Time is running out for the Mexican drug war

Since President Felipe Calderon took office in 2006 promising to end Mexico’s illicit drug trade, more than 18,000 people have been killed, and the death toll rises every month. In Ciudad Juarez, a border city and a primary smuggling point to the United States, 2,600 people were killed last year, making it a more dangerous city than Baghdad. The ferocity of violence in Juarez underscores the urgent need to shift the Calderon government’s strategy from one of drug-cartel decapitation, to one of strengthening law enforcement and building civil society with the aim of cutting off local support for cartels.

Drugs, Violence, and Fear

The Calderon government faces the daunting task of eliminating one of the most lucrative and entrenched drug networks in the world. The profitability of the Mexican drug trade is a result of both the insatiable American demand for illegal drugs and the cheap cost of producing marijuana and heroin in Mexico. And, though cocaine is not produced in Mexico, Viridiana Rios, a doctoral fellow in the Inequality and Social Justice Program at Harvard, explained, “As Colombian drug traffickers fled from law enforcement in Colombia, they reestablished themselves in Mexico.” Today, 90 percent of the cocaine entering the U.S. market is shipped through Mexico.

Calderon has relied heavily on the military to supplement police forces, given the military’s reputation for low levels of corruption. Since 2006, over 45,000 soldiers have been deployed into Mexico’s streets, but violence continues to increase. The Calderon government has used the troops to pursue a strategy of decapitation, targeting high-value cartel leaders. But this strategy seems to have failed. Vanda Felbab-Brown, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, told the HPR that “the current violence is partly a backlash to the decapitation policy, which actually generated new turf wars for smuggling routes of recently ‘decapitated’ rivals.”

Even though most of the violence is between drug traffickers and law enforcement officers, civilians are all too frequently killed. In March, an American consulate worker and her husband were murdered in Juarez. “People are scared to death,” said Rios. “By seven o’clock in the evening the city shuts down and everyone stays indoors.” And the economy of Juarez has been devastated because of plummeting rates of American tourism.

Calderon’s New Strategy

The perception of a failed war on drugs has sapped Mexicans’ patience for Calderon’s efforts. There are serious doubts that the Mexican government has the capacity to defeat the cartels. According to Steven Shavell, professor of law and economics at Harvard Law School, “the drug business is so lucrative that there is no way that the Mexican government can raise the level of deterrence high enough to stop the drug trade.” Shavell predicted that unless the government can seriously retool its strategy to move away from simple deterrence, “the Mexican government will likely make deals with the drug kingpins.”

But there is some hope in the revised Mexican drug policy that Calderon recently introduced. It looks holistically at entire trafficking networks, not just their leaders. New emphasis is being placed on properly training and vetting investigative police teams rather than relying solely on military forces. However, U.S. assistance is vital to execute the new strategy. Felbab-Brown explained, “Such a policy requires law-enforcement and intelligence apparatuses that have a robust investigative capacity and are reasonably free of corruption. While Mexico currently has neither, American assistance can help.”

Trafficking in Expertise

The United States has already provided Mexico with $700 million since 2008 through the Merida Initiative, a joint-security cooperative agreement. In a major policy reversal, the Obama administration has encouraged the Mexican government to use the Merida funds for institution-building rather than for arming the military. To that end, Calderon has announced a new set of social programs to strengthen civil society in Juarez by bringing jobs and education to marginalized communities.

But time is running out; it seems unlikely that the Mexican people will much longer tolerate a government that cannot provide basic security. Unless Calderon can implement his new strategy quickly and commit to it seriously for the next few years, he may have to cut deals with the cartels. That is, he might have to accept the Mexican drug trade in exchange for fewer deaths in the streets.

Taylor Lane ’11 and Mason Pesek ’12 are Staff Writers.

Photo Credit: Flickr (tiffa130)

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