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How to Win a Drug War: It’s a Good Thing Mexican Drug Cartels Aren’t the British Empire

The Mexican drug cartels are armed and dangerous.  And their business model is thriving.  They sell massive amounts of product in the U.S. – and U.S. arms dealers sell literally tons of weapons to the cartels. (Mexican President Calderon brought this fact to the attention of our Congress:  Of the 75,000 assault weapons seized by Mexican authorities during the last three years, over 80% came from the U.S.)

Indeed, the violence of the drug war is escalating – in Mexico.  Ciudad Juárez is the homicide capital of the western hemisphere. Yet, very little of this violence is spilling across the border according to the latest FBI crime stats.

Christopher Dickey in Newsweek on the FBI stats:

The FBI numbers show that in the midst of the supposed crime wave, many other cities in the Southwest have had declines in crime similar to Phoenix. El Paso, Texas, just across the Rio Grande from a ferocious drug war in Juarez, where some 5,000 people have been murdered in recent years, saw almost no change in its own crime rate and remains one of the safest cities in the country, with only 12 murders last year. San Antonio saw violent crime drop from 9,699 incidents to 7,844; murders from 116 to 99. Compare that with a city like Detroit, which is a little bigger than El Paso and much smaller than San Antonio—and not exactly a magnet for job-seeking immigrants. Its murder rate went up from 323 in 2008 to 361 in 2009.

So the facts are clear.  “Winning” the drug war has next to nothing to do with the immigration issue. But obviously, the bilateral trading arrangement between the U.S. and Mexico (drugs and guns) has everything to do with the “war.”

Given that President Nixon declared the war on drugs in 1971, this would make it the longest “war” in U.S. history. What does world history tell us about drug wars?

In the 19th century, the Chinese waged a war on drugs. Opium to be exact.  Sadly for them, the narco-traffickers won that one.

No, it wasn’t the Mexicans.  They had their hands full trying to hold onto the northern third of their country around that time.

Rather, it was the British Empire.

Of course, we’re talking about the First (1839 – 1842) and Second Opium Wars (1856-1860).

In that case, the dogs of war were unleashed to protect British dealers, their property and profits in their illicit drug trade.

Illegal opium was being smuggled by merchants from British India into China in defiance of Chinese prohibition laws. The first war broke out in 1839. The second round was over the treatment of British merchants in Chinese ports.

China came out on the losing end. The British “drug lords” won.  The Chinese government was forced accept the opium trade. The Treaties of Nanking and Tianjin, also known as the Unequal Treaties, forced China to open additional ports to unrestricted foreign trade, including Canton and Shanghai, fix tariffs, and cede Hong Kong to Britain – another jewel in Her Majesty’s crown. Moreover, China had to pay a huge indemnity and compensate the drug dealers (the British) for destroyed opium.

An involuntary gift from the emperor fell quite literally into the lap of the British sovereign – a small lap dog bred to resemble a Chinese lion. The shell-shocked Pekinese was found by British troops wandering among the ruins of the Summer Palace.  Queen Victoria named him “Lootie.”

Now it’s worth noting the ideological justification used by Queen Victoria’s government. The Brits claimed that all of this was done to benefit the Chinese.

British Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston was the driving force behind the first war.  According to historian Piers Brendon in his remarkable The Decline and Rise of the British Empire 1781-1997:

Palmerston… (said) it was not his country’s task to preserve “the morals of the Chinese people, who were disposed to buy what other people were disposed to sell them.” But it was right to preserve the legitimate business and lawful property of British merchants in Canton.The extension of commerce, the Foreign Secretary believed, was tantamount to the promotion of civilization.

Palmerston knew perfectly well that a victory for free trade would increase the opium trade, which accounted for 40 per cent of India’s (Britain’s colony) and was “the largest commerce of the time in any single commodity.”

A Lesson to John Chinaman (administered by Lord Palmerston) Punch, May 9, 1857

When the Chinese found this argument to be unpersuasive, Palmerston resorted to what he called the “argumentum baculinum” – the argument of the cudgel.

The Brits sent a 630-ton iron paddle steamer, Nemesis, to bombard China’s fortifications into submission. The first steam-powered ship to round the Cape of Good Hope, the Nemesis’ flat bottom made it ideal for navigating Chinese rivers and towing British men o’ war into the interior.

There you have it. That’s how the British drug cartel prevailed in an earlier war on drugs, and in so doing, conferred the blessings of free trade and free markets upon the barbarous Chinese.

So if you happen to see the HEIC Nemesis come steaming up the Rio Grande, you’ll know somebody means business.

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