The Mexican Legalization Movement
Drug Policy Reform Goes Mainstream South of the Border
By Dan Feder
Special to The Narco News Bulletin
January 20, 2003
“The war on drugs is a lost war,” says Mexican Congressman Gregorio Urias of the Northern State of Sinaloa, a region that has long suffered more than its share of the violence and corruption related to narco-trafficking. Sinaloa is often called “the cradle of Mexican narco-trafficking,” and Congressman Urias has had enough.
“Narco-trafficking has increased, controlled more capital, moved a greater volume of drugs, consumption has gone up, the consequences have gone up, the violence engendered by trafficking has gone up each year,” says Urias. The cause of all this trouble, says the Congressman, of the center-left PRD (Democratic Revolution Party), is not the drugs, but their illegality, and the current policy of prohibition is only making the problems worse.
In other words, Urias favors the legalization of drugs, and last year authored legislation in the national Congress to begin that process with the decriminalization of marijuana.
Congressman Gregorio Urias
All photos D.R. Dan Feder 2003
The Congressman wants to debate the effectiveness of the current policy of drug prohibition, but, he says, “This debate almost never happens in Mexico. Information should no longer be manipulated. The official information is distorted information. What I have proposed in the Latin American Parliament, and here in Mexico, is that there should be a debate.” The other options on the table, he says, should include the legalization or decriminalization of marijuana and other drugs.
Urias is not the first political leader to openly challenge the US-imposed policy of prohibition. In 1998, then-Senator Maria del Carmen Bolado del Real, of the competing PAN (National Action Party) proposed a bill to legalize and regulate all drugs in Mexico. In fact, leaders from almost every one of Mexico’s political parties have advocated this solution at one time or another – including President Vicente Fox, who, in 2001, predicted that decriminalization of drugs would be inevitable as a global solution – but the commercial media never picks up on the debate and it has been difficult for reform advocates to gain traction.
But suddenly, discussion of drug legalization has grown from a whisper to an active discourse in many parts of Mexico. A growing circle of young activists, organizers, and journalists, working outside the traditional political system and the commercial media grids, has become a nascent grassroots legalization movement. Behind it, a generation of Mexicans; millions of high school and college students, who grew up amid the glaring contradictions of prohibition and don’t believe the hype.
Political Parties Woo A Constituency
As in the United States, the idea of legalizing drugs in Mexico was only, at first, reported when suggested by members of the cultural and academic elite. In 1985, several magazines published a document called the “Manifiesto Pacheco” (“Stoners’ Manifesto”), a demand for the freedom of the individual to choose whether to smoke cannabis. Then, in 1993, two of Latin America’s most prominent novelists – Colombian Gabriel García Márquez and the Panamanian-born Mexican émigré Carlos Fuentes – produced a manifesto signed by many colleagues denouncing the war on drugs and its impact on the region. The same year, Gustavo de Greiff, the Colombian Attorney General who brought down Pablo Escobar, publicly came out against prohibition.
The two manifestos made some noise in Mexico, but were soon essentially forgotten. Durring the mid-1990s, however, when Mexican drug traffickers began to replace Colombians as the major transporters of cocaine, the L-word surfaced again. Several noted academics, including narco-trafficking analyst Jorge Chabat, pronounced themselves in favor of drug legalization (or, at least, decriminalization of drug use). Generación, a popular Mexico City cultural magazine, devoted an issue to the culture and politics of Marijuana in 1996. Generación editor Carlos Martinez was surprised to hear the Congresswoman Maria del Carmen Bolado del Real of the conservative PAN party expressed agreement with the magazine’s work: Two years later she was a federal senator, and filed the country’s first drug legalization bill.
Then came the election of 2000 – which finally toppled the PRI from 70 years of power – and the issue was discussed more openly than ever before. The Mexican magazine Nexos asked all parties involved in the election for their views on drug legalization. PRI candidate Francisco Labastida predictably said no, law and order must be enforced. PAN candidate Vicente Fox went one further and said small-time users weren’t being punished hard enough, and should be made to be more afraid of the state. (Narco News, at the time a new online newspaper providing coverage from Mexico and other countries, translated these interviews into English.)
The third major candidate, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas did not answer the magazine’s query directly. But his party’s chairwoman said, “the legalization of the consumption of drugs is a theme of global importance that cannot be decided by one country alone.”
Smaller parties like the Authentic Revolutionary Party (PARM) and the Social Democracy Party (PDS) pulled no punches and called for legalization on an international level. The standard-bearers of those two parties for 2000 are now high level members of the Fox administration: articulate legalization advocate and former Speaker of the House Porfirio Muñoz Ledo (the PARM candidate) is today Mexico’s Ambassador to the European Union. Gilberto Rincón Gallardo from the PDS now heads Mexico’s office for the disabled. In fact, you can barely find a corner of the Mexican government where there are not legalization advocates except for those charged with enforcing the prohibition – and even some of those have expressed doubts.
