San Diego-Tijuana drug tunnel bust, Prop. 19, and Latin America's drug war debate

US authorities this week found an 1,800-foot drug tunnel linking San Diego to Tijuana, and seized more than 25 tons of marijuana. Will it make a dent in the flow of drugs to the US?

Lenny Ignelzi/AP
John Morton (l.) the Director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement points to the opening of a 600-yard tunnel found in a warehouse where 20 tons of marijuana was seized as he talks with Joe Garcia, assistant agent in charge for Homeland Security Investigations, on Nov. 3, in San Diego.

US authorities this week found an 1,800-foot drug tunnel linking San Diego to Tijuana, and in the process seized more than 25 tons of marijuana estimated to be worth some $20 million.

Then, at the other end of the tunnel, Mexican soldiers on Wednesday seized about 4 tons of marijuana after raiding a warehouse, according to the Mexican military.

The discovery of the 4-by-3-foot tunnel points to the work of a major drug-running organization, authorities say.

"I can promise you there are some very unhappy people in the cartel," said John Morton, director of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which leads the multi-agency San Diego Tunnel Task Force, reports the Los Angeles Times.

Indeed there must be. Even though some 75 tunnels along the US-Mexico border have been found in the past few years, few have been fully operational as this one was.

Mr. Morton also trumpeted increased coordination with – and responsiveness from – Mexican authorities.

It’s been a good couple of weeks for them.

Late last month, Mexico seized 105 tons of marijuana in what Mexico's national security spokesman Alejandro Poire called “the largest seizure in the country's history of marijuana prepared and packed for sale and distribution.”

Will the seizures make a difference?

Although Mexican authorities trumpeted the seizure, the Monitor questioned whether such high-profile successes would make a dent in the overall flow of drugs from Mexico to the US.

“Weapons, cash, and drug seizures, as well as top arrests of drug traffickers, are always touted by the government as signs of success,” wrote the Monitor’s Latin America Bureau Chief, Sara Miller Llana. “While they are no doubt good news – and definitely give the government, normally battered by the ongoing violence in Mexico, a PR boost – they do little to impact the overall structure of criminal organizations, experts say."

Experts have long raised such questions, even though our raising it prompted an angry letter from the Mexican Ambassador to the US.

Prop 19 reignites drug war debate

But the debate takes on added relevance in the wake of California’s vote on Prop 19, which did not pass Tuesday but would have legalized recreational use and possession of small amounts of marijuana.

Mexican President Felipe Calderón said the passage of such a bill would help line drug traffickers' pockets. Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos echoed that sentiment. But former presidents of both drug-war-torn countries have actually endorsed such policies, as Monitor correspondent Nacha Cattan pointed out in her article yesterday.

"As President Calderón, for example, publicly decried Prop 19, ... his predecessor Vicente Fox fired off hourly tweets in recent days that expounded its endless benefits."

Mr. Fox is not alone among former Latin American leaders questioning the status quo, as Ms. Cattan's piece points out.

"Cesar Gaviria, who led Colombia from 1990 to 1994, called the war on drugs a failure last year and advocated for a shift in policy away from prohibition," she writes. "Mr. Gaviria was joined in his efforts toward decriminalization by another former Mexican chief executive, Ernesto Zedillo, and former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso."

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