In a joint Thursday press conference at the State Department with their Mexican counterparts, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly emphasized that Americans’ demand for drugs has directly led to the rise of Mexican drug cartels and an increase in violence and deaths, both in Mexico and in the United States.
“Almost 20,000 Americans died from overdoses of heroin or synthetic opioids, including fentanyl, in 2015. An estimated 100,000 Mexicans have died in drug-related violence since 2006, many of them brave members of law enforcement who died in the line of duty, and we honor their sacrifice,” Tillerson said at the start of the conference, which was streamed online. “America must also confront the reality that we are the market, but for the seemingly endless demand by addicted users and the successful recruitment of young and vulnerable new users, there would be no market. We as Americans, parents, and friends of those who become addicted or would-be targets, must take new approaches as well. We Americans must own this problem. It is ours.”
Kelly reiterated Tillerson’s remarks during his own opening comments.
“While the United States is indeed the magnet that feeds drug smuggling through Central and South America, and all the ills that are associated with that activity, it is mostly our friends in Mexico and to the south that feel the brunt of the violence and the crime,” Kelly said.
Kelly and Tillerson were accompanied by Mexican Secretary of Foreign Relations Luis Videgaray Caso, and Mexican Secretary of Government Miguel Angel Osorio Chong. Before the press conference, the U.S. and Mexico had just completed what the State Department called a “high-level dialogue” on how the two countries could combat drugs and drug cartels. It is estimated that the drug market in the U.S. generates between $19 billion and $29 billion that goes back to Mexico.
“We need to overcome the blame game and the finger-pointing aspect. We must understand that every demand creates supply and every supply creates demand. If the governments of Mexico and the United States discuss who’s to blame, who’s responsible, the only one who wins is organized crime that is bringing violence and death on both sides of the border,” Videgaray Caso said in his remarks. “The time has come for us to dare think in a different way. We need to trust more in ourselves and work jointly on all of the elements in this production chain, starting with the crops, the importation of material, production, financial flows of cash, flows of weapons, and of course, the problem of demand, which is at the root of this scourge which has cost so much to both countries.”
According to the State Department, the Merida Initiative has given Mexico “nearly $1.5 billion in training, equipment, and technical assistance… to help strengthen Mexico’s judicial and security institutions” since 2008. However, a 2016 State Department report on the Mexican drug trade makes little mention of U.S. demand and focuses more on how much money was spent on security and enforcement. The report added that “illegal drug use in Mexico is lower than U.S. levels.”
“We know what we own, and we as Americans need to confront that we are the market,” Tillerson said later in the press conference, as part of a response to a reporter’s question. “There is no other market for these activities. It is all coming here. But for us, Mexico wouldn’t have the trans-criminal organized crime problem and the violence that they’re suffering. And it’s… we really have to own up to that.”
The press conference also confirmed that Mexico was open to restructuring NAFTA and that both countries were working together on several issues (“The wall does not define our relationship,” Tillerson said at one point), but the topic of U.S. demand for drugs was the closing point, which Kelly specifically addressed when a Mexican journalist asked about border security. While Kelly acknowledged that DHS is working to stop the delivery of drugs at the border, he emphasized that it was not the most important strategy to fight the cartels. According to Kelly, it was about significantly reducing drug consumption.
“The first thing we need to do, because it is—it generates all of the problems, and that is the drug demand in the United States. And not only the drugs that are used by addicts, but the recreational use of drugs,” Kelly said. “If Americans understood that playing around with drugs on a weekend for fun ultimately ends or results in the lives lost in Mexico by law enforcement and by the military, or lives lost in Colombia or Central America… if Americans understood that recreational playing around with drugs is resulting in the deaths of reporters and media people throughout the region, but particularly, unfortunately, in Mexico right now, police officers., as I say, soldiers, prosecutors, judges… if Americans that use drugs recreationally understood that and stopped doing that, that would significantly reduce the amount of drugs and, consequently, the amount of profits that come out of the United States.”
“So the most important thing we can do is reduce the drug demand,” Kelly continued. “We’ve never tried it. We’ve never done it. We have to develop a comprehensive drug demand reduction program in the United States that involves everybody: involves professional sports, Hollywood, involves governors, mayors, involves parents, priests… involves everybody. We can reduce the amount of drugs consumed in the United States significantly—never go to zero, but we can reduce it. But until we do, we’ll be fighting at best a neutral battle on the border. The drug traffickers are extremely agile, extremely innovative in how they do business, incredibly brutal. If you won’t take their bribes and their money, they’ll kill your daughter and make their point that way. So it’s all about drug demand and drug demand reduction.”