It’s a privilege to be here today, with this group. I have lived in Mexico for 25 years now and I know that all of us share the experience of having binational families, multicultural interests and ties, and hearts that straddle the international border, one of the world’s longest and most complex borders.

We also share a commitment to politics, a deep faith that citizen involvement in policymaking—even, and especially, foreign policymaking, which has often been portrayed as the realm of “experts only”–can make a difference. Our personal experience and political participation can deeply enhance our country’s international relations. We have a unique opportunity and a great responsibility to do what you are doing today—get involved, study the issues, form informed opinions and work for peaceful, stable and prosperous relations between our native and host nations.

Today’s newspapers are filled with news of yesterday’s summit between presidents Obama and Calderon, so it’s an auspicious occasion to discuss the binational relationship and where it’s headed. I’ve been disappointed to see that most commentaries on the visit seek to gauge how close or distant the relationship is. Again it’s as if proximity—physical or metaphorical—were the only defining feature of the US-Mexico relationships.

Many fellow analysts here and in Washington have also focused only on whether the summit served to reduce recent tensions or smooth over friction in the relationship. From this short-term and superficial perspective, US-Mexico government relations seemed to have dipped to another low point.

It’s true that the bilateral relationship suffered some blows in the weeks preceding the meeting. Just to mention the most important:

1. Wikileaks: Thousands of Wikileaks cables released between the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City and the State Department reveal U.S. officials’ deep concerns regarding the Mexican government’s capacity to carry out its high-risk war on drug cartels and wavering public opinion. Cable 10MEXICO83, for example, states:

“the GOM’s (Government of Mexico’s) inability to halt the escalating numbers of narco-related homicides in places like Ciudad Juarez and elsewhere… has become one of Calderon’s principal political liabilities as the general public has grown more concerned about citizen security.” The cable cites “official corruption”, inter-agency rivalries, “dismal” prosecution rates and a “slow and risk averse” Mexican army.

In an interview with El Universal, Calderon responded angrily to the cables, calling the statements exaggerated and the ambassador (Pascual) “ignorant”, and cpunter-accusing the U.S. government for a lack of inter-agency coordination. Continued releases of the cables by the Mexican daily La Jornada promise more embarrassments for both governments as they attempt to portray a confident and united front in the drug war.

2. Murder of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent in San Luis Potosí on Feb. 15, in an ambush. Although the Mexican government has arrested the alleged attackers–members of the Zetas drug cartel–the incident highlighted the risks of the drug war cooperation and the power of the cartels. The Mexican government’s contradictory statements on what happened and the army’s absurd hypothesis that the assassins did not know they were attacking U.S. agents (the agents’ car bore US diplomatic plates) only deepened perceptions of a lack of transparency. Within Mexico, the incident heightened fears that the U.S. government will demand more direct involvement, in particular lifting the ban on foreign agents bearing arms within Mexican territory.

3. The recent spate of comments from high-ranking U.S. officials that increased concerns that the U.S. government is pressuring for deeper military involvement in Mexico. Sec. of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano’s speculated out loud of possible links between Mexican drug cartels and Al Qaeda, and Undersecretary of the Army Joseph Westphal characterized organized crime in Mexico as an “insurgency”, while openly raising the specter of U.S. troops being sent in.

Historically these kinds of exaggerated risk assessments have been a prelude to invasions and other forms of intervention. Mexican columnists and anti-militarization activists responded with criticism of growing U.S. involvement in the country’s national security. Declarations that seem to be “off-script” has been a recurring problem (both Hillary Clinton and Westphal were forced to retract their “insurgency” comments), which either indicates a lot of loose-lipped leaders in Washington or a real window into contradictory interpretations and strategies on Mexico, which I’m afraid is more the case.

While these appear on the surface to be neighbors’ spats, they actually arise from the tensions in carrying forward the shared commitment of both governments to deepen and reinforce a military alliance based on a drug war that is rapidly losing the support of their populations and raising doubts.

The central concern of the presidential summit wasn’t the public frictions between the countries, but the desire to bolster the beleaguered drug war. Although the presidents discussed other issues, the drug war dominated the visit just as it has grown to dominate bilateral relations.


Mexico is our closest Latin American neighbor and yet most US citizens receive little reliable information about what’s happening within the country. Instead, Mexico and Mexicans are often demonized in the US press.  The single biggest reason for this is the recasting of the binational relationship in security terms.

From a neighbor and a trade partner, Mexico is now being portrayed as a threat to US national security. Immigrants are no longer immigrants but criminals, “removable aliens” and even potential terrorists. Mexicans are now the largest group of victims of hate crimes in the US. While there is clearly a cultural component to this, our policies that criminalize immigrants and the drug war that has falsely portrayed Mexico as the source of transnational organized crime contribute to dividing our natural and historic communities and skewing our relations.

