I don't know if Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto has seen many movies by Philip Seymour Hoffman, but I'm betting he's not a fan of Hoffman's last act. By dying with a needle in his arm, the star kindled news media interest in the growing popularity in the U.S. of heroin, about half of which comes from Mexico. That's off-message for Pena Nieto, who has tried hard during his first year in office to shift the spotlight from drugs and violence to Mexico's enormous economic potential and the promise of closer North American integration. A more smoothly functioning cross-border heroin trade probably wasn't what he had in mind.
Yet that seems to be what's developing. Quantifying Mexican heroin production is understandably difficult: Not long before it was disbanded, the U.S. National Drug Intelligence Center implausibly put Mexican production at about 50 tons, more than double U.S. annual consumption of 20 tons. Go figure. Yet the 232 percent jump in U.S. seizures of heroin at the southwestern border from 2008 to 2012 reflects an expanding population of users. And as Bloomberg News reported last fall, Mexican gangs have stepped up their efforts to meet rising demand.
This says more about changes in U.S. drug consumption, though, than about heightened marketing and distribution savvy among Mexican cartels or a failure in Mexican law enforcement. Affluent suburban youths who were abusing opiate painkillers such as OxyContin have switched to relatively inexpensive heroin as prescription drugs have become more expensive and less attractive (thanks to re-engineering). It took an American movie star's death to generate some news, but for public officials such as the governor of Vermont, the devastation caused by cheap heroin has become, as he put it, "a crisis bubbling just beneath the surface."
Pena Nieto's recent decisions to direct more government spending to, and deploy the military in, Michoacan, where vigilante groups have been fighting drug gangs, suggests he realizes he can't soft-pedal Mexico's narcotics troubles away. But don't blame Mexico for the resurgent U.S. heroin market, or Pena Nieto for trying to change the subject of a conversation that he didn't start. After all, the cartels aren't holding syringes to the heads of kids in Burlington, Vermont, or Winnetka, Illinois, and telling them to shoot up or else.
(James Gibney is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board.Follow him on Twitter.)
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