MEXICO CITY — For the second time in less than a month, Mexican President Felipe Calderon has inched toward suggesting that the United States decriminalize narcotics if that's what it takes to reduce the "astronomical profits" of the crime gangs roiling his nation.
If the United States cannot reduce demand for drugs, Calderon said in New York Monday night, then "decision makers must look for other solutions, including market alternatives."
Calderon was asked Tuesday morning on CBS's "Early Show" if he was suggesting drugs should be legalized.
"I'm talking about market alternatives, market solutions," Calderon said. "Either we reduce consumption or we need more alternatives, more solutions."
Calderon declined to specify the alternatives, or how they might reduce the profits of narcotics traffickers. But some analysts in Mexico and the United States said it was code language to open debate about legalization without using a word that draws contentious reaction.
"It's loaded. We call it the 'L word,' said Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance, a New York-based group in favor of decriminalization.
"It's essentially like uttering out loud a political heresy, and he wants to avoid that."
Calderon is under growing pressure to reduce violence by organized crime groups in Mexico that has caused more than 40,000 deaths since he took office in late 2006. His ruling party lags in polling for 2012 presidential elections in which he himself cannot seek re-election.
Calderon first used the phrase "market alternatives" on Aug. 26, the day after gangsters firebombed a casino in Monterrey, killing 52 people. His voice cracking on occasion, he lashed out at U.S. gun shops and their "criminal sale" of assault rifles to Mexican traffickers, and said that high U.S. demand for narcotics made Americans, too, responsible for Mexico's turmoil.
Calderon repeated those criticisms during a speech Monday night at the Council of the Americas in New York even as he lauded growing U.S.-Mexico security cooperation.
U.S. demand for drugs "is the source of the criminals' greatest power," offering "exorbitant profits" that allow them to corrupt officials and equip themselves with sophisticated arsenals, he said.
An ardent advocate of free markets, Calderon alluded to the economic tenet that if a prohibition is lifted on a type of good, its sale price will plummet.
"We have to do whatever it takes to reduce demand for drugs. But if drug consumption can't be contained, then decision makers must look for solutions, including market alternatives, to reduce the astronomical profits of these criminal organizations," he said.
In public meetings with academics and activists in Mexico, Calderon has been willing to put legalization on the table but has voiced personal opposition to it.
"His posture is rejection of legalization, that its costs are higher than its benefits," said Edna Jaime, a political analyst at Mexico's CIDAC think tank.
Yet Jaime said Calderon is clearly referring to legalization when speaking of "market alternatives," perhaps considering it "too compromising to spell it out with all its letters."
Both of Calderon's immediate predecessors as president, Vicente Fox and Ernesto Zedillo, are proponents of legalization, as are several leading Mexican intellectuals and writers.
Jaime said Calderon may be having a change of heart. His policies have hit crime groups hard, capturing or killing 23 major traffickers, but levels of violence keep rising.
"He's very frustrated," she said. "He thought his policies would yield positive results. Instead, he'll be leaving office with the country in a state of acute violence, worse than he got it."
Increasingly, Calderon has turned to criticizing the United States, describing the trend of U.S. states toward allowing medical marijuana as undercutting Mexico's war against drug traffickers.
Sixteen U.S. states and the District of Columbia now permit the use of medical marijuana.
If Calderon is feeling the weight of his presidency, he's also found time recently to unwind by scuba diving, rappelling into caves, scampering up Aztec pyramids and piercing through jungles on zip lines for an upcoming television series promoting tourism to Mexico.
Calderon was to visit the Guggenheim Museum in New York later Tuesday for a showing of "Mexico: The Royal Tour," a show hosted by Peter Greenberg that will air this fall on PBS. Calderon will attend another showing of the program in Los Angeles on Wednesday.
By playing an Indiana Jones-style tour guide to some of Mexico's most unusual destinations, Calderon hopes to boost the number of U.S. tourists beyond the 6 million who visited in 2010.
ON THE WEB
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY