Churches need to help wage war on drugs

Published October 8, 2009

West Costgrove

Churches should play a major role in getting the “moral message” out about the human toll exacted by the war on drugs on the U.S.-Mexico border.

More funds need to be allocated for measures that reduce the demand for drugs, and churches can lend a hand here too, a specialist in border issues has said.

“The drug problem is not a Mexican problem,” said West Cosgrove at a gathering hosted by the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund (PWRDF) in Toronto. “It goes without saying that we, in the U.S., fund and arm cartels. We may not be pulling the trigger, but our drug consumption fuels it.”

The drug trade on the U.S.-Mexico border is valued at $25 to $30 billion per year, said Cosgrove, who is director of Project Puente, a non-profit located along the border communities of El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, in Mexico. Cosgrove hosted the border visit of a PWRDF delegation to Mexico in 2007 to look at the impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Ciudad Juarez, with a population of 1.5 million, is now considered the most dangerous city in the world, said Cosgrove. In August and September alone, an average of 10 people a day were killed, and estimates are that by year-end, the number of drug-related fatalities could soar as high as 2,000. In 2008, there were 1,607 murders related to illegal drug trafficking in Ciudad Juarez. “This, despite the presence of 10,000 troops and federal police,” said Cosgrove.

Forty years after then U.S. President Richard Nixon first declared war on drugs in 1969 “so much violence has been unleashed,” said Cosgrove. But the hard-nosed approach hasn’t worked, he pointed out. “It is a 100 per cent failure.”

The sister cities of El Paso and Ciudad Juarez share a 2,000-mile border that is now one of the most heavily used drug smuggling corridors and a major entry point for cocaine in the U.S., said Cosgrove. “Lawlessness and chaos is not just cartel-on-cartel violence,” said Cosgrove, explaining that many innocent citizens are being caught in the conflict as Mexican law enforcers disregard human rights and engage in torture, illegal detention and summary executions as part of its so-called social cleansing.

Corruption on both sides makes it possible for drug smuggling to continue unabated. “Corruption in Mexico is systemic – bribery happens from a traffic cop to a cabinet member,” said Cosgrove. “But there is also corruption on the U.S. side. All you need is one or two guys who will allow five to ten trucks with drugs to enter the border.” While cartels use submarines and other methods to smuggle drugs into the U.S., the biggest entry point remains the official port of entry, he added.

The involvement of the Mexican army in the war on drugs “exacerbates the problem because they’re also players,” said Suzanne Rumsey, PWRDF program co-ordinator for Latin America/Caribbean, who visited the U.S.-Mexico border in July.

She said that some former members of the Mexican special forces or “la zetas” have become hitmen for cartels. Cosgrove concurred, saying that cartels have, in fact, been issuing blatant advertisements that entice law enforcers to defect to their side because they offer “more pay and more excitement.”

Cosgrove said that because churches are institutions that have grassroots connections, they need to be part of the process that educates people and begins conversations around what fuels the illegal drug industry and what alternatives there might be for solving the problem that hasn’t been stamped out by military means. He cited that more than 60 per cent of the annual US$20 billion budget for the war on drugs has focused on combating the “supply side” and the rest, for preventative measures.

Various academic, government and advocacy sectors met last September at a University of Texas in El Paso conference on the war on drugs and were in agreement that the prohibition policies are not only costly but are ineffective, said Cosgrove.

Some, including Terry Nelson, a retired law enforcement officer in the Americas and the U.S., have called for regulation, rather than prohibition of the dangerous drug market, he said.

Others called for the legalization, taxation and regulation of cannabis, citing that 50 to 60 per cent of the profit from drug smuggling are from the sale of marijuana.

A study on comparative drug use and drug policies was also presented using data from the U.S. and European Union nations, particularly the Netherlands, which showed that decriminalization and public health programs resulted in far lower drug use. “The study showed that marijuana use in Amsterdam, where it’s legal, is 7 per cent, compared to 15 per cent in San Francisco, a city that uses more ‘other drugs’ than Amsterdam,” said Cosgrove. “Availability doesn’t seem to translate into out-of-control use.”

Cosgrove said that while advocates might be hard-pressed to sell the idea of legalizing illegal drugs, at the very least, “conversations need to happen” about alternatives to military means.

While the conference did not make formal recommendations, many participants emphasized increased funding for public health strategies to “educate, treat, and reduce addiction and harm.”

They also called for more investments in “social infrastructure, jobs, and education in inner-city drug markets of U.S. cities and impoverished neighborhoods of Mexican cities to reduce drug use and provide employment opportunities.”

The global recession has triggered massive layoffs in maquilas (factories) reduced remittances from Mexicans living and working in the U.S. and consequently, increased poverty. “It makes a bad situation worse. I’m not making a moral judgment on someone who has to feed his or her family, but people become more vulnerable to drug cartels,” said Cosgrove.


  • Marites N. Sison

    Marites (Tess) Sison was editor of the Anglican Journal from August 2014 to July 2018, and senior staff writer from December 2003 to July 2014. An award-winning journalist, she has more that three decades of professional journalism experience in Canada and overseas. She has contributed to The Toronto Star and CBC Radio, and worked as a stringer for The New York Times.

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