“But what if Juárez is not a failure?  What if it is closer to the future that
beckons all of us from our safe streets
and Internet cocoons?”

—Charles Bowden, Murder City

On September 30, 2010, David Hartley and his wife, Tiffany, were jet-skiing on Falcon Lake along the Texas-Mexico border when a speedboat approached them and several men on board opened fire, killing Mr. Hartley.  The “pirates” who attacked the Hartleys were most likely members of Los Zetas, a group of former Mexican special-forces troops who had defected to act as enforcers for one of the leading Mexican drug cartels before going into business for themselves.  This was but one of a series of attacks on Americans and other incursions into U.S. territory in recent years by heavily armed, militarized units connected to the cartels, probably including Mexican army troops, some of whom have at times cleared the way for drug traffickers.  In March of that same year, Robert Krenz, an Arizona rancher, was murdered, likely by traffickers using his property as a transit route for shipments of narcotics.  Meanwhile, American law-enforcement officers noted the expansion of the cartels into cities like Atlanta, far from the Mexican border.

As Mexican drug violence was “spilling over” into the United States, the arrest of 11 people—including the mayor, the chief of police, and a city-council member—in Columbus, New Mexico, in July 2011 on drug and weapons charges and an increasing number of arrests of U.S. immigration and customs officers pointed to another kind of spillover into the United States: pervasive Mexican corruption.

As if anyone had doubted that the United States were undergoing an enemy invasion from the south, the U.S. government (which had previously claimed that the situation along the border was under control) officially confirmed that dismaying fact in August 2010, by having signs posted along a 60-mile segment of Interstate 8 in Arizona warning motorists that they were entering an “active drug and human smuggling area” where they might encounter “armed criminals and smuggling vehicles traveling at high rates of speed.”  Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu, whose county includes that stretch of highway, stated that “Mexican drug cartels literally do control parts of Arizona.”

Concurrently with the administration’s ludicrous claims regarding border security, Investor’s Business Daily editorialized that events in the Southwest “suggest bottoms dropping out, with horrors unimaginable in the past becoming the new norm.”  IBD pointed out that the drug gangsters and illegal-alien smugglers controlled U.S. territory as far as 80 miles inland in Arizona; that a Mexican cartel had planned to dynamite the Falcon Dam on the Rio Grande to destroy a rival cartel’s smuggling route, thus threatening four million people living in the area; that Arizona had one of the highest kidnapping rates in the world, second only to Mexico City; and that mass graves “believed by lawmen to be the work of cartels” had been discovered in New Mexico.  IBD neglected to mention that Mexican drug cartels control large segments of the national parks in the southwestern United States, using them as both transit routes and marijuana farms.

The Fire Next Door is partly an informative account of the drug wars in Mexico, a gruesome chronicle of the beheadings, torture, kidnappings, extortion, and contract murders that have become regular features of life in Mexico.  Authorities have lost control of wide swathes of Mexico to drug traffickers, the cartels by one estimate controlling more than 70 percent of municipal governments in Mexico.  The casualties in the drug insurgency (as many experts now describe the situation, with some warning that Mexico could become a “failed state” in the near future) are staggering: The figure resulting from a “military-led offensive” against the cartels that began in December 2006 had reached 47,000 by 2011.  Mexican officialdom is so corrupt that it is at times hard to tell whether the army’s “offensive” is an honest attempt to take on the drug cartels or part of the territorial dispute among them, in which Mexico City sides with the Sinaloa cartel against its rivals.

The Fire Next Door focuses on two points Mr. Carpenter elaborates on at the end of the book: that the former government of President Felipe Calderón and his National Action Party, backed by Washington, and its policy of a “military-led offensive” have only worsened the violence in Mexico; and that legalizing drugs in the United States is the only thing that could stabilize Mexico and prevent her from becoming a “failed state” on a level with Somalia.

