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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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