Drug War Doublespeak

Through late February and early March, a blitzkrieg of declarations from U.S. government and military officials and pundits hit the media, claiming that Mexico was alternately at risk of being a failed state, on the verge of civil war, losing control of its territory, and posing a threat to U.S. national security.

In the same breath, we’re told that President Calderon with the aid of the U.S. government is winning the war on drugs, significantly weakening organized crime, and restoring order and legality.

None of these claims is true. Instead they are critical elements in waging the hypocritical drug war in Mexico.

Drug-war doublespeak pervades and defines the U.S.-Mexico relationship today. The discourse aims not to win the war on drugs, but to assure funding and public support for the military model of combating illegal drug trafficking, despite the losses and overwhelming evidence that current strategies are not working.

Sorting Reality from Hype

Mexico, and particularly border cities and other key points along the drug routes, has a serious problem. In these places, violence characterizes daily life. But Mexico is not a failed state. It is a tragic example of the results of failed policies—on both sides of the border. Both governments want to obscure this simple fact.

In the past, exaggerated risk assessments, amplified by the media and accompanied by dire warnings to the public, prepare the ground for military intervention. They usually pack hyperbole or outright lies, the most recent example being the “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq.

While military intervention in Mexico is not on the horizon, the recent hype has been accompanied by requests for military build-up on the border. Texas Governor Rick Perry jetted to Washington to ask for $135 million and 1,000 soldiers. Talk of sending more National Guard troops circulated, along with mentions of a border “surge.” The Texas state government announced a rapid-mobilization plan in case Mexico “collapsed,” replete with tanks and aircraft.

After outgoing Homeland Security head Michael Chertoff spoke of a contingency plan for the border, the media wondered aloud whether incoming head Janet Napolitano would be tough enough. She responded by calling the situation a “top priority.” Secretary of Defense Robert Gates called the Mexican drug war “a serious problem.” He raised a maelstrom of protest in Mexico with the announcement that the disappearance of Mexico’s anti-Pentagon biases had cleared the way for tighter cooperation. The U.S. Embassy was forced to issue a press release declaring that the United States had no intention of sending troops into Mexico.

Congress also leapt to respond to the rhetoric. Hearings have been called in both houses, including the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee under Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) who, according to news reports, will be looking for “potential implications for increased terrorist activity.” The committees will likely hear testimony primarily from persons who confirm the perceived threat in lurid and imprecise terms.

The Mexican government has responded by lobbing counter-accusations at the United States. Calderon cites the U.S. role in gun-running, money-laundering, and demand for narcotics.

The motivations behind the recent hype vary. Alarmist cries of a Mexican collapse help clinch the passage of measures to further militarize the southern border and obtain juicy contracts for private defense and security firms. Local politicians are finding they can be a cash cow for federal aid.

The flurry of panic about the spillover of violence from Mexico also arises just as Congress considers the latest installment of the Merida Initiative, now tucked inside the omnibus spending bill. The Merida Initiative, designed by the Bush administration, is the $1.4 billion vehicle for bolstering the war on drugs launched by Mexican President Felipe Calderon in 2006. It provides military-to-military aid for the domestic battles being waged by some 40,000 Mexican Army troops, and imposes U.S. training in policing, forensics, penal, and judicial practices.

Deconstructing Drug War Doublespeak

Drug war doublespeak enables the architects of the drug war to justify the military responses it promotes, despite poor or counterproductive results, and serves to spin failure as success. The language of exaggerated threats infantilizes society with fear as it clears the way for militaristic, patriarchal measures.

Now that the hype has taken control of the media agenda and wiggled its way into the public’s perceptions, it’s important to determine the true dimensions and nature of the problem by deconstructing drug war doublespeak.

First, the “facts” used to prove the thesis of Mexico as a failed state or national security threat are mostly wrong. Here are a few examples:

    • “Mexico had more violent deaths than Iraq in 2008.” The Iraq Body Count calculates the 2008 civilian death total at between 8,315 and 9,028. The Mexican government puts the Mexico tally for the same year at 6,290, and that figure includes the deaths of soldiers and police excluded from the Iraqi count.


    • “70% of Mexicans are afraid to go outside for fear of crime.” This statistic has been cited without a source. It’s ridiculous. In a recent poll Mexicans nationwide named the economic situation over crime as the biggest problem in the country by a margin of two to one. I live in Mexico City with my family and our activities are virtually unaffected.


  • “The Mexican government has lost control over broad swathes of the country.” No facts are offered to back this up. There are some villages and neighborhoods where crime gangs collect payments from local business and provide services, but that does not mean there is no presence of the State and this affects a relatively small proportion of the country.

Second, the facts used to prove that Mexican violence is “spilling over”—the phrase du jour—into the United States, when provided at all, are even more specious.

  • Phoenix now ranks second in the world in kidnappings for ransom at 366, behind Mexico City at 6,000. We’re supposed to assume that this is a per capita ranking but are not told where the ranking comes from, how it is done, or by whom. Sloppy journalism is important to propagating doublespeak.

