It’s not easy to watch Rolling Stone magazine’s newly released video of Mexican drug lord Joaquín “Chapo” Guzmán answering questions sent to him by actor Sean Penn.
By that I mean it’s hard to watch without falling asleep.
The video offers no confessions of the ghastly narco-bloodshed Guzmán has to answer for. It’s just a ghastly bore.
For 17 minutes, Chapo, or “Shorty,” who looks more like a squat bowling pin than the world’s most wanted kingpin, makes the outrageous claim that he’s simply a peace-loving ranchero.
And yet, if you stay awake long enough to catch it, he does make one crucial point.
“When I’m gone,” Guzmán argues in the video, which was recorded in October, “there will be no decline in drug trafficking.”
He adds: “It will never end.”
It certainly won’t end just because Mexican authorities recaptured Guzmán last Friday. As Guzmán points out, drug consumption remains too robust in the United States – where heroin use has doubled since 2007, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.
The heroin addiction spike has been especially sharp in Florida. And that’s especially relevant because, just a few days before Guzmán was collared last week, former Florida governor and current Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush blamed Mexican drug mafias for America’s insatiable drug habit.
Via the Rolling Stone video that hit the Internet this week, Guzmán in effect tells Bush: “Accuse us mexicanos all you want, Jeb. But until you gringos stop smoking, snorting and shooting this stuff, you’re just kidding yourself.”
And Shorty’s right.
Ever since President Richard Nixon declared war on drugs 45 years ago, the battle has been obsessively supply-side. Ratchet up interdiction in Mexico. Spray more coca fields in South America. And jail every non-violent drug offender we can bust – especially young black males – until we saddle ourselves with the world’s highest incarceration rate.
Of course we want to see animals like Guzmán put away. Of course we want to see genuinely addictive and destructive drugs like cocaine and heroin stopped at our border.
But until the U.S. accepts its own weighty share of responsibility for this plague, no amount of police action is going to extinguish it.
A more demand-oriented tack has to supplant the old, failed strategy. And that means more attention to and funding for drug treatment – which politicians like Bush have too long given short shrift.
As governor, Bush cut more than $10 million from drug-treatment programs – and caught added flak for it because at the time his own daughter was in addiction rehab. He helped defeat measures to let courts send non-violent drug offenders to treatment instead of prison – and he instead helped raise mandatory minimum sentences for them.
ROBIN HOOD MYSTIQUE
By the time Bush left office in 2007, two-thirds of all arrests in Florida were drug-related, yet drug use in Florida surged on. Ditto for the country: Half our federal prison population today consists of drug offenders, yet the U.S. is still the world’s No. 1 illegal drug consumer.
And this despite reams of findings that a dollar spent on rehab is a more effective drug-war tool than a buck spent on interdiction – 10 times more, according to a RAND Corporation study.
The Obama administration has expanded treatment resources. U.S. cocaine consumption is down in recent years, but it will take more time to see real results. In the meantime, though, another demand-side stratagem already seems to be bearing fruit: marijuana legalization.
Since the states of Colorado and Washington legalized weed in 2014, both U.S. and Mexican authorities say they’re seizing less Mexican marijuana on both sides of the border. In other words, legalization is likely having one of its most desired effects: denting the marijuana sales that account for about 40 percent of Mexican drug cartel revenues.
Guzmán’s simple but salient message on the Rolling Stone video is that cutting product supply is futile if you don’t cut product demand. After covering Mexico’s drug war for more than 25 years, I agree.
Depriving drug lords of market size and market share is the surest way to sap not just their epic incomes but their bogus Robin Hood mystique. The sort of mythology that so easily beguiles Hollywood types like Penn, whose Rolling Stone article about his secret meeting with Guzmán last year is fawning fluff.
Drug cartels are responsible for more than 100,000 murders in Mexico over the past decade. So yes, it would be great to see Guzmán extradited to the U.S. – where he might go on trial in Miami.
If he’s locked up here he won’t escape. And we’ll be mercifully spared any more Chapo videos.