“Mexico’s Moment” – for peace?


The need for a radical re-visioning of Mexico’s security and peacebuilding strategy is increasing.

Mexico has made the news quite a bit recently. On the one hand, 2013/2014 is being called Mexico’s Moment. Economic reforms are being praised by the international community, Mexico’s S&P credit rating has been raised, and M is the first letter of the next BRICs: the MINTs. On the other hand, while homicide rates appear to have dropped in 2013, vigilantism is increasing – a development that implies a more complex conflict rather than progress toward peace.

Continue reading


Way of the Gun: Half of U.S. Firearms Retailers Rely on Mexico’s Demand


This is my latest post from the US Institute of Peace International Network for Economics and Conflict. You can find it originally published on the INEC blog here.

Gun control may be off the table in the U.S. Congress, but the issue of gun violence – increasingly a matter of international relations for the U.S. – remains. President Obama spoke in Mexico City several weeks ago, and his statements echoed the findings of a new study estimating the traffic of firearms across the U.S.-Mexico border: “most of the guns used to commit violence here in Mexico come from the United States.”

The new report, Way of the Gun: Estimating Firearms Traffic Across the U.S.-Mexico Border, is published by the University of San Diego Trans-Border Institute (TBI) and the Igarapé Institute of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The authors – Topher McDougal, David A. Shirk, Robert Muggah, and James H. Patterson – are the first to develop an econometric model to estimate the volume, dollar value, and demand for guns moving from the U.S. into Mexico. They find that roughly 47 percent of federally licensed firearms retailers in the U.S. would go out of business without this cross-border demand.

Mexico has experienced a significant increase in gun violence since 2006, much of it drug-trade related. But, as the report notes, Mexico has some of the most restrictive firearms regulations in the world. Mexico has approximately 15 (registered and illegal) firearms per 100 people, and there is only one gun retailer in the entire country. Their northern neighbor, the U.S., however, is the world’s most heavily armed society, with approximately 90 firearms per 100 people and more than 50,000 federally licensed retailers.

“It is assumed,” the authors write, “that a considerable proportion of weapons in Mexico are illegal, most having been trafficked from the United States.” However, figures for the total volume of trafficking between the countries have been difficult to calculate. Estimates are usually based on the quantity of arms seized by law enforcement, so thus rely on assumptions about what percent of the total trafficked weapons officials are able to recover. Alternatively, the “Way of the Gun” authors use data from excise taxes to calculate the total size of the firearms market and the distance from the U.S.-Mexico border of each licensed retailer to create a demand curve for trafficked firearms. In fact, they find that distance from the border with Mexico is a consistent predictor of the number of retailers in a given U.S. county, even when controlling for a variety of domestic factors. Based on this demand curve, the authors are able to calculate the volume and value of traffic for several time periods.

They estimate that from 2010 to 2012, 252,906 firearms, worth $127 million, were purchased in the United States and illegally trafficked into Mexico. This is up from 134,045 in 1993 (the year before the federal assault weapons ban, now expired, took effect) and 87,890 in the period 1997 to 1998.

When McDougal presented these findings at the recent Peace Metrics conference in Washington, D.C., he explained that if the border with Mexico were somehow moved to its geographical limit – all the way north to the border with Canada, putting a hypothetical 1,800 mile void between U.S. gun retailers and Mexico – nearly half of the shops would be put out of business. This implies that a large part of the U.S. firearms industry relies on the increasing gun violence south of the border. And this isn’t just the case in Texas and Arizona. 12.5 percent of licensed firearms retailers operate in the southern border region. This percentage may be disproportionately high given the U.S.’s population distribution (mostly northeastern and coastal), but with 47 percent of licensed retailers relying on Mexican demand, northern vendors must be profiting from the drug war as well.

Luis Alfonso de Alba Góngora, Mexico’s current ambassador to the United Nations, is hopeful that the recently passed UN Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) will reduce the flow of weapons to Mexico. But Robert Muggah, speaking in the same CBC interview, noted that the treaty is weak on restricting civilian firearms possession as “a concession to countries such as, and in particular, the United States, who are very much at the mercy of their pro-gun lobbies.” Here, Muggah is getting at the starkly conflicting incentives faced by voters in the U.S. On the one hand, as Mexico is one of the U.S.’s largest trading partners, there may be a peace dividend available if gun violence at home and across the border were reduced by effective regulation. But on the other hand, the potential peace dividend is undefined and business people are currently profiting from the demand for weapons, making them unlikely to support greater restrictions. Given the latest Senate rejection of expanded background checks – the very policy solution recommended in Way of the Gun – and the predictions that the Senate is unlikely to ratify the ATT, it appears the U.S. is far from reconciling these opposing incentives.

