Focusing on the Wrong Drug in Mexico and Central America

Most interesting thing I learned at Ernesto Zedillo’s “War on Drugs” conference at Yale yesterday and today:

One chronic problem for Latin America, and one of the reasons drug trafficking flourishes, is the underfunded, undertrained, underpaid, undermanned, and often outgunned law enforcement/prosecution/judicial system. That system is also massively corrupt, partly because the people in it are so badly paid. That’s not news.

Also not news, but something I hadn’t reflected on: the “neoliberal”/IMF/Washington Consensus emphasis on reducing taxes and public spending made the problem – already bad enough – worse, and almost impossible to fix. One reason the Colombian security/rule of law situation has gotten better (which is not to say good) is a special tax levy on high incomes dedicated for the use of the security services. The back story on that tax, according to Zedillo, is that Bill Clinton went to Bogota in 1999, met with a bunch of rich folks, and told them that if they wanted security they’d have to pay for it. Apparently they agreed, and basically volunteered the tax increase.

But when Zedillo at about the same time (when he was President of Mexico) talked to Mexican “civil society” groups that were complaining about lawlessness, and told them “The taxes you don’t pay are the security you don’t have,” he got nowhere. “Right away, I lost eye contact,” he said. Prosperous Mexicans would rather hire private “security firms” to protect their children from kidnapping, without too much concern about that fact that some of those firms maintain demand for the service by kidnapping the children of non-clients.

It’s easy to spot the social trap here. It’s harder to spot the way out. Figuring out a rational (rather than ideological) basis for the international organizations that advise developing countries not advising them to pay their police adequately is almost impossible.

Footnote (added) Aren’t you glad you don’t live in a country where the wealthy elite is both crazy enough to prefer low taxes to adequate public services and powerful enough to enforce that preference? Oh, wait …

[Cross-posted at Same Facts]

Mark Kleiman

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the New York University Marron Institute.