The Lesser of Three Evils

Mexico and U.S. authorities finally captured Arizona's leading drug kingpin. Good work, guys. Now let him go.

For American drug enforcement officials, it's Caro Quintero's efficiency, not his violence, that made him a top public enemy.

Unprecedented amounts of drugs were moving through Arizona because of him.

But an unprecedented lack of violence also moved through.

"It is much, much less violent here than in Tijuana and Juárez regions," Rodriguez says.

Robert Almonte, a deputy police chief in El Paso, which borders Juárez, agrees.

"This cartel is incredibly violent," Almonte says. "You definitely don't want these guys."

But we may get them. The Caro Quintero organization is hurting. And September 11 made it even worse.

The border was locked down just as the marijuana harvest began in Mexico. As the months passed, drug runners became desperate as tons of pot began to rot in Mexico (they don't have huge freezers, apparently). In desperation, drug runners are making mistakes.

DEA seized a near-record 10,000 pounds in Tucson in December. El Paso police had their best quarter ever, Almonte says.

Even if the shipments get through, heightened security has made it much more difficult to get money back to Mexico.

"It has become a very bad year for the cartels," says Jim Molesa, a DEA special agent based in Phoenix.

(If you're a pot smoker, you may soon have to do your patriotic duty and Buy American.)

Drug agents aren't sure what will happen with the Caro Quintero organization. Rodriguez is guessing a lieutenant will take the post peacefully; others believe a fight is already beginning.

My fear is that all this good work by U.S. and Mexican drug agents will cause terrible ramifications down the road. Hemorrhaging money and without a leader, either the unified factions within the Caro Quintero organization will begin warring or the Juárez or Tijuana cartels will move in. And no doubt the mayhem will be reflected in the Phoenix murder rate.

After years of trying, we may finally become America's deadliest city.

I believe the U.S. and Mexico should change their mindset toward drug cartels.

Until demand for drugs is abated, which history suggests will never happen, the existence of drug cartels will be inevitable.

The formation of cartels for a population has proven as inevitable as the formation of governments for a population.

So, perhaps drug cartels should be treated as rogue governments, not as crime organizations. The policy should not be to destroy the cartels, but to steer them toward stability and the behavior least damaging to American interests.

Imagine Arizona-Sonora as Afghanistan. Miguel Caro Quintero is Hamid Karzai, the alternative is Muhammad Omar or Osama bin Laden.

So, free Miguel! Lose some paperwork. Take a bribe. Send him a hacksaw in his birthday cake. Whatever.

In its present form, the enforcement arm of America's War on Drugs is a limited police action, an ambiguous Vietnam of partial containment. For every drug runner arrested, another appears in his or her place.

As such, I'm still astonished by the courage of those who risk their lives enforcing this policy. It's tougher to risk death for containment than for victory.

If we're going to force border agents and police to play this game of cat and mouse, then at least let them play with a sane, civilized mouse.

That way, we won't have our cats' heads sent home in boxes.

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