In the Mexican Southeast, the nation’s third largest newspaper, the daily Por Esto!, editorialized “Dare to Legalize” and launched a wave of public discussion on the Yucatan Peninsula. Various other important journalists, human rights advocates, artists and political leaders spoke up.
In December 2000, Fox was sworn in as president, and he appointed the controversial author and political operative Jorge Castañeda as his Secretary of State. This raised some eyebrows (of course, there are plenty of things about Castañeda to raise one’s eyebrows at); Castañeda is a drug war critic, and on September 6, 1999, had written in his Newsweek column:
What is the purpose of investing hundreds of millions of dollars in the fight against drugs, plunging countries into civil war, strengthening guerrilla groups and unleashing enormous violence and corruption upon entire societies, if American leaders can simply brush off questions about drug use in their youth?
Also, in the autumn of 2000, Chihuahua Governor Patricio Martínez, of the then-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (the PRI), after surviving an assassination attempt likely linked to narco-trafficking in his border state with Texas and New Mexico, issued his own call for drug legalization.
By the Spring of 2001, Fox was on the record. Much of his administration – including public safety czar Alejandro Gertz Manero and a leading member of the national police brass Miguel Angel de la Torre – was already on the record as favoring, at least in their personal views, drug legalization as the way to stop the violence and corruption caused by narco-trafficking. When one journalist pressed Fox for his opinion on these comments, the president was quick to point out that Mexico could not withdraw from the drug war unilaterally, but also said that “humanity will some day view it (legalization) as best.”
The politicians and public officials mainly talked. They did not do anything as a group about the proposals. But they raised expectations among the populace. And although the commercial media in Mexico did not cover this story (Fox’s decriminalization statements were more widely covered in the United States than in Mexico) – see “The Narco Media,” May 2000, The Media Channel – by 2001 the Internet became available in virtually every city and town in Mexico for the first time, advocates bypassed the commercial media, and a movement began to form.
“Live With Drugs”
Ricardo Sala, publisher of vivecondrogas.com, is coming to Mérida.
“It may seem like we are very small in number,” says Mexico City resident Ricardo Sala. “But ask your taxi driver what he thinks, and he will tell you that legalization is the best way.”
Sala, 34, runs the website vivecondrogas.com, which means “live with drugs.” The name is a satire of the ubiquitous “Vive Sin Drogas” campaign run by the giant television network TV Azteca. “The major thing about the site is the name,” he says. “When you tell anyone from Mexico the name ‘vivecondrogas.com’ that person is going to have a reaction.”
Sala studied communications in college and wanted to pursue a career in the media, but ended up helping run his family’s wholesale appliance business, where he still works. A few years ago, he began to try to figure out a way to get back into what he was really interested – communicating with the people. At the same time, he was developing a greater interest in drug policy, mostly through doing independent research on the Internet. (Next month, Sala will be one of the 26 students of the Narco News School of Authentic Journalism, on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula.)
TV Azteca, it could be said, invited the ridicule: In 1999, TV Azteca host Paco Stanley, one of the most visible promoters of the Vive Sin Drogas campaign, was found shot to death with cocaine paraphernalia in his pocket, and is now widely believed to have been involved at high levels of drug trafficking. It was one of countless events that reinforced the hypocrisy of the war on drugs for many Mexicans. Seeing this news unfold inspired the name for Sala’s future project, and around a year later vivecondrogas.com was launched.
Despite the satirical name, the site is not a joke. It is full of information that Sala hopes will foster “a positive culture of drugs” – a culture where drugs are accepted as a fact of life and the discussion focuses on their positive and healthy uses. This is a key concept for many of the activists working in the movement in Mexico right now; they recognize that many Mexicans are genuinely concerned about drug abuse, and feel that it is decriminalization, the removal of the stigma of drugs, along with a new way to talk reasonably about the benefits and risks of drug use, that offer the only real solution to the problem.
“The Young People Want Information”
Leopoldo Rivera and Sara Cantera of the Mexican Association for the Study of Cannabis (AMECA)
At the same time, Leopoldo Rivera, who a few years earlier had not been very involved in politics, threw himself into the legalization struggle. A professional journalist writing for several local newspapers, he says it was about “consumers [of marijuana] getting together to defend ourselves from the aggressions of the authorities.” Rivera began putting out calls to other vocal advocates of cannabis legalization, to create a new organization that could coordinate their efforts.
Rivera is a serious fighter who wants to see results. “We have a very clear objective,” he says – more honest education about the potential cultural, medicinal and industrial uses of cannabis, and eventually legalization – “and if someone if open to giving us help to get that objective, we will accept. It can be PRI, PAN, or PRD; we will work together.”
Rivera and his collaborators formed the Mexican Association for the Study of Cannabis (AMECA in its Spanish initials). He and Sala got together to discuss participating in a world-wide day of action for the legalization of marijuana. Sala, despite his 9-year absence from communications, still had a lot of friends and contacts in the Mexican media, and helped attract a lot of media coverage in the initial months. They were invited to universities and public meetings all around the country.
