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A soldier stands guard as 7.6 tonnes of marijuana is incinerated at the military base in Ciudad Juarez December 17, 2010. Soldiers seized the drugs in various operations on the streets of Ciudad Juarez in the past three months. (STRINGER/MEXICO/REUTERS)
A soldier stands guard as 7.6 tonnes of marijuana is incinerated at the military base in Ciudad Juarez December 17, 2010. Soldiers seized the drugs in various operations on the streets of Ciudad Juarez in the past three months. (STRINGER/MEXICO/REUTERS)

Globe Editorial

Drugs: the epidemic that threatens the Americas Add to ...

It is convenient to think of the drug wars as a peculiarly Mexican problem, focused on the border Mexico shares with the U.S. It isn't. The drug trade has become a grave threat to hemispheric security. And the Canadian government has not fully grasped the seriousness of the problem.

Mexico's drug-trafficking organizations are the undisputed jefes of the region, with distribution lines from the streets of Buenos Aires to Vancouver. Drug-trafficking organizations are destabilizing not just Mexico, but many other parts of Latin America, and the Caribbean. Crime has become the number one concern in all countries in the region, according to a 2010 Latinobarometro poll.

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Central America's death toll from violence is as high as it was at the peak of the civil wars. Last year, there were more homicides in Guatemala and Honduras together than in the European Union's 27 countries combined, as indigenous criminal groups wage a battle with the cartels, pushed south by Mexican President Felipe Calderon's military campaign against them. Drug-trafficking organizations have also established transport routes through the Caribbean. Their activity has reached “major cities in the entire continental U.S., as well as some major cities in Canada,” according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

Canada has failed to recognize the extent to which security in the hemisphere is being undermined by these highly mobile, vertically integrated transnational criminal groups.

In May, Canada signed an anti-organized-crime agreement with Mexico, agreeing to assist with police training and justice reform. Yet Ottawa has dispatched only eight RCMP officers, and directed just $4-million to strengthen the country's judiciary. It has chosen to be an observer of, rather than a direct participant in, the newly launched American Police Community – a hemispheric police organization whose prime mission is to fight the drug cartels.

This inactivity is especially puzzling given Prime Minister Stephen Harper's oft-stated goal to help build a more prosperous, democratic and secure Latin America and Caribbean.

“Canada has a future in working with the two American neighbours to fight a common, corrosive and growing threat to all of our societies,” Admiral James Winnefield, head of the U.S. Northern Command and the NORAD defence pact, said during a recent visit to Toronto.

The demand for cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines in the U.S., and Canada, fuels the trade. The U.S. – source of some 60,000 guns that have armed the cartels – has recognized its role. Washington's $1.6-billion Plan Merida is directed toward helping Mexico with intelligence, training and the rebuilding of communities plagued by drug violence. It is likely only a fraction of what the U.S. will need to spend.

Why does Canada remain largely on the sidelines? Though a much smaller drug market, cocaine use has actually increased in Canada in the last decade. Canada is also a robust producer of methamphetamines and marijuana, and a natural draw for cocaine distributors wishing to trade in kind.

Canada needs to view the drug trade for what it really is: a global criminal threat driven by an apparently insatiable demand for drugs in North America.

“Drugs are the AIDS of Latin America,” says Johanna Mendelson, with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “An epidemic killing innocent people.”

Canada is not immune. In British Columbia, Mexican drug cartels enjoy operational ties with the province's drug distributors, says Constable Michael McLaughlin, with the RCMP's federal drug enforcement branch. Though local biker gangs still run the drug trade, the RCMP have intercepted $13-million in cocaine in three different busts in the past two months, and two of the cases have direct connections to Mexican drug cartels.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has mused that parts of Mexico are in danger of becoming a narco-state. If that happens, Canada will be affected in myriad ways. Canada has three times more direct foreign investment in Latin America than it does with Asia, and does $25-billion in annual bilateral trade with Mexico. Every year, more than 1.2 million Canadian tourists visit Mexico. “Mexico is an important export and investment market,” says Jennifer Jeffs, president of the Canadian International Council. “It is in our interests that it remains a thriving and functional democracy.”

Organized criminal drug networks are a serious and growing threat to the stability of the Americas. Canada is an integral part of the problem – and the region – and must play a greater role in the solution. It should begin by joining the hemispheric policing association, work more closely with Mexico City and Washington and put its heart (and more resources) into the struggle.

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