The War on Drugs: Mexico’s Gordian Knot

Mexico is a country decimated by drug-related conflict. The landscape is marred with the evidence of hideous atrocities. Bodies hang from bridges and mass graves are overflowing. Yesterday’s gun battles in the north-eastern border state of Tamaulipas demonstrate that the violence is still escalating. At least 25 people were killed in the clash between the army and the alleged drug traffickers, adding to the estimated 28,228 deaths caused by drug-related violence since January 2007. The Mexican President Felipe Calderon made no exaggeration in his assessment: “It’s a war”.

His decision to deploy more than 50,000 troops and federal police to fight in this ‘war’ indicates the true severity of the problem. The benefits of invoking the army were seen yesterday, when soldiers confiscated drugs and weapons from the gunmen, and successfully rescued three kidnapping victims. However, this military intervention has come at its own cost.

President Calderon launched the offensive in 2006, but since then drug-related violent crime has intensified unremittingly. It does not seem unreasonable to suggest that the President’s action antagonised the drug cartels, provoking violent reactionary outbursts. The army’s involvement has also provided them with another enemy, and they now fight the official forces as well as each other. Another concern is that the army cannot be held accountable for the actions of its soldiers, even though their operations often involve violence and killing.

It appears the President was damned either way – he could not simply ignore the destruction caused by the drug related warfare which has broken out all over Mexico. He has not lost his faith, claiming in his state of the union address that he can “say with absolute certainty, it is possible to defeat the criminals.” His rhetoric failed to capture the ‘hearts and minds’ of the population. The unfortunate truth is that he appears to have lost control, and parts of the country have effectively subsided under gang rule.

Worst hit have been the northern Mexican towns which border the United States. This is hardly surprising as the traffickers’ aim is to reach the American market. They are not the only Mexicans who are trying to reach American soil, and there have been reports of other aspiring migrants who have been caught up in the turmoil. After being shot in the face, an Ecuadorean survivor has urged others not to try to reach North America by travelling through Mexico, saying: “don’t make the journey any more because the Zetas are killing a lot of people…There are a lot of bad people who won’t let you through.”

Seventy two migrants from Central and South America were recently killed in a drug-related massacre in the north of Mexico. This is a horrifying figure, but tragically it is not an isolated incident. No official reason for the killings has been released, although the view of the Mexican authorities is that these people were slaughtered when they refused to transport illegal drugs into the United States. Ecuadorian leader Rafael Correa has condemned the atrocity, stating that: “There is no name for what happened in Mexico last week.” The barbarism of these attacks seems inexplicable, but for drug traffickers this is a way of life. Drugs are the key to survival, and they are willing to kill to protect that.

Drugs represent money and power. The prospect of acquiring these motivates drug-related crime. This is why kidnap, as well as killing, is rife. It has been said that the Mexican drug war constitutes ‘elitist’ crime, targeting the wealthy, although there have been reports of people being kidnapped for as little as $1,000. Tamaulipas attracted more media attention yesterday over the alleged kidnap of Fernanddo Azcarraga Lopez, the cousin of Televisa’s owner. Lopez has been reported missing although this has not been confirmed as a drug-related kidnap. In the current climate this does not seem unlikely.

Whatever the truth of that matter, the overarching problem remains. Mexico is being torn apart by violence led by powerful drug cartels. Now there are two options – allow them to continue to terrorise Central America and drive the state to ruin, or intervene. The Mexican President has consistently resisted exhortations that he should legalise the drugs to limit the violence. However, he knows that he cannot “defeat the criminals alone”. The co-operation of the United States will be critical to restoring order in Mexico.

In March 2009, the United States publicly committed to redoubling its efforts to impede the transportation of weapons and drug profits across the border into Mexico, denying the cartels the ammunition for their battles. The recent increase in violence suggests that this strategy is not working. The policy itself is sound, but the reality would suggest that it is not being satisfactorily implemented.

Another approach involves providing more equipment and training to the official authorities, rather than attempting to deprive the drug traffickers of theirs. The Merida Initiative is a $400 million project devoted to this endeavour. It has been formed through the collaboration of the US with Central American countries, Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

When the Initiative was launched in 2007, there were four agreed goals: to “break the power and impunity of criminal organisations”; “assist the Mexican and Central American governments in strengthening border, air and maritime controls”; “improve the capacity of justice systems in the region” and “curtail gang activity in Mexico and Central America and diminish the demand for drugs in the region”. These are all very noble aims, but the criminal organisations are still powerful; gang activity is still widespread in Mexico and the demand for drugs is still high. It’s time to devise plan B.


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