Executive Director, the Washington Office on Latin America
[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/WORLD/americas/03/24/us.mexico.relations/art.mexico.juarez.afp.gi.jpg caption="A federal police officer guards a checkpoint earlier this month in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico"]
More than 10,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence in Mexico since President Calderón assumed office in December 2006. In the past few weeks the United States has acknowledged that US demand for illegal drugs and its gun market fuel the drug trade and violence. The security crisis facing Mexico and the United States’ shared responsibility will be key topics for Presidents Barack Obama and Felipe Calderon when they meet in Mexico City this week. There is no quick fix to the drug violence plaguing Mexico, yet it is clear that current strategies are not enough.
The history of the war on drugs reminds us of the dangers of repeating the same policies with the hope that this time, things will be different. Mexico did not get to this point overnight, and the tactics being used to confront the drug trade – restructuring and purging the police and bringing in the military – are not new.
Just like President Calderon, former Mexican presidents Ernesto Zedillo and Vicente Fox promised to root out organized crime and restore public order by involving the armed forces. The results in both cases were the same: a few corrupt public officials and a number of drug traffickers were put in jail and there were short term tactical victories. In spite of these efforts, the hunger for drugs in the US kept the drug-traffic steadily flowing through Mexico, ensuring that new drug-traffickers took the place of their predecessors and “clean” soldiers and police officers were easily corruptible.
The problem with these efforts is that so far they have been incomplete. While the Mexican government has implemented policies to root out corrupt police and to reform the justice system, the heart of the counter-drug strategy has been to overpower the cartels with military force. In the long term, handing over police functions to the military harms efforts to strengthen civilian police corps, as attention is drawn away from the need for police reform. Likewise, murders, kidnappings and other crimes remain unsolved given the weaknesses in Mexico’s justice system. According to the Mexican Citizen Institute for Research on Insecurity (INCESI), only one out of every five crimes are ever reported and for every 100 investigations that are begun, only four cases result in sentencing the person responsible. Mexico will not overcome the threats of the cartels until it can identify, prosecute, and punish drug traffickers, which the military cannot do. Effective police and judiciaries are necessary to achieve this end.
Consider this: President Calderon has called upon approximately 45,000 soldiers to participate in counter drug operations since he took office in 2006. Less than six months ago, Operation “Clean-up”, launched by Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office, detained numerous Mexican officials for their links to organized crime, including members of President Calderon’s security team, the former director and other agents from the federal organized crime unit, and two former directors of Interpol Mexico’s office. Despite these efforts, the police continue to be riddled with corruption and poor performance. The Office of Control and Confidence within the Public Security Ministry, which evaluated 56,065 officers in 2008—approximately 15% of the police in Mexico–, reported that only 42% of these police were recommended for service.
In 2008 and 2009, the US government provided an unprecedented $700 million in security assistance to Mexico under the “Merida Initiative”. As the Obama Administration moves forward with additional assistance for Mexico, focus should be placed on supporting the country’s efforts to strengthen its institutions rather than on hardware and equipment. Equipment and technology will do little to bring the accountability, transparency, and reform that Mexican security forces need to fight criminal groups over the long haul. Success will not hinge upon helicopters or ion scanners. Similarly, arresting drug traffickers is futile unless there is a judiciary that is capable of prosecuting them and sending them to jail.
However, US support for Mexico’s efforts to combat drug trafficking will not be enough to reduce violence and combat drug trafficking. One of the most important things the United States must do to help Mexico cope with drug-related violence is to reduce US demand for drugs. The Obama administration has an important opportunity to rethink US drug policy, including providing additional resources for demand-side strategies such as treatment. Similarly, reevaluating US gun laws and regulations, and strengthening enforcement of these laws, would help to stem the flow of guns trafficked into Mexico. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) estimates that approximately 90% of the weapons confiscated by the Mexican government in their counter-drug operations originated in the United States.
As security cooperation broadens between Mexico and the United States, attention and resources for long-term reforms in the Mexican police and justice sector are needed to deal effectively with the inter-related problems of illicit drugs, crime, and violence. Likewise, while strengthening Mexico’s institutions is vital, this must be accompanied by efforts to curb drug consumption in the United States and crack down on gun sales that facilitate illegal arms trafficking into Mexico. Presidents Obama and Calderon should focus on the long-term reforms that have been neglected in the past and that are needed to quell the violence that plagues Mexico and that will inevitably impact the United States.
Filed under: Mexico
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