Funding not only tool needed to stem drug violence

By Brandi Grissom/Austin Bureau

AUSTIN — As lawmakers last week approved sending millions to help Mexico with its war against narco-traffickers, experts said the government is doing little to address the root cause of that violence and reduce drug use in the U.S.

“Throwing money into the drug interdiction processes is tantamount to saying you can’t prevent drugs coming into this country,” said Larry Birns, director of the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs.

The U.S. House on Tuesday approved the Bush administration’s Merida Initiative, authorizing $1.6 billion in aid to Mexico over the next three years.

Lawmakers who supported the plan said helping Mexico conquer powerful cartels would protect border areas such as El Paso from the bloodshed occurring across the Rio Grande. More can be done to improve security, but the initiative, they said, is a good step.

“The drug cartels’ brutal attacks against Mexican police and military forces threaten the security of the entire border region,” said U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas.

Some experts, though, said the government is fighting only one battle in the war on drugs, trying to stem the supply of narcotics without reducing demand in the U.S.

Lawmakers, they said, should consider decriminalizing drug use and improving treatment and prevention of drug addiction.

The Merida Initiative, which still must be approved in the Senate, would provide training and resources for Mexican military to fight the war President Felipe Calderón has waged against drug cartels.

It would also authorize funding for an effort to stop guns from flowing from the U.S. into Mexico.

“We cannot allow these ruthless criminals to continue their coordinated effort to weaken Mexico’s ability to crack down on the flow of illegal drugs to the U.S.,” Reyes said.

Reyes has also sponsored a measure that would invest $5 billion during the next five years in U.S. Customs and Border Protection to improve security at land ports.

That measure, he said, is the second part of the U.S. border security strategy, which so far has focused on stopping illegal traffic between the ports with funding for more U.S. Border Patrol officers and for 700 miles of fencing.

“This is providing the last part to the border security effort,” Reyes said.

But U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, said even more must be done to shore up the border on the northern side before the U.S. sends money to Mexico.

He voted against the Merida Initiative, though he said he supports the plan, because lawmakers did not include a measure that would have also given $100 million to local law enforcement on the border in the U.S.

“We have local law enforcement and border sheriffs that are very much outmanned and outgunned,” he said.

Don Reay, executive director of the Texas Border Sheriffs Coalition, said border sheriffs need the additional dollars but oppose the Merida Initiative.

They worry tools from the U.S. meant to stop the violence in Mexico might end up in the wrong hands, turned against their officers.

Border sheriffs, he said, are on constant alert as the fighting in Mexico mounts, and they have increased their patrols with millions in grants from Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

Last year, the Texas Legislature approved $110 million for border security efforts, and a portion of that went to sheriffs and local police.

Steve McCraw, Texas Homeland Security director, said increased patrol presence of sheriffs, state troopers and other officers on the border has deterred Mexican traffickers from using areas between the ports to transport drugs and people.

Local police have also stepped up searches for cars headed south with weapons and money that support Mexican cartels.

And, he said, state, federal and local agencies are prepared to deal with drug-related violence if it does spill onto American soil.

“We have to hope for the best and prepare for the worst,” McCraw said.

But experts said all the focus on border security and fighting cartels in Mexico ignores the primary driver of drug-related violence: drug consumption in the U.S.

“One of these (solutions) has to be at some point drug legalization and decriminalization of drugs, or else you are permanently dooming thousands of people to be killed on both sides of the border,” said Birns, of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a liberal think tank.

The Merida Initiative he called a “faux solution,” and Birns said America’s war against drugs has been largely rhetorical and chronically underfunded.

Instead of dumping money into plans to stop drugs, University of Texas at El Paso political science professor Tony Payan said, the U.S. should invest in clinics to help addicts recover and in campaigns against drug use.

“We really should start thinking about whether we get a bigger bang for our buck by dealing with demand rather than supply,” he said.

And the demand isn’t only on the U.S. side.

Jane Maxwell, senior research scientist at the Addiction Research Institute at the University of Texas at Austin, said drug addiction has increased in Mexican border towns in recent years, further fueling cartel turf wars.

There aren’t nearly enough drug clinics in U.S. border towns, she said, but the situation in Mexico is bleaker.

The U.S., she said, could set the example by funding its own drug treatment programs and helping Mexico initiate its own.

“They’ve got enough problems without making it worse” with drug addiction, she said. “We need to be providing some leadership.”