The Green in Ganja

'Dealing Death and Drugs' shows the human costs of the drug war—and the importance of marijuana to cartels

When Juárez cartel gangster Jose Antonio "El Diego" Acosta Hernandez was arrested last summer, he had an estimated 1,500 murders under his belt while operating in a city where violent death comes fast and furious.

The warring Juárez and Sinoloa cartels are blamed for thousands of murders while battling for the lucrative crossing to the U.S. drug-buying public. And while the violence hasn't crossed the border in a significant way, it has expanded opportunities for others with murder on their mind in Juárez, according to Dealing Death and Drugs: The Big Business of Dope in the U.S. and Mexico.

Women continue to be tortured, raped and murdered—a wave of violence that has claimed thousands of victims since NAFTA delivered a rapid wave of increased industrialization to the border city in the 1990s. As the price of a human life plummeted, a Juárez representative of the Chihuahua State Human Rights Commission was quoted on the subject of the new opportunity killings: "Now we estimate that there must be 4,500 armed people who are prepared to kill. Many of them (are) 14- and 15-year-old kids who hate the guy who stole their girlfriend, who hate the father who yelled at them, the teacher who flunked them, who hate the rival gang, and who, on top of that, have learned to kill."

The authors of Dealing Death, former El Paso City Representative Beto O'Rourke and current Rep. Susie Byrd, hone in on the fact that Mexican officials believe pot profits may be as high as $3 billion a year: While cocaine offers an estimated eight-fold return for the cartels after expenses, a pound of marijuana purchased for $23 from a farmer in Mexico can fetch $550 in Chicago—a 23-fold value increase.

In recent years, cartels have begun to cut the risk of crossing the border by farming marijuana in U.S. national parks, bringing automatic rifles, IEDs and illegal fertilizers with them. Perhaps it was this rising violence over an otherwise innocuous weed that helped push the number of U.S. residents favoring legalization of the plant to an all-time high of 50 percent.

It makes sense that those with a front-row seat to the destruction of the Drug War would give birth to a treatise on marijuana legalization; $48 billion a year in federal, state and local dollars is too much for a drug war that returns so little. Yet even in this crucible of violence, arguments for alternative responses aren't tolerated, as O'Rourke (now running for Congress against Texas Rep. Silvestre Reyes) and his colleagues discovered when they attempted to pass a resolution in 2009 calling for an "open, honest, national debate" on the topic. O'Rourke writes in the introduction that Reyes wanted the matter put away. "He asked us not to move forward with the resolution and delivered a thinly veiled threat: Failure to do so would result in the withholding of stimulus funds for our city, the third-poorest in the United States." The once-unanimous council crumbled. The killings across the river continued. The all-important stimulus kept flowing.

Obviously, the damage wrought by the drug trade and bi-national War on Drugs stretches far beyond the trafficking nexus of Juárez/El Paso. The authors overlook, for instance, the shame of the U.S. prison system, where nearly one out of 100 residents is behind bars—the highest incarceration rate in the world—thanks, in large part, to the Drug War. And while the case for legalization in Dealing Death is strong, the takeaway for U.S. pot-smokers is also clear: If you aren't growing your own, those profiting from your marijuana use likely have a mass grave or two they don't want you to think about.

Byrd closes the book in the best tradition of political pamphleteering, with a mother's plea. "If current drug policy has not successfully shielded my children from the ability to access drugs, how can I—how can we—support a policy that accepts the terror in Juarez, the drug-trade killings in U.S. inner-cities and the absolute waste of billions of taxpayer dollars as collateral damage in a way that is supposedly being waged to keep drugs out of the hands of our kids?"