Mexico: Victim of America’s War on Drugs

March 8, 2011  |   Mexico Politics and Policy

Mexico: Victim of America’s War on Drugs

Paul Crist, March 3, 2011

All is not well in the complex and multifaceted relationship between the U.S. and Mexico. A number of recent issues have heightened tensions, including the murder of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent Jamie Zapata, and the wounding of another agent on February 15th, on a highway near San Luis Potosi. That incident has once again ratcheted up jingoist rhetoric from some U.S. politicians and the sensationalist frenzy of U.S. corporate media. The Mexican government swiftly arrested alleged perpetrators, and have emphasized that the gun used, as most guns used in violent crimes in Mexico, came from north of the border.

The leaking by Wikileaks of diplomatic cables written by U.S. Embassy personnel depicting Mexico’s armed forces and police agencies as “inefficient, corrupt, riven by infighting,” and “reliant on the United States for leads and operations” has infuriated Mexican President Felipe Calderón.

Mexico continues to wait for the opening of U.S. highways to Mexican trucks, as called for under the North American Free Trade Agreement. (The U.S. Congress has blocked the program under pressure from industry groups, with arguments about highway safety and illicit drug and human trafficking concerns). Mexicans are angered by state-level measures to crack down on undocumented migrants such as the Arizona “papers please” law. Indiana just slipped through similar legislation while the media was focused on protesting workers, fighting to protect the right of collective bargaining. More states are sure to follow soon with anti-immigrant measures of various stripes, while the U.S. Congress continues to avoid the issue. Given the outsize influence in Washington that big agro enjoys, the status quo is functioning quite profitably for factory farms and meatpacking plants that pay undocumented workers below-minimum wages and ignore overtime and workplace safety rules, secure in the knowledge that undocumented workers will not file complaints.

Dominating all other problems, the U.S. leadership wonders if Mexico can control violence and bring criminals to justice, while Mexico wonders when the U.S. will address the issues of demand for illegal drugs in the U.S., and the flow of guns and weaponry across the border into Mexico.

Most of these current frictions, though not all, have deep connections to the “war on drugs” being waged as a proxy war in Mexico by the U.S. There is, after all, more than a passing connection between Mexico’s ability to expand its economy and provide jobs for its citizens, and the reality and perception of insecurity that has become a central feature of U.S.-Mexico relations. There are both human and economic costs to waging this so-called war, and Mexico is bearing the full brunt of both.

It’s true that under the Merida Initiative, the U.S. is providing resources to the Mexican government for security program capacity building. The funding is mostly for U.S.-built helicopters and equipment, and U.S.-paid training (run, of course, by a private U.S. contractor, Kaseman LLC, a Chantilly, Va.-based logistics company). The U.S. rarely provides any type of aid that doesn’t mostly benefit well-connected U.S. private interests.

On Thursday, March 3, President Calderón traveled to Washington. With hat in hand, he met with President Obama and Speaker of the House John Boehner, to ask that the $1.4 billion in funding for the next phase of Merida not be cut in the budget-slashing zeal that has overtaken Washington of late. But $1.4 billion is a paltry sum, relative to the actual cost and spending for this “war” by the Mexican government. Mexico, in order to fight America’s proxy “war on drugs,” must count not only the blood and treasure of Mexican citizens, but also the forever lost economic opportunities resulting from the shifting of resources from productive uses to “war” fighting, and the incalculable loss of both foreign and domestic investment resulting from concerns over violence and insecurity.

The current situation has put President Calderón in an untenable political situation. Under intense pressure from the U.S., and given that the “war” on the cartels has defined his presidency, he can hardly back away from it now. To do so would be to admit a grave and costly error. It would likely assure a PAN party loss in the upcoming 2012 elections. Further escalation will only increase the number of deaths reported in the media, increase the complaints over human rights abuses, and make matters worse in this unwinnable “war.”

But the Mexican polity is at a tipping point. There is a widespread sense among Mexican voters – rightly so – that this “war” is neither winnable nor the responsibility of Mexico to fight. Thus, it’s unlikely that the next President will come from the PAN political party no matter what course Calderón charts. He and his party have largely shouldered the blame for four years of rising violence (granted, not in all parts of the country, but concerns that violence could spread further continue to affect public opinion throughout the country). And there’s no real evidence that his strategy will win, or even lead to any sort of end that could be defined as success. He’s damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t.

Or is he? Would it be possible to proceed toward disarmament, end the “war,” and stop aggravating the conflict? And perhaps salvaging his presidential legacy in the process?

Gil Kerlikowske, Obama’s Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy has declared an end to the metaphorical “war on drugs” within U.S. borders. What exactly that may mean for U.S. drug policy remains to be seen, but the time has come to bring a stop to the much more real war on the cartels – the overtly military strategy – in Mexico. The cartels are neither “terrorists” nor “insurgents.” As Kerlikowske has pointed out, they are “multivalent criminal organizations,” that have diversified from the sale and transport of illegal drugs into a broad range of criminal activities: kidnapping, extortion, piracy, money laundering, human trafficking, and government corruption.