Beyond the lack of sources for the ranking or methodology, the inaccuracy of this claim lies in what is left unsaid. “Kidnap for ransom” conjures images of the abduction of wealthy denizens of society. Such is not the case. According to Claudine LoMonaco who covers the beat for Arizona Public Media, the vast majority of kidnappings are of undocumented workers by their own smugglers, in an attempt to extort more money from their families.

That’s certainly a problem, and it’s certainly kidnapping. But it is a very different problem than the spill-over of Mexican drug violence as it’s being portrayed. Here, another prohibitionist policy, this time one that prohibits human beings, has created an organized crime industry that insatiably feeds even on its own goods—the migrants themselves. The double bind of the victims is perhaps the most poignant example of perverse policy results in modern times.

The 6,000 kidnapping figure for Mexico City has equally murky origins. The figure, from the Citizens’ Institute for Crime Studies, derives from taking the number of reported violent crimes, multiplying by nearly 10 to reflect the supposed rate of under-reporting, and multiplying by .05% to sort out kidnappings form the rest of the crimes. It’s a guesstimate, not a count.

Moreover, the statistic includes thousands of cases of a common crime we don’t ordinarily think of as kidnapping. This is the “express kidnapping,” 2-3 hour abductions for the purpose of withdrawing money from cash machines. So what we really have in this number that has been picked up widely in the U.S. press and trumpeted as proof of Mexico’s descent into lawlessness, is a rough calculation, padded with the far more common robbery charge. In deconstructing drug war doublespeak, it’s important to always beware of statistics.

Another common tactic in the press stories that led Sen. John McCain and others to call for hearings and make dire statements is to cite cases of gruesome violence—on the Mexican side. The stories then tag on declarations that this kind of violence could seep over the border, with no evidence that it has.

Contradictory facts are sometimes mentioned, but take a back seat to the hype, which is considered the real news. For example, in a NYT article titled “Wave of Drug Violence is Creeping into Arizona from Mexico, Officials Say,” near the end of the article we are informed that homicide and violent crime in Arizona’s border Maricopa County has decreased over the past years. A few of the articles on El Paso’s panic attack over spillover also managed to mention that the city has one of the lowest homicide rates in the country, but buried the fact in a barrage of alarmist statements.

Other evidence used to cite spillover from Mexican drug cartels defies logic. Operation Xcellerator—a sting operation in the United States that reportedly led to the arrest of over 700 individuals associated with the Sinaloa drug cartel—is spun as evidence of the danger from Mexico when it is a criminal network in the United States, operated by U.S. citizens, and dealing to U.S. buyers. Of course it has links to foreign supply, but that does not change the transnational—not Mexican—nature of the threat.

When questioned following his testimony before the House Committee on Border and International Affairs Feb. 23, Homeland Security Director Steve McCraw stated that, “Yes, absolutely it (spillover violence) has occurred; there’s no question about it.” But the indicators of spillover discussed at the hearing in the absence of rising crime included U.S. citizens treated for injuries sustained in Juarez, asylum seekers, and threats against U.S. citizens. None constituted real Mexican crime infiltration of U.S. society.

These claims and others like them, although unsubstantiated, accumulate into a critical mass to push a public consensus on implementing dangerous and delusional policies—this time not in far-off Iraq but on our doorstep. Like the model it mimics—the Bush war on terror—the drug war in Mexico is being mounted on the back of hype, half-truths, omissions, and outright falsehoods.

The Meaning of Success

The most glaring example of drug-war doublespeak is the definition of “success.” Although Mexico is supposedly on the brink of collapse, members of the Obama administration, Congress, and the Pentagon have unanimously proclaimed the contradictory message that since President Calderon launched the offensive against organized crime in December 2006, his government has made great progress against illegal drug trafficking and the power of cartels, and the U.S. government must support his drug war.

But this assertion does not stand up to scrutiny.

Congress has wisely begun to place measurable benchmarks in appropriations to avoid the budgetary and military quagmires of the past. The Merida Initiative contains four “performance measurements”: Break the power and impunity of criminal organizations; assist the governments of Mexico and Central America in strengthening border air and maritime control; 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.

In any other context, performance measures so patently weak, vague, and one-sided would be considered useless for real evaluation. They avoid accomplishing their stated purpose by being unmeasurable as written and containing no indicators of success or failure. Given the failure of the similar Plan Colombia to meet its objectives as shown in a recent GAO evaluation, the omission was probably intentional.

For instance, the second item on the list—assisting the governments—is not a performance measure, unless exporting U.S. defense goods and services is indeed the end goal. Improving the capacity of justice systems could conceivably be measured in shortened court times and a higher ratio of convictions to arrests, but that data is not yet available. It will be interesting to see if it is accurately compiled and presented at a later date.

