War on Drugs is Over. What's next?

SAN ANTONIO, Texas (CNN) — As the health care debate captivated America, a white flag was quietly raised along the violence-torn U.S.-Mexico border. In case you missedPicture 2 it, it was our nation’s surrender in the war on drugs.

Addressing the sixth annual Border Security Conference in El Paso, Texas, on Monday, the director of the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy, R. Gil Kerlikowske, said this administration’s drug strategy will not be a war because a war limits what can be done.

“If the only tool is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail,” Kerlikowske said. “That phrase — war on drugs — tells you that the only answer is, in fact, force. … We want to have a different conversation when it comes to drugs.”

At the same time, President Obama pledged ongoing cooperation with Mexico on drugs and immigration, but the details were sparse and the timeline shifting and uncertain.

As the war on drugs ends, what’s our new strategy?

According to the El Paso Times, “Kerlikowske said his visit to El Paso was part of a national tour to solicit ideas before making recommendations to the president. Once unveiled, Obama’s drug strategy will probably include treatment centers, education, drug courts, more cooperation with Mexico and increased law enforcement, Kerlikowske said.”

I agree with all of the above, but since Kerlikowske asked, and since both he and the president have been somewhat vague and noncommittal on the topic, I would like to suggest some ideas regarding what “cooperation with Mexico” should look like to ensure our communal success in conquering the drug beast, regardless of the brand name attached to the campaign.

If decreasing demand for drugs is one side of the equation, decreasing the ability and desire to supply those drugs is the other side. As the United States broadens its approach, Mexico must do so as well.

“Cooperation with Mexico” involves convincing our neighbors to change culturally entrenched social hierarchies and dynamics that date to pre-Columbian times.

Unfortunately, it’s easier and less disruptive to the existing power structure perpetuated by Mexico’s ruling elite to wage a war against the cartels than it is to revolutionize a society that denies the vast majority of its members legitimate opportunities for socioeconomic advancement.

Yes, the war on drugs in Mexico has resulted in over 12,000 dead since 2008 and turned border cities like Juarez into combat zones overrun by army trucks carrying machine gun-toting armored troops.

But most of Mexico’s wealthy and powerful families can still find solace in their foreign bank accounts, their well-appointed homes north of the border, their bodyguards and multigenerational business empires.

Perhaps to them, the continuing crackdown on the cartels seems like the most effective way to react to the threats made to legitimate business-owners and affluent families via extortion and kidnapping.

However, the Mexican government, the Mexican ruling class and the United States must also generate legitimate opportunities for Mexican citizens to advance in life, alternatives to achieving financial success without breaking the law.

According to a study by professor Emilio Parrado of the University of Pennsylvania, “Occupational opportunities failed to keep pace with rising human capital in Mexico. … Instead, entry and mobility into good jobs became more difficult to achieve and downward mobility more prevalent even among highly educated workers.”

At the same time, north of the border, politicians have increased pressure to close our borders and squelch illegal immigration since September 11.

Where are hard-working Mexicans with a desire to improve their circumstances supposed to turn? Perhaps both nations should give these folks a little more love and a little less war.

Let’s make love, not war, on drugs. Although today’s drug lords are beyond reform, this is a long-term endeavor. Our nations should collaborate to ensure that Mexico’s youth can find viable, legal alternatives for their own development and advancement, both at home in Mexico and abroad in the United States.

In Mexico, this will involve a cultural shift in which the ruling elite comes to terms with the realization that the nation will never fulfill its potential if broader segments of its population are not empowered to advance socially and economically via legitimate means.

It means accelerated democratization of the educational and economic system and increased opportunities for entrepreneurship, access to capital, sociopolitical progress and upward mobility.

On the United States side, it means further opening trade, stimulating foreign investment in Mexico and reforming immigration to allow for guest workers from Mexico to be legal, productive members of the economy and society.

In the eyes of this border native, that’s what “cooperation” should look like. Combined, our countries can channel the energies and talents of future generations away from the destructive and unsustainable allure of drugs and toward the enduring productivity and prosperity of our hemisphere.

I’m not sure yet what we should call that process. All I know is, it takes a little love.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Rudy Ruiz.

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