Briefly put, Mr. Carpenter argues that Calderón’s offensive sufficiently disrupted the drug traffickers’ activities to cause some fragmentation among the cartels, thus producing increased competition among them and even more violence; and that the criminalized status of drugs inflates their price (through a “risk premium”) and so provides the cartels with vast amounts of cash, as well as an army of willing foot soldiers who can be replaced very quickly upon their arrest or death.  Controlling the border, in Mr. Carpenter’s libertarian view, is practically impossible and, in any case, undesirable, as it would amount to a disruption of commerce.  Carpenter believes that antidrug educational efforts have run their course and that any further drop in demand in the United States is unlikely.  Therefore, the answer is to “bite the bullet” and legalize drugs, an action he claims would invite legitimate businesses to produce and sell narcotics, thus ending the “risk premium” and “de-funding” the cartels.  Mr. Carpenter does anticipate the counterarguments.  The Fire Next Door cites, for instance, a study of drug legalization in Portugal that purports to demonstrate that the use of drugs did not increase in that country following their legalization.

Mr. Carpenter’s book makes the argument in favor of legalization about as convincingly as it can be made, by offering little consideration of culture and ignoring the historical context.  I myself have grave doubts that legalizing narcotics would lead to any good.  A quick search on the web reveals that drug use has reportedly increased in places like Holland, Sweden, and Alaska after legalization.  Legalization proponents usually point to the fact that narcotics were legal and practically unregulated in the United States before 1914, yet no explosion in addiction occurred before prohibition.  They neglect to mention that America in those days was a very different country, a society that continued to enforce a number of social norms in a way that libertarians probably would not take kindly to.  We can’t say the same about America in the 21st century.  I am not prepared to risk America’s further descent into libertine perdition by supporting drug legalization.  Would we really want the job of cocaine or heroin distributor to be seen as a respectable career option?  Drug addicts are unemployable and prone to crime.  Do we want more of them?

Even absent the drug trade, the United States needs tighter border security and a reversal of the globalist polices that are merging this country with Latin America, where corruption, revolution, and disorder are the norm.  As Peter Brimelow and VDare.com have pointed out a number of times, fences and border security can and do work.  That Washington engages in military adventures in distant locales, while a clear and present danger threatens literally next door, is treasonous.  If the U.S. military cannot be used to halt such an invasion, then what is the purpose of maintaining it at an expense of hundreds of billions of dollars annually?  If we want to help Mexico and reverse the social decay and unemployment in America that encourage trafficking in drugs, perhaps we should consider reversing globalist trade, border, and immigration polices that have emptied Mexican towns and transformed our working people into a burgeoning underclass.

It’s doubtful also that legalization would reshape the Mexican drug trade as a conventional enterprise run by business-school graduates settling their disputes in court.  My own area of expertise is Russia.  With the end of communism and the implementation of market reforms, Russian organized crime, in league with corrupt cops, “oligarchs,” and bureaucrats, used Kalashnikovs and bombs to seize what had been state property.  Twenty years later, doing business in Russia can still be a risky affair.  In Mexico, even without the “risk premium,” the drug trade would probably remain a lucrative one that the cartels would still be battling over, two decades from now.  Mr. Carpenter points out that the cartels have already branched out into extortion and kidnapping, as well as theft from oil pipelines and the seizure of control of legitimate businesses.  There is no reason to believe that they would simply step aside from the drug business, if prohibition were ended.

Finally, libertarians and conservatives differ in their assumptions about human nature and what a good society looks like.  The libertarian answer to questions like illegal immigration and drug smuggling (the two are closely connected) is always to legalize them.  For libertarians, de facto open borders is a priority, but maintaining the cultural and racial core of the nation that produced the very ideas libertarians espouse is not.  For those of us who believe that society and nation are more than a collection of autonomous individuals, drug use is not merely a matter of personal choice.  Commerce is not more important than the preservation of the nation.  And indeed drug users—and not those combating the cartels, as Mr. Carpenter suggests—have blood on their hands.


[The Fire Next Door: Mexico’s Drug Violence and the Danger to America, by Ted Galen Carpenter (Washington, D.C.: Cato Institute) 294 pp., $24.95]