Ending the Drug War is On The Table


An end to the war on drugs may not yet be a publicly discussed policy option in D.C., but it seems like the rest of country is coming around. Obama, speaking in Mexico City last month, said that he isn’t considering legalizing marijuana, despite what our individual states may do. But the New Yorker says maybe he should. You’ve probably heard that 50% of voters support marijuana legalization, and that legalization got more votes in Colorado than Obama did last November. Here’s some of what else is out there on both marijauna legalization and a possible end to the War on Drugs.

University of Chicago economics professors Gary S. Becker and Kevin Murphy have published this article, “The Drug War and the Damage Done,” in the latest issue of the Stanford University Hoover Digest. The economic argument for an end to the drug war has been gaining traction since the 2005 Miron report, produced by Harvard economist Jeffery Miron and signed by 530 distinguished economists including Milton Friedman, estimated that the U.S. could save up to $14 billion by ending the war on drugs.

Becker and Murphy’s piece discusses the impacts and effectiveness of the 42-year War on Drugs, including the cost to taxpayers:

The direct monetary cost to American taxpayers of the war on drugs includes spending on police, the court personnel used to try drug usersand traffickers, and the guards and other resources spent on imprisoning and punishing those convicted of drug offenses. Total current spending is estimated at over $40 billion a year.

The author’s go on to discuss the more difficult to measure costs – the temptation for urban youth in poor schools to drop out and profit from the drug trade, or the lost productivity from the 1.6 million inmates in the U.S. (a large portion of whom are convicted of selling or using illegal drugs).

Hendrik Hertzberg writes in the New Yorker article:

tens of thousands of people still languish in federal and state prisons for marijuana offenses in a typical year, and just about everybody who gets busted for pot spends time locked up. Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, estimates that from fifty to a hundred thousand Americans are behind bars for pot, and only pot, on any given night. The longer-term consequences can be a lot worse than a few hours of humiliating inconvenience. If you’re employed, you can lose your job. If you’re in college, you can lose your financial aid and you will lose your eligibility for student loans, as have some two hundred thousand of your peers. If you’re undocumented, you’ll probably get deported. If you’re a parolee, you’re apt to find yourself back in jail for the remainder of your sentence. All of which, of course, is but a small part of the suffering caused by the gargantuan, perpetual “war on drugs.”


By the way, I’ve heard Nadelmann speak on this issue, and the guy know his stuff. From the scientific composition of illegal drugs (many identical to other legal substances), to the international politics, to the options for and benefits to a public health approach. The DPA homepage offers numerous political resources, including an exit strategy from the War.

Becker and Murphy also make a point I’ve put in writing many times: that the illegality of drugs like marijuana and cocaine is what makes them so profitable for dealers and traffickers. Prohibition drives up the price, making the trade lucrative for those that can evade prosecution and secure a large share of the market. This dynamic then incentives the use of violence, making prohibition policies expensive to taxpayers, dangerous for citizens, and extremely profitable for traffickers.

Naturally, Mexican analysts are looking at the issue as well. The Mexican Institute for Competitiveness (via the Economist) finds that legalization in Washington and Colorado will reduce the competitiveness of Mexican drug-trafficking organizations and slash approximately $1.4 of their $2 billion in marijuana revenues. That’s $1.4 billion that will move out of Mexico’s illegal economy and in the U.S.’s legal one.

Next Wednesday, May 29, the Washington Office on Latin America and the Brookings Institution are hosting a webcast panel to discuss the emerging politics and national implications of marijuana legalization. That debate will be on Twitter as well – #mjlegalization.

I’m glad to see this being seriously discussed. It’s about time that we admit the War on Drugs, like the War on Terror, can’t be won. There are a few things missing from the debate (and I’m currently looking for an opportunity to work on them, so get in touch if you’d like to collaborate or support).

First, we still don’t have a precise estimation on how large of a peace dividend we could realize by ending the war. Miron’s work is the best start, but it was published before the major escalation in drug war violence that we’ve seen post-2006.

Second, although without an expensive lobby and too often ignored or underestimated, women and especially mothers are a major political force in this country. Many of them oppose legalization because of concern for their families and children. But have we fully investigated and communicated to our moms how their loved ones would benefit from increased access to public health services for addiction and drug abuse? From fewer daughters and sons deployed in the War via military, DEA, and local law enforcement? And from reduced incidences of domestic violence and violence against women as a result of the economic stimulus and the improved access to treatment? As far as I know, this last question hasn’t been explored at all.

There are many more resources and analyses out there to support progressive drug policy reform. Post the ones I’ve missed in the comments. Is there a good analysis of the effect of the Drug War on women? Of the peace dividend? Have I missed anything else?

