19th-Century Lessons for Today's Drug War, Says Historian





[Brian DeLay is an assistant professor of history at the University of California at Berkeley. He is author of War of a Thousand Deserts: Indian Raids and the U.S.-Mexican War (Yale University Press, 2008).]

This spring in El Paso, after a talk I gave on the Indian raids and the U.S.-Mexican War, a man in the back row raised his hand. "Do you see any similarities between the borderland violence you've just described for the 1830s and 1840s and the current drug war?" The energy in the room changed immediately.

More than any other American city, El Paso has borne witness to the tragedy of Mexico's raging drug war. Last year 16 people were murdered in El Paso. Meanwhile, 100 times as many people were killed just a stone's throw across the Rio Grande, in Ciudad Juárez. Mexico's government sent in the army to stop the bleeding, but, despite the presence of some 9,400 troops and federal police, the murder rate actually went up in the first half of 2009. While the residents of El Paso live in relative security, their neighbors in Juárez still confront daily horrors: gun battles in the streets, headless bodies dangling from bridges, children stumbling upon corpses on their way to school.

Here then was a chance to speak of something urgently important to my audience, to put the region's past and present into conversation. And the story I'd just told invited the comparison. In the 1830s, Comanches, Kiowas, and several tribes of Apaches began sending raiding parties against settlements in northern Mexico, killing and capturing their inhabitants and stealing or destroying their animals and property. Spurred in part by markets for stolen horses, mules, and captive women and children, those attacks eventually spread to all or parts of nine Mexican states. By the mid-1840s, raids and counterraids had claimed several thousand lives, ruined crucial sectors of the region's economy, sparked rebellions against the hapless national government, and helped enable the United States to seize half of Mexico's territory in the subsequent war....

###

So if I were given another chance to answer that question in El Paso, I'd say that the lesson I take away from the 19th-century parallel is that we ought to look to state and national legislatures (law), rather than the executive branch (enforcement), if we want to bring an end to the drug war in the borderlands. There is a crooked but unbroken line between our drug laws and the sorrows that have engulfed Juárez and so much of Mexico, to say nothing of our own shameful, burgeoning prison system. It is a moral as well as a practical imperative that we change our laws, despite the pain that change will bring. Even paired with comprehensive regulation and rigorous, well-financed drug-treatment programs, legalization would indisputably generate complex ethical, social, medical, and legal problems. But given the vast costs of the war on drugs and the heartbreak and trauma now stalking the borderlands, does anyone really believe those problems would be worse?


comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:


Randll Reese Besch - 8/3/2009

For one begat the other. A simply idea but the political and financial inertia against it. Along with so many decades of propaganda against it will be nearly insurmountable. But it must be done.

Subscribe to our mailing list