Making sense of Mexico’s ‘drug wars’

The fallout from Mexico’s so-called drug wars continues unabated. What is really behind the carnage?

Since December 2006, more than 13,000 people—police, soldiers, gangsters and civilians—have died across Mexico in shootouts, bombings, assassinations, kidnappings and torture. Much of the violence stems from what is essentially a ‘turf war’ between rival cartels for the lucrative drug trafficking routes, worth an estimated US$30 billion annually and driven by the US’s insatiable demand for drugs.

Ironically, the cartels emerged out of small-time gangs that moved into cocaine after US success in shutting down Colombian cocaine smuggling routes through the Caribbean. They have exploited the weaknesses of a state still adjusting from the transition to a more pluralist and democratic political culture following long-term domination by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). An ineffective police force, fragmented legal system and corruption at the very highest levels have been major impediments in the struggle against the cartels.

In response to rising crime and drug-related violence, President Calderon launched a full-frontal war on crime at the end of 2006. Central to his strategy was the deployment of 45,000 soldiers and 5,000 federal police officers. The policy was associated with a spike in violence as the drug cartels escalated attacks on each other and anybody else who stood in their way.

Alarmed by the escalating violence, the US has stepped up efforts to protect its borders. In 2008, the US pledged US$1.4 billion towards the Merida Initiative, a security co-operation and assistance project for Mexico and other countries in Central America. Under this project, Mexico is receiving Blackhawk assault helicopters and surveillance aircraft, as well as training in policing, forensic, penal and judicial practices.

A recent report by the US military named Mexico and Pakistan as the two nations most likely to undergo “rapid collapse” with serious ramifications for homeland security. Although these claims were widely derided, the drug-related violence in Mexico is still viewed primarily through a security lens in Washington. President Obama’s first meeting with a foreign head of state was with President Calderon, where the two leaders pledged to explore even closer security co-operation.

During a visit to Mexico earlier this year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted for the first time that US demand for illegal drugs and its role as chief supplier of military-style assault weapons were fuelling the wave of violent killings in Mexico. This appears to mark a significant change in attitude from one of finger pointing to one of shared responsibility for a bilateral problem. But there are strong signs the US administration still supports a hard-line war on drugs in Mexico. Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard, an aggressive advocate of attacking the narcotics trade in Mexico, says, “By supporting the Calderon administration in their fight with the cartels, we’re keeping it from becoming a fight on US soil.”

During her visit, Clinton promised Mexico more money for additional assault helicopters and gave Calderon’s militaristic approach a ringing endorsement. A US narcotics control report even concluded that “the increase in violence may be due to the success of President Calderon’s aggressive anti-crime campaign.” US doublespeak has led one journalist to conclude that, “Obama’s government is sending the message of health for Americans, war for Mexicans.”

At the core of the violence is the issue of prohibition economics. According to Sanho Tree, a drug policy analyst from the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies, the war on drugs has eliminated competition and attempted to constrict supply while demand remains constant, thereby driving up prices and profits for remaining traffickers. “We are never going to make the problem go away by making drugs more valuable,” he says. Tree compares Calderon’s strategy of deploying the army to take on the cartels with swinging a baseball bat at a hornets’ nest. “It was utterly foolish to get in the middle of a cartel turf war. Those people are all about making money, and the violence isn’t going to decline until the cartels reach a modus vivendi among themselves.”

Compounding matters are the huge socioeconomic inequalities in Mexico. Some see Calderon’s war on drugs and the militarisation of Mexican society as part of an attempt to forestall a mass mobilisation against growing economic inequality and political corruption. Rather than deploying the military on the grounds of public security, they argue that what are needed are better policies in housing, education, healthcare and employment, and for the US to implement more effective demand reduction strategies.

Despite the two faces of US drug policy, the mood across Latin America appears to be shifting decisively in favour of reform. The Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, convened by former presidents of Brazil, Colombia and Mexico, argues that prohibition has failed and has called for a broad debate about alternative strategies. Mexico has just passed a Bill decriminalising the possession of small amounts of all drugs for personal use. How this will impact on the violence is unclear. Given the continued voracious appetite for illicit drugs across the border to the north, the overarching legal framework of global prohibition and continued US support for Calderon’s militaristic approach, many fear the violence on the streets of Mexico is set to continue.

Mexico is not a failed state. It is a tragic case of the results of failed policies—on both sides of the border.

Sanji Gunasekara is a senior policy analyst with the New Zealand Drug Foundation