U.S., Mexico Join Efforts To Combat Drug Traffic

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Last week, American and Mexican officials met in Washington to ramp up efforts to combat illegal drug use and the problems it causes. Some of those issues are all too visible in the U.S., where addiction touches the lives of millions, as well as in Mexico, where thousands of soldiers, police, prosecutors and civilians have been murdered in the battle between the government and drug traffickers. Liane Hansen speaks with Gil Kerlikowske, the Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, about recent efforts to stem the flow of drugs from Mexican by decreasing the demand in the U.S.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

Last week, American and Mexican officials met in Washington to ramp up efforts to combat illegal drug use and the problems it causes. Some of those issues are all too visible in the United States, where addiction touches the lives of millions, as well as in Mexico, where thousands of soldiers, police, prosecutors and civilians have been murdered in the battle between the government and drug traffickers.

Gil Kerlikowske is the Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. He helped lead the meetings last week and he's in our Washington studio.

Nice to meet you, welcome to the program.

Mr. GIL KERLIKOWSKE (Director, White House Office of National Drug Control Policy): Thank you for having me, Liane.

HANSEN: The outcome of these meetings is a call for more emphasis by both countries on reducing the demand for drugs, including prevention efforts and treatment for drug users. Why put more effort into that rather than targeting the supply of illegal drugs?

Mr. KERLIKOWSKE: Well, we've worked hard at reducing supply, but this is a shared responsibility. Our ability to reduce the use of drugs within our country can certainly help other countries when it comes to the violence issues and other problems.

HANSEN: Well, we've been hearing about the horrible violence in Mexico. More than 8,000 murders last year in that country are believed to be drug related, according U.S. State Department figures. So why shouldn't fighting the traffickers be the focus of increased coordination efforts?

Mr. KERLIKOWSKE: It is. The Southwest Border Initiative for us to stop the flow of guns and cash going into Mexico is critical, the work that President Calderon is doing to take on the traffickers. But, as important, preventing drug use whether here in the United States or in Mexico, treating people who have become drug addicts, those things are just as important.

HANSEN: I want to ask you about a report in The Washington Post last week, because there've been some questions about the nature of U.S. coordination with the Mexican government in the fight against the drug cartels.

The paper reported that for the first time, the U.S. would embed American intelligence agents in Mexican law enforcement units to help pursue drug cartel leaders and their hit men. Is that going to happen?

Mr. KERLIKOWSKE: No. What is happening and will happen in a more robust fashion is this: The sharing and exchanging of information about the financiers, the cartel members, the traffickers, the information that law enforcement exchanges with the government of Mexico has increased. And the ability for the government of Mexico to take these issues on is very important. But the United States is not in the business of enforcing the laws within the sovereign territories of Mexico.

HANSEN: When you were first appointed last year, you said you would seek - and I'm quoting - "a more balanced approach to drug policy?" What has the balance been in the past?

Mr. KERLIKOWSKE: The balance has been primarily a criminal justice problem. And, frankly, that isn't the best way to go about this. A balanced way is what President Obama believes will be a better way.

HANSEN: You've been consulting with a lot of groups and officials and soliciting ideas for how U.S. drug policy needs to change. Your office is supposed to release a new national drug control strategy.

What have these groups, officials and so forth, what have they been telling?

Mr. KERLIKOWSKE: The drug problem has affected everyone. It is killing more people than gunshots in the United States. So we need to start approaching this not being soft on drugs, but being smart on drugs.

HANSEN: And you've declared the war on drugs is over and just using that phrase.

Mr. KERLIKOWSKE: I did. That was pretty easy, actually, to just end it.

HANSEN: Uh-huh. But...

Mr. KERLIKOWSKE: The hard part is going forward, of course.

HANSEN: Sure, but are people surprised to hear you talk about dealing with people's addictive problems? Because you were a police chief in Seattle. You come from law enforcement.

Mr. KERLIKOWSKE: No, they're not. And, in fact, what's interesting to me is my colleagues, I never heard them talk about the war on drugs. I've heard some elected officials talk about the war on drugs. But I've never heard police chiefs, prosecutors and many others talk about it that way. They understand it is a really difficult and complex problem and a simple bumper sticker answer isn't right.

HANSEN: What drug, do you think, is the most problematic?

Mr. KERLIKOWSKE: It's coming out of medicine cabinets and it's prescription drugs. And it is clearly something that we can prevent.

HANSEN: How?

Mr. KERLIKOWSKE: First of all, we educate parents and we talk to them about the importance of recognizing what's in their medicine cabinet. The other thing we can do is look at programs called Prescription Drug Monitoring. Forty states have those in effect and they allow public health officials, or in some cases, law enforcement, to look at doctors who may be over prescribing or to look at patients who may be doctor shopping.

HANSEN: Gil Kerlikowske is the director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. Thanks so much for coming into the studio.

Mr. KERLIKOWSKE: Thank you.

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