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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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In addition, this overhaul would entail a greater emphasis on intelligence than on frontal combat, greater community work instead of an ongoing national offensive, less importance attached to high-value targets (few of which have been caught anyway), and more of a state-by-state tactic. All of this might not make that much of a difference, but it would be a start.

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A third, much more ambitious alternative, would entail a major revision in both capitals. First, it would lead Mexico to lobby for decriminalization of at least marijuana in the US, since this is a growing tide in the US and Mexico cannot proceed alone on this score.

There is a certain urgency to this. If, come November, California were to vote on – and pass – a popular initiative on cannabis legalization (and polls show this is possible), this could open the floodgates in the US and leave Mexico in an untenable and absurd situation: having troops and civilians dying in Tijuana to stop Mexican marijuana from entering the US, where once it does enter, it could be consumed, transported, and sold legally.

On Mexico’s part, this would imply an about-face – pulling the Army out of the towns and from the highways, and, up to a point, letting the cartels bleed themselves to death, while over a couple of years the above-mentioned National Police is created and deployed.

It would, most controversially, require some sort of a tacit deal with some cartels, and“the full force of the law” against others. This may seem outrageous to many readers, but it is less scandalous than it may appear. Mexico has traditionally made these arrangements; one of the most emblematic figures of Calderón’s own party has accused him of already doing so, and it is pretty much what the Obama administration is carrying out with the poppy growers and heroin producers in Afghanistan.

Most important, though, it would demand a totally different, “de-narcotized” US-Mexican agenda. This means placing Mexican development at the top of that agenda; it involves returning to the reform agenda on immigration, energy, and infrastructure, and social cohesion funds, and even making Mexican anti-trust policy (currently an oxymoron) a legitimate item on that agenda.

It is a post-NAFTA, 21st-century vision, where security plays a key role, but where drug policy becomes once again a law enforcement issue, not one of national security for either nation.

Obama has the “big picture” capability for this, and hopefully, seven years ahead of him. Calderón has not proved he possesses that boldness, and his term is winding down. So this may be the last call.

Jorge Castaneda is the former foreign minister of Mexico. Castaneda’s books include “El Narco: La Guerra Fallida (The Drug Lord: The Flawed War)” with Ruben Aguilar V., “Companero: The Life and Death of Che Guevara,” and “Utopia Unarmed: The Latin American Left After the Cold War.”

© 2010 Global Viewpoint Network/ Tribune Media Services. Hosted online by The Christian Science Monitor.