Even as the leaders herald unprecedented cooperation, we’ve seen the conversion of Mexico in media and policy circles, from an ally, to a “failed state”, to a narco-haven and now a center of “insurgency”, terrorism and narco-terrorism.

It’s true that the statistics are alarming, although even so none of the above definitions fits. Mexico has seen 35,000 drug-related deaths in a little over three years. Human rights violations have increased, gender-based violence is on the rise and femicides are up. Attacks on human rights defenders, especially women, have also increased.

The drug war violence today is a direct outgrowth of the US-Mexico drug war strategy. When we look at the sudden rise in deaths, it correlates with the launch of the enforcement/interdiction model against drug trafficking.

Given all the doubts that exist and the lack of success, the decision in Washington to reinforce Calderon’s drug war is difficult to understand or justify.

Yet that is what is happening. Despite talk of a deteriorating relationship, in fact the Calderon and Obama administrations are overseeing the birth of historically unprecedented cooperation between the two nations. The problem is that almost all that cooperation centers on this severely flawed approach to confronting transnational drug trafficking.

The Mexico City US Embassy has expanded into a massive web of Washington-led security programs and infrastructure. The controversial Merida Initiative, up for another round of funding in Congress, has allocated more than $1.5 billion to help fight Mexico’s drug war with devastatingly negative effects.

The shared drug war imposes a national security framework on what by all logic should be seen as a far more nuanced and complex bilateral relationship. In addition to the rise in violence, the binational relationship has been hijacked by proponents of a war model aimed ostensibly at reducing illicit drug flows to the U.S. market and confronting organized crime where it’s most powerful—in brutal battle. The Pentagon is thrilled to finally achieve access to the Mexican security apparatus and security decision-making, and the Calderon government—entering election mode—needs the political and economic support from the U.S. to shore up its flagship crusade against organized crime.

The new relationship forged in war rooms is bad news for the Mexican people. Executions, femicides, torture, political violence and corruption cases have skyrocketed. The No Mas Sangre (No More Blood) movement has taken hold throughout the country and regions like Ciudad Juarez, where militarization has been heaviest and not coincidentally violence has taken the highest toll, have seen the rise of grassroots movements to defend human rights, call for an end to militarization and put forward alternative strategies. Among their demands is to rechannel scarce resources away from the attack on cartels to address social needs, restore the armed forces to their constitutional mandate of national defense, and end impunity for crime by fixing the judicial and public security systems and attacking government corruption.

But it’s also bad news for the U.S. public. Opening up a war front in Mexico has not only destabilized our closest neighbor, but also drains resources needed in U.S. communities. The government-funded contracts granted Blackwater and Blackhawk to fight Mexico’s war could be used for schools in crisis. With an on-going economic crisis and two wars across the ocean, the prospect of long-term involvement south of the border hurts all but the flourishing war economy.

We need to re-orient our efforts toward building a rich and multi-faceted bilateral relationship, that does not see Mexico as a problem but affirms its role as a partner through the principles of mutual respect and self-determination that President Obama proclaimed in the Summit of the Americans in Trinidad and Tobago. A relationship focused on building stability, social justice, prosperity and peaceful co-existence, not obsessed with using military and police force to address a single issue.

To understand how and why to change the focus of the binational relations we should take a look at the history of how we got to this point.

The US government has a lot more responsibility for the failed drug war model in Mexico than the official version of the history would lead one to think.

First, the drug war model based on interdiction and enforcement was developed in the US. Although it’s often presented as the only way to confront Drug Trafficking Organizations and illegal drug consumption, it’s a very specific model that was originally developed by Pres. Richard Nixon in the early seventies to increase presidential power by taking counternarcotics efforts out of the hands of communities, where it was treated largely as a community health issue, and placing it in the hands of the executive, where it was treated as a security issue which led to the creation or consolidation of federal agencies to fight the new war.

The war on drugs model created an external enemy to distract from internal protests and division. It resulted in the massive incarceration of youth, especially Afro-American and Latino youth, the diversion of police resources from serious crime to minor possession busts, and huge expenses. It was based on locking in strict prohibitionist policies, which encourage the growth of black markets and transnational crime networks.

The drug war in Mexico was launched right after Felipe Calderon took office. Recall that Calderon took office after courts proclaimed he had won the elections by half a percentage point. The courts blocked a demand for a full recount, despite evidence of irregularities and the narrow margin. The election decision enraged an already divided populace and failed to resolve accusations of fraud.

The military enabled Calderon to take office by physically escorting him into a Congress occupied by protestors and placing the presidential banner over his shoulder. The country was in the throes of massive protests involving millions of people.

