.

It’s all a fool’s errand, of course. The more they crack down, the higher the black-market price soars. The more the price soars, the bigger the incentive for people to enter the drug trade. The higher the illegal profits, the more violent the black-market business becomes.

I’ve seen this much-ballyhooed drug-war nonsense ever since I was a teenager in the 1960s in Laredo, Texas, which is right across the river from Nuevo Laredo, where they caught Trevino. My father was the federal magistrate in Laredo. When a person was arrested by the feds, he’d be brought before my father for an initial hearing and the setting of his bond.

There were all sorts of drug-law violators who were being arrested in Laredo back in the 1960s. They included big drug kingpins, couriers, drug users, and even lots of innocent long-haired hippies who were having drugs planted in their cars by federal agents at the international bridge upon their return from Mexico. It was an endless stream of people, many of whom would be sent to serve long prison sentences in federal and state prisons.

Some of the minor players in the drug trade in Laredo were high-school friends of mine. The brother of a girl I dated got caught bringing an ounce or so of marijuana back from Mexico. He had dropped his package of dope over the bridge on the U.S. shore of the Rio Grande before he arrived at U.S. Customs and had returned for it later that night. They caught him and convicted him in federal court of marijuana possession. Big deal. The bust certainly didn’t end the drug war, just as it didn’t when they sent another high-school friend of mine to federal prison for years for minor possession of marijuana.

When I returned to Laredo in 1975 to practice law, the flow of drugs from Mexico had grown monumentally. Criminal-defense lawyers were making a killing. Drug defendants would pay retainer fees of $10,000 in cash. One of my very first cases involved a guy who had been busted at the bridge for carrying cocaine within the panels of his car. With the same type of fanfare that we’re seeing with the Trevino bust, the feds announced that it was one of the biggest cocaine seizures in U.S. history.

The guy got convicted and sentenced to serve 15 years in federal prison. It made no difference insofar as the drug war was concerned. The war continued.

During my practice of law, I came to personally know some of the DEA agents. They were guys in their 30s and 40s and committed and passionate about their work. They were also very good at it. I can only assume that they’re now retired on fat pensions, after teaching their successors in the use of popular drug-war bromides especially after making a big drug bust.

Young people have no idea that people who have grown up with the drug war have heard all the Trevino-type buzz before. Two big drug busts involved such famous drug cartels as the Medellin Cartel (headed by Pablo Escobar, who was the Trevino of his day) and the Cali Cartel.

It has never made any difference insofar as the drug war is concerned. The busts are made and people go to prison. There are quickly replaced by new suppliers, and the war just keeps on going.

The whole process is gotten to the point where the DEA and the drug lords need each other. Everyone knows that if the drug war were ended with drug legalization, the drug lords would go out of business immediately, just as the booze lords did after Prohibition was ended. Drug lords can compete only in an illegal market, not a legal one.

So drug legalization is not what the drug lords want. But it’s also not what the DEA wants. If the drug lords were put out of business with drug legalization, the DEA would be put out of business too. That would obviously mean layoffs for DEA agents and DEA officials, people who depend on their generous drug-war salaries and pensions to pay their mortgages, raise their families, and fund their retirement.

There is also the matter of corruption to consider. The drug war generates unbelievably great opportunities for public officials, including cops, prosecutors, and judges to make generous amounts of money on the side through bribery. In fact, when Trevino was captured, he was carrying $2 million in cash with him, no doubt for the purpose of making payoffs when necessary. If drugs were legalized, those opportunities to make money from drug-war bribery would disappear instantaneously. That’s a powerful disincentive to ending the drug war on the part of public officials.

So, anyone who thinks that the Trevino arrest means the end of the 40-year-old drug war is obviously suffering from an extreme case of naiveté. There is too much money involved, both on the drug-dealer side and on the law-enforcement side. They need each other, which is why both sides want the drug war to keep going and going and going.

Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation.

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