Mexico’s president Andrés Manuel López Obrador recently made two announcements that could finally close the bloodiest chapter in the history of the United States’ global war on drugs. He called for ending the Merida Initiative—the 3 billion-dollar US counternarcotics aid package that has fueled Mexico’s drug war—and announced a pivot from prohibition.
     “As for the Merida Initiative, we want to completely reorient it because it hasn’t worked,” the president stated at his morning press conference May 7. “We don’t want cooperation in the use of force, we want cooperation for development.” He added that his government wants to end U.S. military support and work together on funding “production and jobs”.   Finally. On the eve of its eleventh anniversary, few US foreign policies have produced more catastrophic results than the Merida Initiative. Drawn up by the George W. Bush administration in 2007 to increase US economic and military influence south of the border, Plan Mexico, later dubbed the “Merida Initiative” to avoid comparisons to Plan Colombia, was a blueprint for increased US security intervention in Mexico–a nation historically averse to US involvement within its borders based on nationalist principles and having been rather frequently invaded by the U.S.
     Mexico’s former president, the conservative Felipe Calderón, embraced the Merida Initiative as a way to lock in US support for his government, which took power through electoral fraud in 2006. The US government had long been searching for ways to push out its borders southward and expand its security priorities in Mexican territory. The Merida Initiative (MI) opened doors for US military and intelligence agencies that even the long-standing Party of the Institutional Revolution—friendly to US interests but historically nationalist—kept shut for years. The Pentagon gained unprecedented influence in Mexican security and intelligence and US agencies, especially the DEA, CIA and FBI, gained access and major funding increases.

     The U.S. government exported armed equipment, training and intelligence systems that many Mexicans believe compromise their national sovereignty. Since the Plan began in 2008, the US Embassy in Mexico City has expanded to become one of the largest in the world. When the current Mexico City building became too small to hold the burgeoning ranks of US spies and drug warriors, they occupied a downtown skyscraper. Construction has begun on a nearly one-billion-dollar new complex.
     The MI sent $400 million to Mexico in the first tranche, most to armed forces and police. No actual money goes to the Mexican government—most of it goes to US defense companies, private security firms, NGOs and government security forces. US arms sales to Mexico have also skyrocketed. This means that members of Congress in districts where powerful defense companies and other interested parties are located face a constant lobbying effort to keep the Initiative up and running despite its failure.
     The economic interests explain why one of the world’s worst foreign policies has gone on so long amid so much bloodshed. The Trump Administration reduced funding, but continues to support the Initiative and the law-and-order approach to drug use and drug trafficking at home and abroad, diverting some of the funding to his own obsession–sealing off borders to migrants.

Mexico’s US-Driven Drug War–A Colossal Failure

     The MI—and the drug war model it supports—has not only failed to attain any of its broad objectives to reduce drug flows and dismantle cartels; it has actually led to an explosion of violence in Mexico. Selective hits on cartels spark turf wars and corrupt security forces take sides. The “kingpin strategy” brought in by the DEA and the Pentagon posits that taking out a cartel leader causes the cartel to wither and cease operations. This has never happened. Take the most famous and most recent example–Joaquin Guzman, El Chapo. With El Chapo sentenced to life in a US prison, reports show the Sinaloa Cartel is stronger and deadlier than ever—the largest seizure of fentanyl in history is linked to the post-Chapo cartel.
     For every high-profile arrest, there is a hydra-like reorganization, usually accompanied by battles for control that turn entire Mexican cities into war zones. Lopez Obrador, or AMLO as he’s known, is right to end this disastrous policy. More than 225,000 Mexican men, women and children have been murdered in the context of this war and 40,000 disappeared, according to the government’s underreported count. The police and armed forces have committed an untold number of extrajudicial executions, eroding the rule of law they supposedly are deployed to restore.  Thousands of families have been forced by the violence to flee their homes to other cities or to the United States where more and more Mexicans request asylum with gruesome stories of the violence that has taken hold in their neighborhoods.
     All the major victims’ organization in Mexico– from the aggrieved families of the murdered, to mothers of the disappeared throughout the country, migrants’ rights groups, anti-femicide collectives and the parents of the 42 disappeared students of the Ayotzinapa teaching college–have pleaded with the US government to end the Merida Initiative. They have wept in Congressional offices and presented testimony in hearings. In late 2017, victims and human rights organizations including ours, supported a letter by members of the US House of representatives to conduct a complete review and reorientation of the Merida Initiative strategy and aid. There have been criticisms for the lack of benchmarks and progress, but remarkably attempts to change course.