“I am very optimistic,” said AMECA member Sara Cantera, 26. “Everyone says that we are doing a good thing. When we go to the universities, the young people want information.”
Cantera, too, had never participated in politics or activism before joining AMECA. A journalist by training, she runs a small research agency for buisness clients out of her house. She saw an article about AMECA in Proceso, a leading weekly news glossy, and became interested in the issue. Though not a consumer of marijuana herself, was upset about the superficial level of the discourse on marijuana.
And so, in May of last year, Sala, the people from AMECA, and others, led a 500-strong march for the legalization of marijuana through the streets of Mexico City. By then, even the commercial media had to take notice.
“We didn’t have very much promotion, it was all word-of-mouth,” says Cantera. “we were mentioned on television and in the newspapers. There were a lot of people there, and everything went very well.”
Jorge Hernández, architect of
Mexico Posible’s drug policy platform.
Wednesday, January 15, 2003: Ricardo Sala and Leopoldo Rivera stand outside the Federal Elections Institute (IFE) with their friend and colleague Jorge Hernández Tinajero. All three are in great spirits. The new México Posible party has just made the official presentation of its electoral platform to the IFE and the press. The fledgling party will be running several candidates in the midterm elections in June. México Posible was started by the same group of liberal activists that formed the now-defunct Party of Social Democracy (PDS) three years ago – a collection of abortion, gay rights, feminism and social welfare advocates.
The three are excited because México Posible’s platform included an extensive drug policy proposal penned by Hernández. The party knew Hernández, a professional political writer and consultant, from his work on the PDS platform.
“I can assure you,” Hernández says, grinning, a few hours after the platform presentation, “that the things said today at the IFE are known in Washington right now.”
The youthful Hernández, who always seems on the verge of laughing, is hardly a bureaucrat. He avoids working too closely with a party, he says, because “politics are very hard for me, it is not my way of life.” He prefers to spend time with members of civil society, with his friends who form a lose coalition of drug law reform activists.
Still, he has a talent for expressing political ideas. “And they [México Posible] know it, and they ask me now to write that part of their political platorm for them. And if I can put those issues in the public discourse, of course I’m going to do it.”
Legalization, believes Hernández, is inevitable. “The young people in Mexico are realizing things,” he says. “The people are not stupid. The contradictions are getting bigger, and the social costs every day are more expensive for us, and people notice that.” At the same time, free-market ideology is beginning to demand that the state stop holding up the free trade of marketable substances.
“There is a saying in medicine,” he says, “that the baby will be born with, without, or in spite of the physician. But maybe the physician knows best how to deliver the baby.” In other words, if the tide of legalization and the abandonment of the drug war are inevitable, they should be brought about by people fighting for freedom and social justice, not by whatever other forces might co-opt them for another agenda.
The Third Generation
Vladimir Montes: No fear of this issue.
If Jorge Hernández defines himself as working on the outside of the political world, Vladimir Montes Gómez is his counterpart on the inside. Montes works as an undersecretary at the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD, the ostensibly left-wing of the three major political parties), in the newly formed Office of the Rights of the Third Generation. Briefly, the office was founded last may under the idea that human rights are won in three “generations” – the first the individual rights that were won in the American and European democratic revolutions; the second the social rights that were fought for in the socialist movement and the Mexican and Russian revolutions; and the third the particular rights being fought for in modern society – the rights of communities effected by globalization, the rights of women, of the elderly, and of the youth.
At 21, Montes has a clear memory of harassment at the hands of police due to drug prohibition as a teenager. He works almost exclusively on pushing for the legalization of marijuana. Since beginning his work, he has helped AMECA and other groups put together an informational two-day music festival that doubled as a teach-in on the history and politics of marijuana. He now plans to help with this year’s Mexico Marijuana March in May.
Montes feels that his ideas have been welcomed by the PRD. “Here,” he says, “you won’t find any fear of this issue and all that it involves. All of us in this office are young, and we understand that [drugs are] a deep cultural, structural problem in our country.”
“It’s a Movement”
In the few short years since the anti-prohibition movement took off in Mexico, “we are getting results,” says Sala. “We will get more results if we are better organized. But… the people in the media are starting to feel like there is more of a solid base where they can talk about legalization… I think now they know that there is something going on. These are not just separate movements. They know now that its more joined together: It’s a movement.”
“We are moving now in a quite different political stage than we were ten years ago,” says Hernández. “Young people are beginning to become politically conscious, and they [the politicians] are just starting to realize the importance of this.”
As the first international summit on drug legalization – Out From the Shadows, in Mérida, Mexico in February – approaches, many here are beginning to think of their struggle on more of an international scale.
Cantera is currently organizing others from Mexico City to attend the Mérida Summit, she says, “because it is important that people from all over the world come. I am very interested to see how other organizations are organized; how they are laboring in other countries.”
“I think this movement,” says Hernandez, “is quite global. So we have to deal with it as a global thing. I think AMECA, and all those others, I think they are forming a very global movement which is getting stronger.”
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