For the measurement calling for the curtailing of gang activity and demand for narcotics, the United States excluded its own market—the driving force of the illicit drug trade. The performance measure requires the initiative to show reduction of drug demand only in the southern countries. Despite the dictates of common sense, the Merida Initiative contains no funds whatsoever for the reduction of U.S demand.

This leaves us with the first benchmark. Common indicators for reduced “power and impunity of criminal organizations” would logically entail a reduction in production of illegal drugs, and an increase in confiscation, thus attacking the earnings of the cartels. It would also imply more arrests and fewer violent confrontations. We can compare these goals with the findings of the 2009 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report to see if the first installment of the $1.4 billion dollar plan is on track.

Between 2007 and 2008 net cultivation of opium and cannabis in Mexico increased. Production of opium gum, heroin, and cannabis all increased. Eradication of poppies and cannabis both decreased significantly since the beginning of the 2006 drug war. Meanwhile, seizures of opium gum, heroin, methamphetamines, cannabis, and cocaine all decreased significantly. Destruction of labs fell by nearly half. In addition, the report notes, drug use among Mexican youth is rising.

The drug-war model maintains that the opposite should be occurring. In fact, the only statistic that could be construed as positive in the report is an increase in arrests. But to truly evaluate this as progress, we would need to know the conviction figures as well.

The conclusion of the Mexico section of the report flies in the face of its own data. “The restructuring of security forces, coupled with the military’s strong engagement in the fight to dismantle major drug trafficking organizations (DTOs), has proven to be effective. These efforts led to numerous arrests of key narco-traffickers, the discovery of clandestine drug laboratories, and a dramatic decline in the importation of methamphetamine and precursors.” Curiously, there are no statistics offered for the last claim.

The report is forced into bizarre contortions to spin the drop by half in seizures of illegal drugs as “success”: “U.S. law enforcement agencies attribute this reduction to better enforcement which has forced traffickers to seek alternate routes or alternative enterprises.”

The U.S. report acknowledges the shocking increase in violence. But nowhere does it say that from 2007 to 2008 drug-related deaths more than doubled (2,500 to 6,290). Faced with yet another inconvenient fact, the report concludes, “The increase in violence may be due to the success of President Calderon’s aggressive anti-crime campaign which has broadly deployed the military in searches and regional security plans, while more effectively using tools such as extraditions.”

The U.S. government comes up with a speculative excuse for almost every poor result listed in its own report. In the doublespeak of the Mexican drug war, organized crime branching out into new regions and new enterprises—human trafficking, for example—is a positive sign. Violence is progress. Murder is an indicator of success.

Toward True Stories and Corrected Policies

Organized crime is not the sole and leading actor in the U.S.-Mexico relationship. We share a rich and highly-integrated relationship, with common interests and challenges but different responsibilities. Each nation must assume its own responsibilities to face the very real transnational threats.

A real solution to the drug war violence and the power of organized crime would require both governments to stop playing the blame game and recognize that transnational crime is transnational. Its growth is a phenomenon of globalization. Transnational crime escalates as a result of the convenient frequency of border crossings that make real inspection impossible, internationalized and unscrupulous financial systems for moving and laundering mega-earnings, and other byproducts of globalization. Mechanisms of cooperation are necessary, but pointing the finger at Mexico is a grave mistake.

Second, both countries need to cut off pork barrel contracts to defense contractors and private security companies, and factor public health into the equation. The call to treat drug addicts as patients instead of criminals, and to deal with the illegal drug trade at least in part on the community level through rehabilitation, prevention, and harm reduction programs is growing throughout the world. Meanwhile, the Mexican drug war moves us in the complete opposite direction.

Third, a new approach means opening up debate to all options including legalization. For the most part, this option has been slapped down in the U.S. discussion as untimely, non-viable, or immoral. It’s time to bring it back to the table, with serious studies on potential impacts, positive and negative, of a selective end to prohibitionist laws.

That’s exactly what the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy led by former presidents and drug warriors Fernando Enrique Cardoso of Brasil, Cesar Gaviria of Colombia, and Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico, propose. In a recently released a report, they pronounce the war on drugs a failure and call for a “paradigm shift.”

The authors state, ” The traumatic Colombian experience is a useful reference for countries not to make the mistake of adopting the U.S. prohibitionist policies and to move forward in the search for innovative alternatives.” They suggest that Mexico, an “epicenter of violent activities,” could take the lead in encouraging global debate on the current policies of the U.S. government and call on Europe and the United States to take seriously the challenge of demand reduction.

The paradigm shift they propose focuses on public health, reducing consumption, and opening up debate, including the legalization of marijuana possession. The “binational cooperation” heralded in Washington and the press leads to a deadly dead-end of confrontation. Real binational cooperation along the lines of these more humane, lasting solutions could end the collateral violence and social costs of the failed drug wars. In the long-run, they will likely be more effective in fighting organized crime. They can’t be any less effective than the drug war being waged today by the U.S. and Mexican governments.



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