I look forward to reading what you find, and to continuing the debate.


“Border Violence Spillover to the U.S. Needs to Be Acknowledged”


This article: “Border Violence Spillover to the U.S. Needs to Be Acknowledged” has me thinking.

Sylvia Longmire, the author of the article over at Fox Latino, is a former senior border security analyst for the State of California and author of Cartel: The Coming Invasion of Mexico’s Drug War. I’ve seen her around the internet in my research on the drug war, and I know two things about her work: we have different perspectives on this issue, but, as far as I can tell, she knows her stuff.

Longmire generally writes from a security perspective while I advocate a peacebuilding perspective. So when I read her article on border violence spillover, I felt compelled to point out a couple of things.

First of all, wherever we disagree, she’s likely right about this. Longmire is raising a red flag about the escalation of drug-trade related violence and our lack of a framework for addressing incidences in the U.S. She writes:

“DHS officials have even stated in Congressional testimony that the agency doesn’t keep track of crime statistics involving cartel-on-cartel attacks in the U.S. … There is no standardized definition of spillover violence, and this is part of the problem.”

It’s unacceptable that our government would send women and men in uniform and over a billion dollars in taxpayer funds to aid a militarized law enforcement effort in a neighbor state and have no framework for accounting for incidences of related violence inside our borders. Many analysts, myself included, argue that the militarized response to the drug markets is increasing violence and failing to reduce the trade in illegal drugs. And Americans have long feared that this violence would enter our own territory. But how can we know if our government doesn’t define and measure it?

This is where Longmire and I agree – definitions and data matter. We need to use them in our efforts to create a safer society.

But I also have an issue with her article. Much of her article focuses on a bombing incident in Brownsville, Texas, for which police have not yet apprehended any suspects. Presenting as evidence only the fact that the bombing victim was charged with marijuana trafficking, Longmire writes, “There’s no proof the bomb was sent by a drug trafficking organization, but all the existing evidence is definitely pointing in that direction.” She intends to take various U.S. authorities to task for failing to account for possible spillover violence, and does so with the following phrases:

  • “Heads can literally roll in the streets of El Paso or Nogales…”
  • “Mexican cartels and their minions…”
  • “an innocent five year-old was burned to within inches of her life…”
  • Etc.

This sensationalized writing style earns internet clicks and sells papers, sure, but it isn’t objective journalism and it isn’t helping us understand and manage the nuance of drug-trade related violence. It does make people scared, and fear is one of the greatest drivers of violence and conflict. Fear is why we have to take our shoes off in the airport, why we stop and frisk, and why Americans have formed militias on our southern border. None of these tactics have reduced the economic insecurity that leads people to migrate or to engage in illegal economic activity, and none of them have mitigated the fear or the violent choices of those outside our borders. Talking about “minions” and “heads rolling” doesn’t make us safer, it just makes us scared.

We do need to take border violence seriously. And we need to have a calm and honest conversation about why it’s happening. We’re spending billions of dollars each year, in the U.S. and México, shutting down businesses and prosecuting individuals for economic activity that could be legalized, taxed, and safely regulated. Approximately 70,000 people have died as a result of drug-trade related violence since 2006 – some of which comes from the U.S. and Mexican governments – but in that time no one has been directly killed by the use of marijuana. We don’t need to be afraid – we need to be smart. We need to speak responsibly about these issues.

Longmire is not a judge or a law enforcement agent, and she doesn’t know who committed that bombing or why. She does, however, have a large platform from which to speak and a responsibility to choose her words carefully. With yet another double-digit shooting in our country today, on Mother’s day, this is no time to be cavalier in how we discuss violence. This is exactly the time to put our fear, and our guns, away and to get smart about how we make this country and this region safer and more prosperous for everyone.

If We Stop Fighting a War, It Won’t Be One

ojuelos de jalisco mexico

Like Mali, conflict and violence in México is just now attracting significant international attention despite years of hardship for the people of these countries. There has been a lot of press in the last year, and the last few weeks, that highlights the violence and calls into question the national and international policy choices in México (even though – we hope – the violence may have begun to subside). As far away observers, we have a few narratives to choose from. And for those of us in the U.S., we can have some far-away influence. So, let’s look at what we know.

The challenges of peacebuilding and economic development in México are complex and will likely require years of deliberate action at grassroots, national, and international levels. But increased peacefulness is not impossible or entirely elusive. In México City, a representative from SERAPAZ told me about communities across the country that have used nonviolent direct action to protect their natural resources from organized crime, rejected the ineffective political structure imposed on them by the state, secured their rights to safe and fair work in their mines, and disbanded a corrupt police force, replacing it with community policing and nearly eliminating violence and crime in their community. These grassroots successes, which, I was told, offer hope and inspiration to other Mexican cities, contradict the narrative of Mexican and U.S. state agencies using law enforcement and military to impose order and security from the top-down. The difference between the national scene of appalling violence and local stories of success and possibility calls into question the approaches to security and peacebuilding throughout the Americas.