Once in office, Calderon launched the war on drugs. This strategy allowed a weak president with little popular legitimacy to cement his power, a power based on building an alliance with the armed forces under a militarized counternarcotics model. Applied in Mexico, the immediate effect was to send more than 45,000 army troops into Mexican communities. The presence of the army in all aspects of public security is now the major cause of the grave increase in human rights violations and drug-related violence in Mexico.

Second, the idea of deepening joint counternarcotics activities was promoted by Washington before Calderon’s presidency as part of the SPP.

There is a misconception that the Merida Initiative, named after a meeting between Presidents Calderon and Bush in the city of Merida, originated when Calderon requested assistance in the drug war from the U.S. government. The U.S. government, this story goes, agreed to comply. When the U.S. government cited its share of responsibility in the transnational drug trade as the world’s largest market, pundits heralded the admission as unprecedented and a new step in binational cooperation.

This is largely myth. In fact, Plan Mexico–as it was first called–has its roots in the Security and Prosperity Partnership of 2005 that grew out of the North American Free Trade Agreement. When the regional trade agreement was expanded into a security agreement, the Bush administration sought a means to extend its national security doctrine to its regional trade partners. This meant that both Canada and Mexico were to assume counter-terrorism activities (despite the absence of international terrorism threats in those nations), border security (in Mexico’s case, to control Central American migrants), and protection of strategic resources and investments. Asst. Sec. of State Tom Shannon called it “arming NAFTA.”

What is the Merida Initiative?

The Merida Initiative announced by then-President Bush in October of 2007 prohibits cash payments to Mexico, meaning that equipment and services are purchased from U.S. defense, security, information technology and other private-sector firms and the U.S. government.

The first year of aid (2008) was largely military equipment. Later aid was more directed to police—this seemed to be an important distinction in transferring the focus to civilian security forces, but has had a doubtful impact.

This ensures an expanding market for defense and security contractors in an undeclared war that has no exit strategy. That’s an important dynamic to understand because security firms and defense contractors have powerful lobbies, capable of influencing foreign policy.

The “four pillars” of the Merida Initiative are 1) disrupting the capacity of criminal organizations; 2) supporting efforts to strengthen public institutions responsible for combating organized crime; 3) developing a secure and competitive Twenty-First Century Border; and 4) building strong and resilient communities in both countries.  But they’re really three pillars and a stub, as community building receives much lip service but minimal funding or strategizing.

What do we know about this model?

Most importantly, we know it doesn’t work. We know this not only from the relatively recent Mexican experience, but also from other places, especially Colombia and the Andean region. After ten years of Plan Colombia, the cost of drugs on U.S. streets has gone down and regional production has risen. Large cartels have been replaced as traffickers by smaller illegal armed groups. Displacement, poverty, unemployment and inequality is worse although it improved elsewhere in the region.


In Mexico, interdictions went down between 2007 and 2008 and again between 2009 and 2010. The latest International Narcotics Control Report shows a decrease in cocaine interdictions and an increase in marijuana and poppy production for the fourth straight year. With 95% of cocaine reportedly goes through Mexico, and an unprecedented drug war going on, these figures indicate failure. The number of arrests went up, but seem to have little effect on the hydra-headed cartels. Actual indictment and prosecution rates following arrests are suspiciously not reported. Illegal drug flows to the U.S. market appear to be unaffected overall. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that drug use in the United States increased by 9% last year, to the highest level in nearly a decade.

Human Rights

The new narrow focus on Mexico as both a security threat and a security proxy for a US national security agenda has led to a number of blind spots in the vision of the bilateral relationship. One of the gravest to emerge lately is the absence of human rights concerns in the midst of a human rights crisis in Mexico; The arguably illegal use of the army in public safety, the use of military courts to try human rights violations against civilians, torture and violence as military and police practice for interrogation, the lack of defense as in the case of the Reyes family, attacks on opposition leaders, including women human rights defenders, increased gender-based violence, killings of civilians at checkpoints and other places all contribute to this crisis.

The State Department’s silence on these issues and on the correlation between the drug war and the use of Mexican security forces and the increase in human rights violations undermines the argument that the drug war is an effort to reinforce rule of law and strengthen society. Additionally, there has also been an increase in corruption as rival gangs seek to outbid each other to corrupt politicians. The competition between cartels also means more violent narcopolitics and hits on officials and candidates. Criminalization of protest and politically motivated violence are also on the rise. Many organizations suspect that grassroots opposition including human rights defenders are being attacked under the cover of the drug war with the probable complicity of the government.

These troubling trends represent a reversal in the process of institution building and the rule of law, not an advance.

Are There Alternatives?

We are seeing the first phase of an insidious and possibly longterm war; UNICEF just reported that far more people have died in three years of the Calderon drug war in Mexico than in the decade of conflict in Afghanistan.

