When Washington ramped up its anti-drug efforts through Plan Colombia, more than 90 percent of the cocaine consumed in the United States came through Colombia. A decade later, we get about 97 percent of our cocaine via Colombia.

Amazingly, officials are hailing the program’s “success” and want Mexico to learn from Colombia’s experience. While Plan Colombia may have helped make that country safer from guerrilla attacks, it has failed as a drug control strategy. Adapting that program in Mexico won’t staunch that country’s bloodbath and isn’t likely to produce better results.

Washington’s response to Mexico’s increasingly violent drug trafficking problem has emphasized disrupting criminal organizations by breaking them up into smaller fragments. Yet there’s no evidence that this strategy of “fracturing” the traffickers ever worked in Colombia, where we’ve already tried it for two decades.

Sure, we helped break up the vicious Medellín Cartel and its successor, the Cali Cartel. But the law of unintended consequences had the last word. Far from ending Colombia’s cocaine trade, we merely removed the two big monopolies and “democratized” that lucrative economic space for hundreds of smaller micro-cartels. We can’t even count these new organizations, much less infiltrate and disrupt them. These crackdowns may please politicians in the short term, but they’re counterproductive in the long run.

In Mexico, President Felipe Calderón launched his ill-conceived, all-out drug war in late 2006. Since he considered the police forces too corrupt, he fought the traffickers with the army. Its attacks prevented the traffickers from settling turf wars, creating a perpetual imbalance. By weakening one group, the Mexican army created a vacuum that rival traffickers fought to take over.

This process of “rinse, lather, repeat” has cost some 35,000 Mexican lives. And it isn’t working. Cocaine seizures have plummeted (Mexican authorities stopped 9.4 tons in 2010, compared to 48 tons in 2007). Only in Charlie Sheen’s mind could this be considered “winning.”

Left alone, Mexico’s rival drug kingpins would likely settle their turf war much sooner and return to a “Pax Narcotica,” where the half-dozen criminal gangs could get back to business. Their fight would be violent, but much shorter than the current endless quagmire. Then they would carve out their respective trafficking routes and go back to making huge amounts of money.

Fighting drug traffickers isn’t the same as fighting guerrilla insurgencies. Fracturing guerrilla groups can help break morale and encourage individual fighters to desert or surrender. Fracturing trafficking groups merely creates job opportunities for aspiring drug dealers who continue their bloody turf war indefinitely.

Moreover, the process of breaking down the large traffickers merely lowers the barriers to entry for new criminal entities seeking to expand their market share. Far from breaking morale, the tactic of taking out the heads of trafficking groups gives junior thugs a shot at becoming the kingpin–if only briefly. Unfortunately, there seems to be an inexhaustible reservoir of Mexican criminals who prefer a short life as a king to longevity as a peasant.

Our practice of repeatedly beating the hornet’s nest ensures that the hornets will never settle down. Our politicians see Mexico in flames, and their knee-jerk response is to throw water on the fire by increasing military aid.

But the Mexican fire more resembles a grease fire, because it is driven by the economics of drug prohibition. The criminals are fighting over the right to traffic what are essentially minimally processed agricultural commodities (marijuana, cocaine, heroin, etc.) that should cost pennies per dose. Prohibition gives these substances an unintended, astronomical price support. Throwing conventional “water” on this “grease fire” is disastrous. We have tactics without a strategy because there’s no endgame in this unwinnable war.

President Barack Obama recently admitted that drug legalization was a valid subject for debate even though he didn’t support it himself. That was the most daring admission made by any sitting U.S. president on this subject. If he’s serious, we should stoke this debate before another 35,000 lives are needlessly lost. There are many alternatives in the spectrum between prohibition and total free market legalization. We need to stop talking in terms of black and white.

Sanho Tree directs the Drug Policy project at the Institute for Policy Studies. www.ips-dc.org

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