A central problem with a military strategy in crime fighting is that it does not distinguish between violent and non-violent criminals, or between serious and less harmful crimes. Among all of the crimes committed by the cartels, by far the least harmful for social and economic development is the transportation and sale of drugs. It’s also the most difficult to tackle, given the insatiable demand north of the Mexican border. Drug consumption is clearly damaging, but transporting and selling drugs do not, in and of themselves, create violence, economic crisis, or human suffering. Even the harm of drug consumption pales in comparison to the effects on a society of kidnappings, human trafficking, and beheadings – particularly when the drug consumed is marijuana, the sale of which constitutes up to two thirds of cartel profits by most estimates.

The effect of waging this unwinnable “war” on the relatively non-violent trade in prohibited drugs has, to a large extent, pushed the criminals toward more dangerous, harmful, and violent crimes. Under pressure from the U.S., Mexico has concentrated scarce law enforcement – and increasingly, military – resources toward a relatively harmless crime. As the criminals amped up their firepower and diversified into truly violent activities, Mexican authorities have been forced to do the same. The result has been an unending spiral of increasing violence by both sides. The cartels have diversified into violent activities to augment revenue needed to defend turf and protect “business interests.” The cartel violence is a predictable outcome of threats to a business model that was, to a cartel boss, working pretty well until 2006, when the current “war” strategy was begun. Meanwhile the military and law enforcement agencies have engaged in violent rights abuses and errors that have gone largely uninvestigated and unprosecuted.

The problem is not a lack of firepower; it is too much firepower on both sides of the “war,” and indeed, the very strategy of “war” itself.

Mexico should turn from this strategy, and focus on investigating, apprehending, prosecuting and punishing violent criminals, rather than on the transportation of drugs. Resources should be refocused – increased – for domestic security and policing of violent crime. This must include advanced training and better pay for law enforcement personnel; implementation of effective criminal investigation techniques; effective internal controls for law enforcement agencies; and judicial system capacity building for fairer and swifter prosecutions. And Mexico should do this on its own so as not to be beholden to U.S. pressure regarding non-violent crime related to drug transport and sale. The participation of the military within Mexico should be ratcheted down as quickly as is feasible while ratcheting up law enforcement for violent activities.

Such moves would help to reduce the appeal for engaging in extreme violence by the cartels, as the “core business,” – drug transport – again becomes a safer way to make money. And money is, in the end, what they’re after. It would ratchet down the number of homicides and the concomitant media sensationalism, giving tourism and other economic sectors in Mexico some breathing room. And it would reduce the incidence of human rights abuses that are currently earning Mexico well-deserved opprobrium from global and national rights communities.

U.S. politicians and those who profit handsomely from the ongoing “war on drugs” would no doubt be infuriated at Mexico’s change of strategy. The rhetoric in the U.S. media would surely be swift and damning. The U.S. interest in denying its own culpability, for the drug problem, remains strong. But at some point, the rest of the world needs to simply say, “Enough!” and force the U.S. to deal with its drug problem at its root: the demand side.

Mexico’s change of strategy on fighting the cartel activities would cost it Merida Initiative funding, and Mexico would be “decertified” for insufficiently combating drug production and trafficking. But Mexico is already branded, and so what? State Department “decertification” is little more than an annual charade anyway. It’s time the “supplier” countries stood up to the U.S. and insist that the U.S. do much more to reduce demand, to admit and deal with its own culpability, in exchange for future cooperation on the supply side.

The proposal for a change in strategy is not legalization, nor is it dependent on legalization of drug use. It certainly implies no pact with the cartels. On the contrary, it is intended to increase, not reduce, the pressure brought against the perpetrators of violent crimes. It is intended to enhance the rule of law and foster greater respect for law enforcement and the justice system.

Such a change in strategy would elicit swift and vigorous applause from Mexican citizens, who have largely concluded that peace and prosperity are more important than stopping the flow of drugs to eager consumers north of their border. The “No más sangre” (No more blood) movement is but one example of growing calls for change. The cartels need to be controlled, but in a way that does not destroy the fabric of Mexican society and its economy. It makes no sense to win the war if it leaves the country in shambles. It makes even less sense if the war is unwinnable, and the country is left in shambles.

President Obama would do well to listen to the Mexican people – perhaps instead of the supplicants who come to Washington seeking favors – and balance their voices with those of his military and drug policy advisers. The central objective for both Mexico and the U.S. in addressing the issue of drugs and the cartels should be the reduction of violence and establishment of the rule of law. Without these, everything else fails.


Paul Crist owns and manages Hotel Mercurio in Puerto Vallarta, and is the founder and President of Vallarta Enfrenta el SIDA, A.C. (V.E.S., Vallarta Confronts AIDS in English). A Washington, DC native and political activist interested in a range of public policy issues, he also leads a bipartisan effort to gain Congressional authorization for extending U.S. Medicare coverage to eligible seniors living in Mexico. He is a founder of Americans for Medicare in Mexico, A.C., and The Center for Medicare Portability. He holds degrees in Architecture, Political Science, and a Master’s Degree in International Economics. He has lived and worked as an economist in several Latin American countries, and was a staff member for a U.S. Senator for several years. He divides his time between Puerto Vallarta and Washington, DC.

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