a moral perspective on the war on drugs

As the sun set on Felipe Calderon’s presidency the articles assessing the successes and the failures of his term began to appear. Some articles praised his handle of healthcare issues, some his willingness to engage with the public in debate, some criticized him for failing to end a telecommunications oligopoly and others for seeing poverty levels go up. Myriads of opinions surfaced and yet all the writers, inevitably, spilled ink dissecting the “War on Drugs.” This issue has become central to any discussion of what Calderon did right and what Peña Nieto must do as the new incumbent. A lot is said, but the conversation remains disperse. People talk past each other, not only because they are not listening but also because they do not clearly establish what it is they are talking about. A way to avoid this wonky dissonance is through the perspective of a normative framework. I believe that a framework can help us have a we a more constructive dialogue. I therefore set out to analyze the moral justification of the War on Drugs based on the “Just War Theory.” At the outset I must admit that even an analysis of the issue through established objective principles, is not objective. The application of the principles serve as a tool to discuss the issue in a more productive manner, they do not however erase the unavoidability of subjectivity.

 The reason to use “Just War Theory” is that most of its principles became the foundation for international conflict jurisprudence – the Geneva Convention and the U.N. Charter are codifications of many of the principles, for example. “Just War Theory” is a branch of moral philosophy that has, until recently, found little to no philosophical opposition. The doctrine dates to the Roman Empire, but was not a sophisticated and thought out philosophy until the 16th and 17th centuries. It establishes a set of objective moral principles to assess the validity of a war. Although this theory is mainly centered on the notion of international conflict, I believe that the principles are uncontroversial enough to use them to analyze a domestic struggle.

The theory distinguishes between the justification for war itself (jus ad bellum) and the justified conduct in war (jus in bello). Here we will focus on the former of the two. In simplest terms, there are six principles to justify a war: just cause, legitimate authority, right intention, necessity or last resort, proportionality and reasonable hope of success. “Just cause” is the most important principle. It establishes that a state may only launch a war for the right reasons. These often include an external attack, the protection of the innocent, or the correction of a wrongdoing which remains uncorrected. “Legitimate authority” refers to the legitimacy of the governing body that commences the conflict. “Right intention” refers to the idea that a State can only fight a war for the sake of its just cause. This principle establishes as immoral a conflict that has ulterior motives, such as a land grab, revenge or ethnic cleansing, for example. “Last resort” is the idea that the State has extinguished all other possible venues for conflict resolution. “Proportionality” refers to a sort of cost-benefit analysis, where if it seems the goods that will result from it will outweigh the evils, then the war is justified. Finally, there is a requirement that there be a measurable impact on the situation at hand, meaning that there’s a probability that the State will win.

I will look at these principles not in order, attacking the easy ones first. We can dispense immediately with “legitimate authority” as the Mexican authorities were democratically elected. Also the government passes the “right intention” part of the analysis, as the war has strictly been about eliminating the cartels and the supply of narcotics. “Measurable impact” is a matter of perspective, and it is hard for us now, as we see the situation six years later, to judge what were the chances of success. It is therefore difficult to discredit Calderon’s administration based on this principle.

An analysis based on the other principles is not as forgiving towards Calderon’s offensive. The first and most important principle is “just cause.” I believe that this is where we can find most disagreement. The first point to highlight is that the administration did not express what was the objective of this war, or if it did, it did not do so clearly. If the goal was to restore institutional order by recovering areas controlled by the cartels, then it can be said that it had a justification in launching a war (subject to all the limitations established by the other principles). If the objective was to stop the supply of drugs, then it is harder to justify a full-blown military offensive. “Just cause” is reserved for the most serious of offenses, not for violations of the law. Trafficking of narcotics is not a reason enough to begin a fight that would have great human costs. Because it is not clear what the cause of the war is, especially after six years of nebulous rhetoric, it is hard to say that the War on Drugs is justified under this principle.

Making matters worse for the bellicose supporters, are the principles of “last resort” and “proportionality.” It is more than questionable that all had been done to try and eliminate the cartels and their influence prior to starting the offensive. There was still more that could be done to target their money laundering operations (and therefore their true source of influence), also institutions could have been strengthened to fight corruption allowing for legal mechanisms that would dismantle the cartels, and police forces could have been given more resources and restructured to combat a sophisticated and wealthy opponent. These are just some of the many things that could have been done prior to the offensive, and that serve simply to elucidate that war came far too hastily. With regards to “proportionality”, it is unclear whether there was any cost-benefit analysis prior to launching the offensive against the cartels. Clearly now it seems that the costs have outweighed the benefits. A death toll that hovers around 60,000 with absolutely no reduction in drug supply or the presence of cartels across the country (and, in fact, increases in both) is painfully resonant. Even prior to the conflict, what potential gains could have justified the loss of lives? Even if the death toll that exists today could not have been predicted six years ago, there was still an approximation of casualties. I see no potential gains as outlined by the administration that could have offset the human costs of the conflict.  

Ultimately, Calderon’s offensive fails to pass the moral analysis of the Just War Theory. It was, in my view, not a measure of “last resort,” not “proportional” and murky on its “just cause.” As the new administration faces the challenges ahead, it needs to make sure that its policies with regards to security are guided by a moral compass that does not fail as the Calderon administration’s did.


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