The starting bell rang for the Mexican presidential campaigns on March 30, and the candidates are out of the gates. As the nation faces an unprecedented crisis in levels of violence and lawlessness, one of the big issues is who will have to take the blame for the disastrous war on drugs.
More than 50,000 men, women and children have been killed in violence related to the drug war since December of 2006. That was when President Felipe Calderón made the now deeply regrettable decision to launch thousands of army troops into the streets to confront drug cartels.
Almost no one believes the drug war has been a success. In one recent poll, 53% of Mexicans surveyed said that organized crime was winning the war. Their perception is born out by statistics. The same poll, by Consulta Mitofsky and Mexicans United Against Crime, reported that in the five years since the drug war began (2006-2011) crimes have increased 15%, with homicides up 88%, kidnappings 81%, and extortion 46%. According to the US drug report, between 2004-2008, heroin production increased 340% in Mexico.
Gender-based violence has also risen dramatically. In the northern border state of Chihuahua, where Ciudad Juárez—already infamous for its femicide rate—is located, assassinations of women rose 1,000% between 2007 and 2010. Chihuahua was one of the first places that the federal government organized a major military operation in the drug war and it continues to have heavy military presence. Yet, far from being safe, its citizens live in fear. In addition to assassinations, hundreds of people have been ‘disappeared’ and tens of thousands have fled their homes.
The law-and-order strategy of focusing on supply enforcement and interdiction in the drug war, rather than a demand-side social or health approach has also had a terrible impact on eroding legal institutions in Mexico. According to government statistics, only 20% of crimes are investigated, only 9% go to trial and only 1% result in punishment. One percent. Incidents of corruption among police, judges, prosecutors and other public officials are commonplace. There has been an 83% rise in human rights complaints 2006-2011; complaints against the Army make up 45% of the total, with the increase in complaints about the army rising ninefold since the drug war. Torture, rape, murder, illegal detention and disappearances are the most serious of the many complaints filed.
Although the Obama administration worried again about “spillover” violence coming across its border at the April 2 North American Summit, it is clear that U.S. policies are largely to blame for the current mess. Plans for regional cooperation under a model of expanding U.S. security priorities, including drug prohibition, to Mexico began under the Security and Prosperity Partnership in 2005 and developed into the Mérida Initiative under George W. Bush in 2007. The security aid package for “Counter-Terrorism, Counter-Narcotics and Border Security” included millions of dollars in military equipment and training to fight the drug war. Calderón had already sent more than 45,000 soldiers into the streets of Mexico for crime fighting and the Mérida Initiative consolidated politically and economically the strategy of military/police confrontation.
It is U.S. demand for drugs, estimated at tens of billions of dollars a year, that creates and sustains the business, and its failed prohibition policies that deliver that business into the hands of organized crime. It is the U.S. arms industry that arms the hit men, through legal and illegal sales and aid. It is U.S. corruption and crime that allows for the money and drugs to flow within the U.S. and over the border. And it is the lobbying power of U.S. defense contractors and private security firms that keeps the Mérida Initiative funded year after year by Congress. In times of budget constraints, the Mérida Initiative has now inexplicably been funded well beyond the original three-year extension proposed by the Bush administration.
Experts and analysts are still trying to explain the obvious but paradoxical correlation between a strategy ostensibly aimed at cracking down on the cartels and the chaos that has resulted. Even President Obama, a staunch ally of Calderón’s in the drug war, has noted publicly that the cartels are stronger than ever. The violence has resulted from turf wars between rival drug cartels—often caused by a government strike against one, battles between the armed forces and cartels, and the splintering of cartels when their leaders are killed by the government or arrested. Many of those splinter groups are the most violent and ruthless cartels of all.
Even the head of the U.S. Northern Command, Gen. Charles Jacoby told a Senate committee in March that the strategy of killing drug lords was not working. This is something that Mexican researchers have been documenting for some time, with charts that show a clear relationship between the murder or arrest of a local drug lord and an explosion of violence in that city.
Besides the booming economy of war, the drug war strategy serves interests of social control. When the nation is militarized in the name of the drug war, the government can and does intimidate and often do worse to dissidents. Human rights defenders, indigenous people seeking to protect their land and natural resources from incursions of companies, and youth in general are particular targets of military occupation, killings and repression.
It’s clear why the drug war has become a political liability. It has tainted the prospects for Calderón’s would-be successor, candidate Josefina Vazquez Mota of the National Action Party; she has endorsed the militarized strategy but sought to change the tone as she trails in the polls. Enrique Peña Nieto, from the PRI, the party which ruled Mexico with an iron fist for seven decades until being unseated from the presidency in 2000, has also endorsed the strategy yet there is some sense that his advantage going into the campaigns is in part owing to a desire among many Mexicans to return to a time when it seemed that the ruling party had secret agreements with cartels to avoid rivalries and violence by giving everyone, not least of all government officials, a piece of the pie.
The only candidate to promise a change of strategy is the center-left coalition candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador. He has said he would change the strategy and put the emphasis on tackling the social roots of crime and violence.
This is one of the tragedies of the drug war. With violence capturing headlines, the more than half the population that says that economic issues are of most concern to them has been left out in the cold. Mexico felt the U.S. recession hard and has been slow to recover, and now could be facing the consequences of another global recession. The number of poor people has increased by five million during this administration. The North American Summit announcements said that the three partners in the North American Free Trade Agreement would continue to reduce trade barriers and failed to note the negative effects of the agreement on their countries’ most vulnerable populations.
More and more Mexican migrants are returning home—because of record numbers of deportations in the US and because the high rate of unemployment means they’re out of work. They come back to communities with no jobs, and in many cases suffering culture shock after decades in the United States.
Stories like theirs don’t make the news like a gory beheading does. But as elections loom, the rise in poverty and the abandonment of the poor–with the nation pouring billions into security to fight criminals who find it easy to recruit fresh ranks among hapless youth—could and should be issues of primary concern.
Laura Carlsen is the director of the Americas Program.