The Chronicle Review

19th-Century Lessons for Today's Drug-War Policies

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Mexican federal police officers patrol the streets during an antidrug sweep of Ciudad Juárez, which shares a border with El Paso, Tex.
July 27, 2009

This spring in El Paso, after a talk I gave on the Indian raids and the U.S.-Mexican War, a man in the back row raised his hand. "Do you see any similarities between the borderland violence you've just described for the 1830s and 1840s and the current drug war?" The energy in the room changed immediately.

More than any other American city, El Paso has borne witness to the tragedy of Mexico's raging drug war. Last year 16 people were murdered in El Paso. Meanwhile, 100 times as many people were killed just a stone's throw across the Rio Grande, in Ciudad Juárez. Mexico's government sent in the army to stop the bleeding, but, despite the presence of some 9,400 troops and federal police, the murder rate actually went up in the first half of 2009. While the residents of El Paso live in relative security, their neighbors in Juárez still confront daily horrors: gun battles in the streets, headless bodies dangling from bridges, children stumbling upon corpses on their way to school.

Here then was a chance to speak of something urgently important to my audience, to put the region's past and present into conversation. And the story I'd just told invited the comparison. In the 1830s, Comanches, Kiowas, and several tribes of Apaches began sending raiding parties against settlements in northern Mexico, killing and capturing their inhabitants and stealing or destroying their animals and property. Spurred in part by markets for stolen horses, mules, and captive women and children, those attacks eventually spread to all or parts of nine Mexican states. By the mid-1840s, raids and counterraids had claimed several thousand lives, ruined crucial sectors of the region's economy, sparked rebellions against the hapless national government, and helped enable the United States to seize half of Mexico's territory in the subsequent war.

So "Sure," I answered. "I see all kinds of parallels between the two cases: stateless protagonists, illicit commodities going north, arms and ammunition going south, rampant kidnappings, accusations of bad faith between Washington and Mexico City, and terrible insecurity for people across the region." The fellow in the back of the room paused, then nodded his thanks. The pause said everything he'd been too polite to utter out loud: "So where does that leave us?"

Parallels are easy; policy recommendations riskier. Academic historians rightly caution against facile analogies between past and present. Whatever the parallels, there are stark differences between these two conflicts—not least between indigenous peoples pursuing their own complex policies and drug cartels spreading mayhem for profit. But as we grope for effective responses to the drug war, perhaps the very differences between the two struggles can set our policy choices in a fresh light.

Consider the borderland arms trade. Throughout the 1830s and 1840s, Mexican diplomats denounced American "traders of blood" said to provide raiders with guns and ammunition in return for plunder. Muskets made in America and Europe gave Plains Indians, especially, huge advantages over the poorly armed residents of northern Mexico's ranches and towns. Before 1846, American officials casually denied responsibility for the arms trade. During the debate over the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the U.S.-Mexican War in 1848, the U.S. Senate even deleted a clause prohibiting the sale of arms to Indians. But in later years—as American Indian agents and Army personnel tried and mostly failed to honor clauses binding the United States to end cross-border raiding—U.S. officials recognized the arms trade as a major problem. While it would be decades before the American government had the power to disrupt the arms traffic, doing so was a prerequisite to effective state control over the region.

Now as then, American arms are implicated in Mexico's troubles. Mexican officials have understandably implored the United States to crack down on gun shows and the more than 7,000 licensed arms dealers near the border. Of all weapons seized in Mexico or at the border, 90 percent come from the United States. American news media have begun to pay closer attention to what the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has called an "iron river of guns" flowing south, and the Obama administration has signaled that it intends to better police the arms traffic. The United States has an urgent obligation to do so, in part because the American guns pouring into Mexico are enabling all kinds of crime—much of it only indirectly related to the drug trade.

But American and Mexican officials are mistaken if they believe an arms crackdown will neuter the cartels. Unlike 19th-century Comanches, Kiowas, or Apaches, 21st-century cartels have vast resources and mature conduits to the rest of the world. Today arms are thought to generate more revenue in the international black market than any other commodity—save drugs. With the proper kickbacks and contacts, even bit players can arrange for vast arms transfers from Eastern Europe and elsewhere. If weapons dried up north of the border, cartels would find other sources. Guns are tools in the drug trade; it is the trade itself that needs attending to.

For a generation, the United States has attended to the drug trade through an expensive, transnational, militarized response to producers and traffickers, and through severe criminal penalties for American consumers. Critics left and right have long insisted that the enforcement paradigm has failed, that the nation must rethink the war on drugs. Mexico's recent agonies have only raised the volume on such protests (The Economist, for example, this spring reaffirmed its 20-year stance that the war on drugs is "illiberal, murderous, and pointless"). And yet even in an era of "change we can believe in," the enforcement paradigm reigns. The centerpiece of America's response to Mexico's drug war under Bush and now under Obama is the Mérida Initiative, a multiyear program that could allocate as much as $1.6-billion for equipment, training, and assistance in the fight against cartels in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. The initiative is sophisticated, multidimensional, and wholly a creature of the enforcement paradigm: everything to do with supply (hurting cartels and impeding drug flows) and nothing to do with demand.

During the 19th century, too, officials in Mexico and the United States saw enforcement as the obvious solution to borderland insecurity. But only in the 1860s and 1870s, after both countries had emerged from bloody civil wars with stronger governments and armies, could state power rise to the task. Often motivated more by a desire for land and resources than a determination to end raiding, Mexico and the United States moved decisively to extinguish native independence throughout the borderlands. Above and below the river, that meant merciless campaigns against native communities, massacres, destruction of critical resources, forced relocation onto reservations, and sometimes (as with many Apaches and Yaquis) even imprisonment and deportation out of the borderlands. Defining tragedies for indigenous men, women, and children, those events were viewed by triumphant governments as vindications of the progress they had made.

But here, too, the differences between the wars of the 19th century and the 21st are more instructive than the similarities. Enforcement was a successful state strategy in the 19th century because both republics' enemies were ethnically and territorially distinct polities, whose small populations were shrinking and which had limited capacity to recruit new members. National authorities could be confident that force would eventually prevail. In contrast, today's cartels can and do operate across multiple territories, and, as long as their endeavors remain profitable, will never lack for recruits. Disruptions in the trade are always temporary, met with new routes, methods, technologies, and bribes. And when state power brings down this or that dealer, courier, or kingpin, the immediate result is fierce competition for the vacant spot. In the words of the recent Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, "Even with heavy military police repression, eradication of plantations, disruption to drug traffickers' physical infrastructure, and the constant seizure of considerable drug supplies, organized crime maintains margins of profit that easily overcome its losses."

The obvious alternative to enforcement is to reconsider law. Here we come to a last, instructive difference between the two borderland wars. The market exchanges that helped stoke Indian raids in the 19th century were nominally illicit under Mexican and, later, U.S. law. However, for most of the 19th century, the relative weakness of the American and Mexican governments in the vast borderland region made it difficult to exert any control over markets. More fundamentally, the key commodities in the trade—horses and mules—were ubiquitous and essential to everyday life. The government could no more outlaw those goods than it could pants or copper pots. That fact, combined with the feeble reach of national power, made it virtually impossible to police Indian raids and the exchanges they enabled. Hence changes in the law concerning commodities could have done little to improve borderland security until late in the century.

The contrast with the drug war is obvious. The drug war is born of law. According to estimates by the United Nations, roughly one in 20 adults worldwide uses illegal drugs—and nowhere more than in the United States, where the vast market for illicit drugs remains immensely profitable. Prohibition has failed. What it has done is deny drug producers, distributors, and consumers access to the protections and conveniences of the legal marketplace. One result has been phenomenal profits for those entities shrewd, organized, and ruthless enough to overcome obstacles and satisfy demand. War has been another result—war against the state and war against the competition. And, as with any war, the miseries are not confined to the protagonists.

So if I were given another chance to answer that question in El Paso, I'd say that the lesson I take away from the 19th-century parallel is that we ought to look to state and national legislatures (law), rather than the executive branch (enforcement), if we want to bring an end to the drug war in the borderlands. There is a crooked but unbroken line between our drug laws and the sorrows that have engulfed Juárez and so much of Mexico, to say nothing of our own shameful, burgeoning prison system. It is a moral as well as a practical imperative that we change our laws, despite the pain that change will bring. Even paired with comprehensive regulation and rigorous, well-financed drug-treatment programs, legalization would indisputably generate complex ethical, social, medical, and legal problems. But given the vast costs of the war on drugs and the heartbreak and trauma now stalking the borderlands, does anyone really believe those problems would be worse?

Brian DeLay is an assistant professor of history at the University of California at Berkeley. He is author of War of a Thousand Deserts: Indian Raids and the U.S.-Mexican War (Yale University Press, 2008).