Spurred by the unending prohibition-related violence tormenting Mexico, and in particular, Ciudad Juárez, El Paso's sister city on the other side of the Rio Grande, the El Paso City Council Tuesday unanimously passed a resolution that called for, among other things, "a serious debate" on drug legalization as a means of ending the violence. But Mayor John Cook, who sat silently through the council meeting, vetoed the resolution the same afternoon.
Drafted by the city's Border Relations Committee, the resolution outlined 11 steps the US and Mexican governments can take to help El Paso's "besieged and beleaguered sister city." But O'Rourke proposed a 12th step -- which also passed unanimously -- an amendment calling on national leaders to "support an honest open national debate on ending the prohibition on narcotics." (See the draft resolution not including the amendment here.)
"We know the war on drugs is empowering the drug lords and is costing us millions of dollars," O'Rourke told his fellow council members. "Let's start an honest national debate that would end the prohibition of narcotics," he said, successfully urging them to support his amendment.
"It's a terrible situation that calls for a more dramatic solution than just asking for stepped up enforcement," O'Rourke said after the Tuesday meeting. "What I asked for today and the council approved was urging our representatives to have an honest, open dialogue about ending the prohibition on narcotics," he told the El Paso Times."I hope our congressman, Silvestre Reyes, and our US senators hear us loud and clear and have a very difficult and politically challenging debate, one that needs to happen. We can't continue the status quo; it's not working."
But El Paso's federal representatives may not hear the council's request loud and clear, because later Tuesday afternoon Mayor Cook issued his veto. "The action of council... undermines the hard work of the committee by adding new language which may affect the credibility of the entire resolution," he said in the veto. "It is not realistic to believe that the US Congress will seriously consider any broad-based debate on the legalization of narcotics," Cook added. "That position is not consistent with the community standards both locally and nationally."
Cook's after-the-fact veto angered several council members. "I am really disappointed. I went and told him that personally," O'Rourke said. "This amendment received unanimous support from council and it also received the support of the members of the committee who wrote the resolution."
Eastridge/Mid-Valley city Rep. Steve Ortega said he respected Cook's decision, but disagreed with it. "The controversial amendment merely calls for the initiation of a debate regarding the prohibition of narcotics. It does not endorse the legalization of drugs but it places it on the table for debate," he said. "Ending cartel related violence in Juárez represents this region's biggest challenge and justifies an all-inclusive dialogue concerning potential solutions."
"I completely understand... this is a very uncomfortable conversation to have," said West-Central city Rep. Susie Byrd. "But the reason that I am compelled to support the resolution as we approved it is that whatever we have been doing in the last 40 years has not worked."
But Cook told the Times that asking for a debate on ending prohibition diverted attention from the real issue. "The whole purpose of the resolution was to get national attention to the violence in Juárez," he said. "After it was amended, the focus was placed instead on legalizing drugs in the United States."
And US Rep. Reyes, who would have been one of the recipients of the resolution, told the Times he would not have been receptive anyway. "Legalizing the types of drugs that are being smuggled across the border is not an effective way to combat the violence in Mexico," he said. "I would not support efforts in Congress that would seek to do so."
O'Rourke was irritated with the mayor's backroom maneuver. "We started a conversation about solutions ... a conversation that was supported by everyone on council," he said. "The mayor, though, didn't say a word during the meeting. It wasn't until I received a Xerox copy of his veto that I heard from him."
Now O'Rourke has to keep his fellow council members on board for Tuesday's vote. "My intention is to ask that this be on the Tuesday agenda, as adopted, for reconsideration, and we'll just see how the votes fall," O'Rourke said Wedneday. "I'm going to respect whatever the members of .council decide to do.After hearing from their constituents, they may have a different take on it."
Council members may fear the call for open debate on drug legalization will alienate voters ahead of looming elections, he said. "Unquestionably, it gets tougher for those representatives and the mayor to make this decision knowing they are going to face the voters in less than six months."
The debate over whether to even talk about radical drug policy reform continues to roil El Paso, and Tuesday's meeting should be interesting, to say the least. Among the latest to join the fray was former Mayor Bill Tilney, who served from 1991 to 1993. Where he came down was evident from the title of the op-ed he penned Wednesday: "Former mayor to City Council: Stay the course on drug resolution."
Some elected officials, such as Mayor Cook and Rep. Reyes, may want to close their eyes and plug their ears, but all El Pasoans have to do is look across the border to see how well the drug war is working. More than 5,000 Mexicans died in prohibition-related violence last year, hundreds of them in Ciudad Juárez alone. Now the people closest to the border are starting to demand something besides more of the same old same old.