Before we get in any deeper, we need to rethink the strategy. Both Obama and Calderon have at times indicated a need to defuse the drug war by turning to health-oriented approaches to drug consumption and backing off the cops-and-robbers persecutions, in addition to adopting more sophisticated methods of dismantling financial structures and carrying out more focused intelligence operations.

Confrontation by force does not stop the cartels. As long as a lucrative market exists, they will find a way to serve it. Eliminating operatives, even high-level leaders, merely diversifies and redistributes the business. Cartels have years of experience building flexible structures, with new leaders or rival gangs replacing displaced or weakened ones. At the lower levels, they draw from an inexhaustible pool of young men with few prospects in life who have adopted the slogan, “Better to die young and rich, than old and poor.”

If the war on drugs is unwinnable, does that mean we have to resign ourselves to the unbridled power of the drug cartels?

No. The other tragedy of the war on drugs is that it rules out potentially more effective strategies by positing militarization as the only option. As the U.S. government spends millions of taxpayer dollars to pay U.S. private security and defense firms to “fix” Mexico, it has done little to nothing to address the parts of transnational organized crime that exist within its own borders—demand, transport and distribution, corrupt officials, gunrunning and money laundering.

Rethinking the drug war is not tantamount to surrender. Here are a few key elements of an alternative strategy:

a)    A major binational pact or operation to attack money laundering and illicit financial flows through large financial institutions. These operations must receive more funding, planning and inter-agency support in both countries.

b)   Support for a youth opportunities program in Mexico that generates employment and educational opportunities for at-risk youth.

c)    Anti-poverty programs and programs to avoid displacement, including an in-depth look at the impact of NAFTA and needed reforms.

d)   Public safety, police training programs. We already have sister city exchanges and inter-agency cooperation agreements between the U.S. and Mexico. Mexico needs to look for best practices around the world and adapt them to its own needs. We don’t need a drug war policy to do this and the US Congress does not have to take this patriarchal attitude of helping Mexico build institutions within the framework of a militarized drug war that is actively eroding those already extremely weak institutions.

e)    Regulation of drugs The U.S. government owes it to the American people to resolve the problem of illegal drug trafficking and consumption within its borders. At some point very soon, we as a society simply have to face up to the social costs of the war on drugs: young lives ruined through early incarceration—predominantly, and shamefully, the poor and people of color–; the human and health costs of untreated addictions and unsafe conditions; the lack of meaningful life projects for young people that often make them more vulnerable to addictions; immense community resources devoted to persecution of victimless crimes; prohibitionist policies that studies have shown to be ineffective; the violence generated by a black market that is never going to go away through moralizing. The regulation of drugs sales–especially marijuana, which is the cash cow of drug-traffickers– deserves at the very least a serious debate.

Any new binational strategy should adhere to two overarching principles:

  1. Place human rights at the center. We need to support mechanisms to protect human rights defenders in Mexico, and work to comply with international standards in Mexico and the US.
  2. Demilitarize the binational relationship. The Defense Department should not be in charge of the definition and management of the US-Mexico relationship. Mexico is a neghbor, a major trade partner, and a nation with close intercultural ties, shared environmental and social issues. These linkages should guide a peace-oriented relationship toward longterm stability.

A wide range of alternative policies exists to supplant the endless drug war. Human rights concerns, along with long-term effectiveness, and peace-building options should dominate in considering which of these to adopt. Mexico’s drug war has generated death, an erosion of rule of law, increased gender-based violence and has significantly altered daily life in many parts of the county. This crisis in the model should elicit self-criticism and a willingness to consider reforms from the leaders who developed the strategy. Instead, public relations efforts take precedence over public safety in an attempt to continue to justify the model.

We can do better. We can create a much healthier, less war-centered binational relationship. We can focus it on constructive ties and what we share rather than threats. We can give the Pentagon and private security venders a secondary role to that of civil society. This is a critical time to demilitarize the US-Mexico relationship. The pressure to make that change will have to come from us.

This is a version of the keynote address presented by the author to the annual meeting of Democrats Abroad Mexico on March 4, 2011, Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco.


  • Allen Schlossman
    Posted March 18, 2011 8:34 pm 0Likes

    An excellent speech/article that reinforces all that I have seen and learned.

    But the problem is, facts don’t matter. Human lives don’t matter. The lobbyists in Washington from the NRA and the military hold unquestionable sway and the profits made by these failed policies are just too great.

    Obama, it has turned out, is a politician first, and he, like the presidents before him, is allowing the military industrial complex to run the show because he knows there are too many in our government that are on the take in one way or another, and that real change cannot/will not happen. He’s happy to make little changes at the edges to claim little victories rather than taking on the bigger challenges to clean up what can comfortably be called the deep corruption of the U.S. government.

    Mexico of course, has even more serious corruption it’s not addressing.

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