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Originally published August 15, 2013 at 4:44 PM | Page modified August 16, 2013 at 10:04 AM

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Guest: Will legalizing marijuana in U.S. end violence in Mexico?

If only legalizing pot would end Mexico’s bloody nightmare. It won’t, writes guest columnist Alfredo Corchado.

Special to The Times

Book reading

Alfredo Corchado will read from his book “Midnight in Mexico: A Reporter’s Journey through a Country’s Descent into Darkness” at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 Tenth Ave. in Seattle.


IF only it was so easy — legalize pot and Mexico’s bloody nightmare would end. It won’t.

As a correspondent for The Dallas Morning News I’ve had a front-row seat to the massacre in my homeland, Mexico. Like many other colleagues, I’ve witnessed Mexico’s descent into darkness as brutal cartels continue to fight each other for plazas — parlance for illicit corridors that lead north with, among other products, tons of marijuana for the insatiable, biggest market in the world: my adopted homeland, the United States.

As I’ve witnessed the collapse of institutions in a blood-soaked nation, and seen so many in my own profession forced into censorship, threatened or killed by powerful cartels, I too have asked the same question: Why doesn’t the U.S. just legalize this stuff, just like the states of Washington and Colorado, so we can put the nightmare behind us?

Lately, I’ve read how the South American country of Uruguay became the first nation to legalize the production, distribution and use of marijuana for its people. Even here in Mexico City, I’ve seen how the issue has become a topic of debate in Congress and among business and academic leaders who suddenly view the issue through a different prism.

Sure, Mexico is a pretty conservative country and the population remains largely opposed to the mere idea of legalization. A poll by Sin Embargo showed that 48 percent oppose legalizing marijuana, and just 13 percent approved.

Even so, in a country where more than 100,000 people have been killed or disappeared since 2006, the debate is healthy.

What really led to so many killings? Was it U.S. demand? And if so, is that why I often think of the double standard when I’m traveling along the U.S.-Mexico border? I find myself wondering why the U.S. spent so many billions of dollars and built so many miles of fences to keep people out, and yet it can’t keep illicit drugs from seeping north.

As I walked the streets of Nuevo Laredo recently and crossed that bridge to the United States, the issue became clearer: Lost in the debate of whether to legalize marijuana is Mexico’s virtually nonexistent rule of law.

In Nuevo Laredo the cartel that changed the game is called the Zetas, founded as a paramilitary group that quickly grew into the most horrendous criminal organization.

The images remain fresh: bodies hanging from bridges like piñatas; heads rolling next to mutilated arms and legs; body parts strewn on highways, discarded like trash, some etched with the letter Z; and mass graves containing the remains of migrants who died with their dreams of finding a better life north of the border.

It wasn’t just illegal drugs that drove these people crazy for profit. In fact, less than half of the proceeds came from drugs. Much of their money came from kidnappings and extortions. They do it because they can.

I have witnessed a remarkable change in attitude in the past few years among some Mexicans, especially those hit hard by the violence. There is now a willingness not to just blame the United States for all their troubles, but to also point the finger at themselves.

More than 200 years after Mexico became a nation, history has finally caught up. Mexico hasn’t been able to build judicial institutions that work. Less than 5 percent of homicides are ever solved. Corruption permeates society like an institution.

This isn’t just about a commodity drug, but about those reflectors that shine along the dividing line between legality and illegality. It’s about rule of law.

In other words if it’s not marijuana, it will be something else.

Alfredo Corchado is bureau chief for The Dallas Morning News in Mexico City and author of “Midnight in Mexico: A Reporter’s Journey through a Country’s Descent into Darkness.”