México is not the only American state facing these challenges, and two different narratives in the history of the hemisphere offer us different possibilities for the future. México and Colombia are different and complicated cases for peacebuilding, to be sure, but they are connected by the violent drug market that has devastated both nations. In one version of the international history, the state of Colombia had a violent drug problem in the 1980s and 1990s, and the state of the U.S., with the program Plan Colombia, brought its military down to the southern continent and solved the problem. Now, the state of México has a violent drug problem, and the Mexican and U.S. governments are attempting to solve it with military approaches once again.

But the same story can be told a different way: in the 1980s and 1990s the people of the southern Americas faced political and economic challenges that led them to use violence as a means to achieve their goals. As they struggled, the people of the northern Americas came to the southern continent with superior technologies of violence and moved their problem northward. The elites from the north and south worked together to remove the violent drug market from the southern continent, and, in response, the people working in this market went to the middle Americas. Today, the technology of elite violence has improved and is being employed on the northern continent, but the people engaged in this market have nowhere else to go.

The first narrative is consistent with centuries of imperial and state-centric political history. But the second offers an alternative, people-centric, nonviolent paradigm for the future. It suggests that by focusing on people, rather than states and militaries, we can build a system for managing competing interests and meeting basic human needs that does not require violence on anyone’s part (the state, the market, or otherwise). Top-down change will be needed to the extent that economic and political structures originate at the state level, but it is not the only option. By understanding the international drug trade as a market, we are likely to discover that peace economics is a much more effective tool in fighting what, truthfully, need not be called a war.

Peace Economics at UNDP


If you’re in New York City, please join me for a presentation of my research next week! Continue reading

From the Drug War to Peaceful Markets


An exciting event coming up! If you’re in the NYC area, I hope you’ll join me as I present my research at the New York Peace Institute on Friday, October 26th. Flyer and a link to RSVP below. I hope to see you there!


New York Peace Institute and PACT invite you to a PeaceTalk

What is Peace Economics? From the Drug War to Peaceful Markets

with Talia Hagerty

Ojuelos de Jalisco, México, September 2012

Friday, October 26th 2012 (6-8pm)

Do markets build peace? Can economic structures support ongoing violence? The emerging conversation about peace economics explores these and other timely questions. New York Peace Institute and the Center for Global Affairs Peacebuilding and Conflict Transformation (PACT) group cordially invite you to add your voice to the conversation and debate, “What is Peace Economics” on Friday, October 26th 2012. Talia Hagerty, a Masters candidate at the Center for Global Affairs, will lead the talk and present her provocative research on peace economics in México.

The PeaceTalk will include an overview of the most recent work in the emerging concept of peace economics and a presentation of Talia’s research in México. In addition to México’s complicated economic history, approximately 50,000 lives have been lost to the drug war since 2006. In light of both the violence and poverty experienced there, México makes an important and fascinating case for understanding peace economics. Without specific warring parties, but with large-scale and organized violence, México’s conflict is difficult to understand and address. Talia argues that México is experiencing violence as market activity – a new framework with significant implications for economic policy, development and human rights work, and peacebuilding. The event will include ample time for discussion of this timely issue.
RSVP Required:

This PeaceTalk is free and open to the public; however, because space is limited, please be sure torsvp here.

Please email Chantal Kim at ckim@nypeace.org if you have any questions about the event.

Date & Time: Friday October 26th, 2012 (6:00PM – 8:00PM)

Location: New York Peace Institute, Brooklyn Mediation Center

210 Joralemon Street, Suite 618, Brooklyn, NY 11201 (located between Court and Adams Streets)

Conveniently located near Subways 2,3,4,5 to Borough Hall, M,N,R to Court Street; G to Hoyt-Schermerhorn Street; A,C,F to Jay Street


Speaker Bio:

Talia Hagerty is a Masters candidate at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs, with a concentration in peacebuilding and peace economics. Her research focuses on informal and illicit economies globally, and the drug trade in Latin America specifically. After completing her master’s thesis – an exploration of economic opportunity and markets in México – Talia aims to work toward peaceful economic structures and opportunities in the Americas. Talia earned a BA in Economics from Eckerd College in 2008, and spent two years working in fair trade at the Center for Cultural Interchange and Greenheart in Chicago. Since moving to New York City in 2010, Talia has worked on violence containment research at the Institute for Economics and Peace and collaborated with regulators, civil society, and the private sector at the environmental consulting firm Matthiessen Strategies.