Those who have been hoping for a new direction in Mexico’s approach to the ultra-violent drug cartels were heartened by president-elect Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador’s announcement that his interior minister will be Olga Sánchez Cordero.
The interior ministry, called Gobernación, is responsible for all domestic affairs, including security matters. Sánchez Cordero, a former associate justice on Mexico’s Supreme Court, is most well-known for her vocal stance in favor of legalized cannabis.
Upon being named, Sánchez Cordero told a reporter from Milenio newspaper: “I’m going to propose to Andrés Manuel, at the right time, the depenalization of marijuana, in planting, harvesting, transport, medicinal and recreational use.” She posed this as part of a program of “transitional justice” for the country, with a potential “amnesty” for drug offenders.
She made similar comments in an interview with Radio W, saying, “Canada has already depenalized, and various states of the United States have depenalized. What are we thinking? Why do we go on killing when other countries are depenalizing? We are going to try to move forward.”
She also wrote in an opinion piece for Milenio in June: “The world war on drugs has failed. Legislating on the basis of more criminal punishment and permanent confrontation does nothing to contribute to peace. Violence is not fought with violence, as López Obrador rightly points out.”
‘Dialogue’ With the Cartels?
The country quickly responded to Sánchez Cordero’s appointment with encouragement, and legal cannabis quickly became a prevalent topic in the Mexican news.
Now, Mexican media are abuzz with the recommendation of a global industry expert, Saul Kaye, that Mexico could develop a “successful business” of medical marijuana cultivation. Kaye, of the Israel-based canna-industry equity firm iCAN, is an advisor to the Israeli Knesset on cannabis policy reform. He told Milenio that Mexico has “ideal conditions” for cannabis cultivation, and drew a comparison to Colombia, which now has a burgeoning legal cultivation industry.
AMLO himself has been more guarded in his comments, but is still offering some encouragement to legalization advocates. In his victory speech, he said: “The failed strategy of combating insecurity and violence will change. More than through the use of force, we will tend to the causes that give rise to insecurity and violence.” He said his team will immediately begin consulting with human rights groups, religious leaders and the United Nations to develop a “plan for reconciliation and peace.”
On the campaign trail, AMLO had actually broached opening a dialogue with the cartels. At a December campaign stop in Hidalgo, he told a reporter: “We can dialogue with everybody, we have to seek dialogue and we have to seek the way to end the war and guarantee peace.”
Although the terms of what would be up for discussion were never clearly defined, bringing some of those now caught in the contraband narco-economy into a legalized cannabis sector immediately presents itself.
Narco-terror in the Tarahumara Mexico’s peasant farmers, locally referred to as campesinos, increasingly find themselves trapped between the cartels and security forces. The heartland of cannabis cultivation has long been the remote and rugged Sierra Madre Occidental mountains in northern Chihuahua state. Indigenous Tarahumara campesinos living in the Sierra Tarahumara region of the mountain range often can only make enough to survive by growing cannabis and opium, generally inter-cropping them on the same plot, hidden in small canyons. And too often the caciques — local enforcers for the cartels — give them the infamous choice of plata o plomo (silver or lead): either grow for narcos and get paid, or refuse to and get shot. But of course, cultivating for the caciques inevitably draws police and military forces.
Just days before the July 1 election came the latest news in the ongoing and fruitless war against illegal crops in the Sierra Tarahumara. Chihuahua state police announced the destruction of 15 “narco-encampments,” where cannabis and opium crops were being grown by an indigenous community in the mountains.
The Tarahumara campesinos are also caught between warring narco-gangs, of course. Last year saw sporadic violence in the Sierra, said to be related to a struggle for control of local cultivation between La Línea, a gang loyal to the Juárez Cartel, and Gente Nueva, enforcers for the rival Sinaloa Cártel. Selling to one gang made the campesinos targets for the other. One particularly bloody shoot-out last July left 25 dead at the pueblo of Las Varas, Madero municipality.
Even if AMLO’s administration embraces legalization as a way out of the crisis, a further challenge will be to implement the new policy in a way that brings some equity to these indigenous and campesino communities that have long borne the brunt of Mexico’s narco-violence.
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