Mexico’s Drug Fiasco

Fighting the scourge with soldiers and guns, a strategy endorsed by the U.S., has only bred more violence. Now the beleaguered president may be ready to try something new.

The murder of 16 teenagers was the breaking point for citizens of the violent Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez. On the last night of January, a group of gunmen arrived at a local house where 60 youths were celebrating a friend’s birthday. Without warning, the gunmen opened fire into the crowd, killing 16 and wounding more. After robbing the house, they fled the scene. None of Ciudad Juarez’s 6,000-plus federal troops – put in place nearly two years ago to protect civilians from drug violence – were in sight. Suspects later claimed the teens at the party had links to a drug cartel, while others say the incident was a case of mistaken identity. Either way, despite having become Mexico’s most militarized city, Ciudad Juarez also remains its most violent.

At the time of the birthday massacre, both Mexico and the U.S. were continuing to proclaim the benefits of the increased troop presence along the border. But in the wake of the 16 killings, Ciudad Juarez residents erupted—protesting, erecting banners calling Mexican President Felipe Calderon an assassin, and demanding that the government take new action to stop the spiraling violence. In response to the pressure, there are signs that President Calderon may at last now shift away from his primarily militarized strategy toward one more focused on tackling the social and economic roots of the problem.

During Calderon’s aggressive three-year drug offensive, the level of drug-related violence in the country has exploded. More than 45,000 soldiers have been deployed throughout Mexico to interfere in turf wars between cartels and root out cartel leaders. In the first 10 days of this year, a total of 283 people are believed to have died in drug-related violence in Mexico, which is more than double the number during the same period in 2009. In Ciudad Juarez alone, 227 killings related to drug activity occurred in January, promising an even bloodier year than last.

Through a plan called the Mérida Initiative, President Barack Obama’s administration has encouraged Mexico’s militarization by promising $1.4 billion in funds to help the country fight its drug war.  The three-year aid package is intended to provide weapon-detection technology, surveillance and intelligence-gathering equipment, helicopters and training for police, prison and military personnel. In actuality, however, little aid has yet been forthcoming from most of the U.S. defense and private security companies (like Northrop, Dyncorp and Blackhawk) that were awarded the Initiative contracts, and many have decried the Initiative’s overall lack of transparency.  According to the Mexican daily El Universal, 70 percent of the Initiative’s funds are tied up in such nonproductive contracts in the United States.

Meanwhile, critics contend that Calderon has been perpetrating the drug war in part for questionable reasons. “President Calderon was very weak when he took office,” says Laura Carlsen, director of the Americas Policy program at the Center for International Policy. “Two million people were protesting his election’s legitimacy, and he had problems with unity. He decided to launch this war on drugs to consolidate power, but there is no strategy.”

Public debate is still raging over whether the Mexican constitution even allows for the military to be deployed domestically.  Because the military is trained only to fight against external forces, it has run into trouble when dealing with its own citizens: in many cases it has abused civilians, including political dissidents, and has been infiltrated by drug cartels. Human Rights Watch accused the Mexican military last spring of allowing numerous human rights abuses to go unpunished.

Some commentators, like Mexican former foreign minister Jorge Castañeda, believe that the military approach is simply the wrong tack.  “The success of Mexico's frontal assault on drug production and trafficking is about as unlikely as the prospect that American society will clamp down on demand,” Castañeda writes in this month’s Foreign Policy. The surge in drug violence that has accompanied Calderon’s campaign, Castañeda suggests, has been misinterpreted by both the Mexican and U.S. governments as a sign that their war model is working. In fact, though the number of cartel leaders killed or arrested has increased, the number of prosecutions has not. Due to a deeply flawed and corrupt justice system, many of the cases against drug suspects are thrown out, leaving them to go free. This is usually due to either shoddy police investigative work or a lack of concrete evidence.

What’s really needed, suggest a growing number of commentators, is not a flat-out military assault, but a bolstering of civil society and a “smarter war”—one that goes after the financial structures of cartels and the mainstream economic institutions that profit from drug money. As John Ackerman, a legal analyst and professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, argues, “the U.S. needs to realize that it’s no accident that the violence is happening in these border cities, which are much more linked to U.S. economies than Mexican ones.” This concentration of violence at the border suggests that U.S. demand plays a bigger role in bringing about the bloodshed than the country is acknowledging, and that any effective plan to combat the drug trade would also require action on the U.S.’s part, not just funds to boost the Mexican military’s fighting capability.

Yet only 15 percent of the Mérida Initiative is earmarked for institution-building or reforming the rule of law – the rest is directed toward supporting Calderon’s all-out military strategy. When it comes to providing support to the Mexican military in the form of arms and tanks, Obama has requested even more funds than Bush did. And until now, appeals to switch to strategic nonviolent tactics have largely gone unheeded by both governments.

But when news of the Juarez teenager massacre reached him last week on a short visit to Japan, Calderon was forced to call a press conference to address the angry grieving families who blamed him for the deaths. According to Carlsen, “people were blaming the government, saying, ‘You are not only losing the war, you are accelerating it.’” In his speech from Japan, the president acknowledged that his militarized approach has not been enough in Juarez and he vowed to address the social roots of the drug problem. "We need an integral strategy of social restructuring, prevention, and treatment for addictions, a search for opportunities for employment and recreation and education for youth,” Calderon said.

As a first step, the government has already sent 2,000 federal police to Ciudad Juarez as part of a greater move to scale back the military presence. But as most in Mexico know, when the police and the military switch places, only the uniforms change, while the commanders giving them their orders stay the same.

Truly changing course in the drug war will require that the U.S. stop pumping money into both its contractors and the Mexican government without demanding more accountability. And above all, it will require a comprehensive economic and social strategy on which both countries can collaborate.