The Phase out of Prohibition?

     Mexico is currently working on legislation to regulate cannabis nationwide. The Supreme Court set binding precedent to end prohibition last November in a ruling that stated that it violated personal rights. Legislative reform has an excellent chance of passing given the majority that AMLO’s Morena party holds in both houses of Congress. An end to prohibition was written into the new government’s National Development Plan, which states, “On drugs, the prohibitionist strategy is no longer sustainable, not only for the violence it causes but for its bad results in public health… The alternative is for the state to quit fighting addiction through prohibition of the substances that lead to it and dedicate itself to getting substance use under control through clinical treatment and prescription doses and later, personalized care for rehabilitation under medical supervision.”
     A state-regulated market, production and distribution system would help solve some of Mexico’s greatest challenges by reducing the power and wealth of cartels and relieving prison conditions that reflect the same discrimination based on race, class and gender we see in the United States. Shifting the focus from war to human well-being marks a sea change in drug policy. Mexican drug reform groups and congressional members are working together to develop a state-of-the-art bill that guarantees participation of small farmers in the new market, assures equity, avoids corporate and transnational control of emerging markets, is fiscally responsible and funds reparations and health programs for victims of prohibition.
     In the United States, although states have steadily chipped away at prohibition through popular referendums on cannabis regulation, the Trump administration continues its war. Measures to restrict and punish the financial and production parts of the new marijuana businesses limit their growth and security.Just recently, the most comprehensive federal cannabis regulation bill to date was presented to Congress. Titled the “Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act (MORE Act) it was introduced by Representative Jerry Nadler and Senator Kamala Harris. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, “This is the most sweeping marijuana reform bill ever in Congress. It would de-schedule marijuana at the federal level to let states set their own policies without interference and begin to repair the extensive damage done by prohibition.”

Ending the War at Home and Abroad

     The Mexican decision comes too late for the many killed over the past decade of the US-led war on drugs, but if implemented it will save lives into the future. Lopez Obrador has taken the bold step of breaking with U.S. federal policy and should be encouraged to follow through. So far, his administration’s actions haven’t always supported the change in model, as it continues military deployment to fight cartels–a key feature of the militarized, Pentagon-led Merida Initiative. The Trump administration has said little about this announcement, partly because its new vehicle for security intervention in Mexico is immigration and partly because the Pentagon is still trying to figure out how to preserve its presence and influence under the new government. Eventually, you can bet there will be strong resistance from the Pentagon, the DEA and the US defense industry, all of whom see the drug war in Mexico and in general as a way to further their own interests.
     Armando Gudino, of the Drug Policy Alliance in California, notes that his organization views the wave of legalization measures as a social justice initiative more than a drug policy. The U.S government’s war on drugs within its borders and abroad has never been about stopping drugs, but a disguised strategy for social control. That’s why the drug policy reform movement has become a forum for justice that encompasses demands against police brutality, racism, militarism, immigrant persecution and violence against women and children. Recent legislation incorporates this broader view. Illinois’s Senate passed a bill to legalize marijuana that seeks to repair the injustices of prohibition by expunging the record of those convicted of simple possession. California established a  special fund of up to $50 million dollars a year “for communities disproportionately affected by past federal and state drug policies” to be financed by cannabis taxes. The fund aims to support jobs, mental health treatment, substance-use disorder treatment, support and legal services, and linkages to medical care.
     Studies revealing the mass incarceration and disenfranchisement, mostly of people of color, have shocked society and communities are becoming aware of the deep trauma of prohibition on communities, families and individuals. The concepts of transitional justice and historical memory, usually associated with wars and dictatorships, have become part of the drug policy reform movement. Other states have moved against the federal model. Janet Mills, the governor of Maine, which has one of the highest death rates for opioids in the country, signed an executive order to direct $1.6 million to harm reduction measures, including purchases of the overdose-reversing drug naloxone, medication-assisted treatment in jails and prisons, and supporting recovery from substance use disorder.
     More and more, communities in the United States and abroad are bucking the US federal government’s war against substances and the people associated with them, and are fighting for something. They are fighting for healthy people, families and commu-nities. They are fighting for social and economic justice. They are fighting for robust democracies that don’t cancel out the rights of certain populations by putting them behind bars.
     Every step in that direction, large or small, should be celebrated.
A version of this article was first published as Laura Carlsen’s Borderzones in Counterpunch magazine, available here: