Thoughts on My Trip to Mexico City and the Drug War

The view from Ricardo Salinas' home office 

View of Mexico City from the home office of Ricardo Salinas, the retail/media/banking tycoon.

I spent the first half of this week in Mexico City, on a junket sponsored by Grupo Salinas. There's a lot of worry about Mexico's violence–and I have some of my own thoughts on the topic, below–but I didn't feel at all unsafe. Mexico City is an architecturally beautiful town with a lovely culture of late-night, outdoor dining and delicious street food. Swaths of the city reminded me of the immigrant neighborhoods of south Los Angeles, cut by smog and gridlock, but home to vibrant local business strips and cohesive communities. Indeed, Mexico's economy has been less hard-hit by the financial crisis than ours has.

Our group of writers and policy wonks met with a really interesting list of journalists and politicians, including three presidential candidates. My take on Mexico's upcoming election and the country's education challenges are over at The Nation in a new column; in short, I was surprised by just how similar the rhetoric on Mexican school reform sounds–there's a big focus on the excesses of the teachers' union, for example–even though Mexico is confronting an educational inequality crisis far more serious than our own, with the average Mexican dropping out after just eight years of formal schooling. 

So if you want to learn more about education in Mexico, click here.

More broadly, the trip left me all fired up to legalize drugs. About 45,000 Mexicans have been murdered since President Felipe Calderon escalated and militarized the drug war in 2006, with political, financial, and tactical support from the United States. The drug cartels are conducting terrible massacres, and intimidating and sometimes killing both professional and citizen journalists. 

All of this is happening despite the fact that "the war" has successfully led to the deaths and arrests of dozens of top drug lords. In their absence, some of the major trafficking cartels split into smaller, more agile organizations that can better resist detection. These small groups are now fighting among themselves, which has (of course) contributed to the increase in violence.

Why isn't the drug war working? Because it isn't addressing the demand side of the equation: Americans' unquenchable appetite for illegal cocaine and marijuana. The only way to decrease demand is to begin treating addiction primarily as a public health problem, not a criminal one–as Portugal has done–and to legalize the production and sale of less dangerous drugs, like pot, to tamp down on the violent narcotics black market.

Ending the drug war would also revitalize American inner city neighborhoods, where the existence of this underground economy disincentivizes education and work, and sends 17 percent of black men to prison. 

In July the Los Angeles Times' published a riveting four-part series about the regular Americans and Mexicans caught up in the massive Sinaloan drug cartel. I highly recommend it, and think it could win a Pulitzer: Read parts one, two, three, and four.

5 thoughts on “Thoughts on My Trip to Mexico City and the Drug War

  1. Abigail Collazo

    I’m curious about any thoughts you have on the reported rise of female drug lords. Is this continuing to victimize them, or is this sort of economic power actually empowering women?

  2. Mark

    Dana, you are right on about the need to focus on drugs as a preventative public health issue as opposed to a reactionary ideological/criminal justice issue. There was a great article in The Guardian a while back on this, and here’s my thoughts on this issue with a link to that article as well: link to

  3. Winski

    Hi Dana,

    Love your blog! I was in Mexico City for a friends wedding last year and had one of the most incredible weekends of my life.

    One of the highlights was meeting Fernando Zarate who is 25 and the founder of Eduquemonos Con Mexico. He’s a shining example of someone who is not prepared to sit around and let the government solve the issue of education, even at such an incredibly young age. He’s truly and inspiration and I highly recommend checking out what he’s up to: link to

    We could certainly use about 100 more of him in the USA and globally.


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