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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.

By Jorge Castaneda / March 25, 2010

Mexico City

Mexico’s drug war continues to get worse and shows no sign of ebbing.

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Seven days in March were labeled the most violent ones in President Felipe Calderón’s 3-1/2 years in office, with, according to the Mexico City daily Reforma, 256 drug-related deaths.

IN PICTURES: Mexico's drug war

During that span, on March 13, three US citizens were murdered in Ciudad Juárez. Two of them were American consular officers and the third was a prison guard from across the border in El Paso, Texas.

Earlier in the year, on Jan. 31, at a party in Ciudad Juárez, 15 teenagers were shot and killed, apparently by mistake; the perpetrators are still at large.

On his third trip to Juárez this year (a bit belatedly; he had visited the million-and-a-half-inhabitant community only twice before as president), Mr. Calderón insisted that appearances notwithstanding, thanks to the yearlong presence of 10,000 Mexican troops, violence had begun to recede. According to his own government’s figures, there have been 536 executions in Juárez since Jan. 1; that’s100 more than during the same period last year, which, in turn, experienced a rise of 25 percent throughout 2008.

For those who claim that the violence is localized in a few border towns like Juárez, and more recently, Reynosa (across the line from McAllen, Texas), the tragic incidents across the country over the past weeks point to that as wishful thinking.

Over a holiday weekend in Acapulco, in early March, some 34 people were assassinated in drug-related incidents. Nearly 20 suffered the same fate in the drug-producing state of Sinaloa, and, perhaps most poignantly, two graduate students from Mexico’s premier private university, Monterrey Tech, lost their lives on March 19, victims of crossfire as the Mexican military pursued drug-cartel members at the entrance to the campus. (Why the military lacks orders not to shoot when they find themselves in such areas is unfathomable.)

All in all, Calderón’s war on drugs, unleashed in December 2006, barely 10 days after taking office, has claimed nearly 18,000 lives, cost a small fortune in military expenditures, and brought enormous damage to the country’s image abroad (something especially harmful to a nation whose No. 1 industry is tourism).

The questions

Three questions emerge from this disaster.

The first is somewhat academic at this stage: How did Mexico get into this mess in the first place? Since the explanations provided in the past were all either false (an increase in domestic consumption, an increase in violence) or indemonstrable (greater corruption than the proverbial venality of yesteryear, and the loss of territorial control by the Mexican state), the true explanation lies elsewhere.