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Mexico's war on drugs is a disaster

President Calderon’s war on drugs has claimed nearly 18,000 lives, cost a small fortune in military expenditures, and brought enormous damage to the country’s image abroad. Obama must help Mexico adopt a new strategy.

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It can be found, according to a growing number of Mexicans, in Calderón’s attempt to legitimize himself as president after a squeaker of an election, which many citizens (though not this writer) deemed fraudulent. This strategy succeeded for a while, as the president/commander in chief of the Army inevitably saw his poll ratings rise. They have been dropping precipitously, though, since late last year.

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The second question concerns the effectiveness of this war, and whether there is any end in sight. At this point, the answers seem negative on both counts.

The overall levels of violence have increased; the supposed jump in the price of drugs on the street in the United States has either been minor or short-lived; and the state’s territorial control is, at best, similar to what it was back in 2006.

No area of the country has been truly recovered by the state, and those few examples of partial success (Tijuana is perhaps the most notable one) last as long as the troops remain there.

But the Mexican Army is clearly over-extended: Of its 100,000 combat and patrol troops, 96,000 are on constant duty; desertions are growing; and the equivalent of a stop-loss policy is becoming indispensable.

The government’s point – shared, incomprehensibly, by the Obama administration – that the rise in violence is a sign of success brings back tragic and uncanny memories of body counts in Vietnam. There is, for now, no cost-benefit analysis that justifies the pursuit of a war that is clearly going nowhere.

What’s the solution?

Which brings us to the third question: What else can Mexico do?

And, since this is increasingly as much President Obama’s war as Calderón’s, what can Washington do? There are at least three options, none of which are perfect but all of which are certainly preferable to a deplorable and unsustainable status quo.

The first, and minimalist one, is to pursue the same strategy and policy, but at least shut up about it.

Calderón on occasion gives the impression that he is as interested in flaunting the war as in waging or winning it (remember George Bush’s “Mission Accomplished”?). Simply by toning down the rhetoric, lowering the priority assigned to the war, and emphasizing other issues (it’s not like Mexico faces no additional challenges these days), such as economic growth, political reform, and social policy, this would be a welcome change. If Mr. Obama helps him, particularly in the run-up to their first meeting in Washington as presidents, on May 19, things would certainly improve.

A second option would be to reset the entire affair and start all over. This implies creating the single National Police Force that Mexico lacks, and on which scant progress has been made during this administration or the two previous ones. Only this way can the military be brought back to the barracks, where it belongs.


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