April 14th, 2009
06:12 PM ET

War on Drugs: No more mañana

Joy Olson
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
soundoff (10 Responses)
  1. dina212

    What needs to stop obviously is us supplying them with guns, we need to get as many guns back as possible. If America's karma is that they have to pay (refund) those gun purchases then so be it. but once that is done it will obviously make curing this situation easier. The govt needs to stop thinking that money can solve everything, however. I would rather a concrete plan above just throwing money their way. America's appetite for drugs has little to do with this situation. Prescription drugs are being abused. This issue should strictly be on protecting borders and de-arming them. Period. Rehabilitation should be an ongoing goal for America.

    April 14, 2009 at 9:29 pm |
  2. Mike, Zephyrhills, FL

    Drugs is money, the risk is not that great to those doing it, it becomes routine.

    I laugh at guns in america going to Mexico, Why Not? NRA and many companies want americans to go out and buy all the guns they can before Obama takes them away, which is just crazy he would anyway.

    So its back to money, for the Gun Makers, What would happen here in America if everyine got off drugs, Wouldnt need as many jails, prisions, cops, etc,,, Crime is Big Business and some of the few jobs with retirement plans now left in our nation.

    Like our local sheriff who brags to his people, hey jail is getting low, go out and night stick them, the word Them. interesting word, Them!!!

    Why is it that cigarrette makers got sued for killingg people? but gun makers and alcohol producers dont? Bar owners who serve more than one drink an hour is serving someone drunk now!

    America wants it all ways and no real leaders of our time to change it.

    Lack of real men and Leadership!!

    April 14, 2009 at 8:24 pm |
  3. randyho

    " 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"

    Drugs, yes. Guns, no. Mexico hasn't provided the serial numbers of enough weapons to determine whether or not the U.S. is even relevant to their supply chain. If "the United States" is claiming that, the person who is supposedly speaking for "the United States" has pushed their agenda ahead of the facts.

    The drug cartels have abundant cash to source real (fully automatic) assault weapons in numbers, from South America, Russia, South Africa, etc. Paying more money for lesser weapons in the U.S. domestic market makes no sense. Never has. But, it makes for good, if unsubstantiated, press.

    Our gun market is currently stretched to its limits by legal purchases of legal weapons and ammo by Americans from both sides of the aisle exercising their constitutional rights. You'd be an idiot to depend on the US domestic market if there were an alternative. And the cartels, while scum, are not idiots.

    April 14, 2009 at 8:19 pm |
  4. Mike, Zephyrhills, FL

    The Pseo for yrs was 3 to 1 of US Dollar, then back in 1990 went to 9 to 1, now 14 to 1, 15 % excise tax on goods and services and rising more yrly.

    So they dont only deprive the Mexican Citizens of good wages and jobs, they tax them to death and their money cant buy anything.

    US is headed in this direction, our Financial Services Economy cannot stand for much longer. Banks, Insurance Companies, Corp America all draining entire system. Mainly draining the people!! It will come to an end!! Then the rich will keep the rest very poor and we can be just like Mexico.

    April 14, 2009 at 8:14 pm |
  5. Mike, Zephyrhills, FL

    Mexico is all about the Money, the Mexican Govt and its past presidenst have billions in US Banks and well protected. Its no coincidence that Obama met with Calderon before even becoming President.

    Mexico is a dictatorship of a few people, Vital Few vs Trival Many Policy!

    The US Govt likes this, Corp American benefits from it, so screw the people, its not about the people, it about the rich and powerful on both sides of the border.

    April 14, 2009 at 8:09 pm |
  6. MattDuffy

    Actually, there is an overnight (or almost-overnight) solution to the problem that this article completely fails to mention: LEGALIZATION. How long do we need to waste money fighting this stupid "war on drugs" before we, as a species, recognize that prohibition is not, never has been, and never will be effective? Drugs need to be treated as a public health problem, not a criminal one. The supply-side approach (in any country besides an all-powerful fascist autocracy) is doomed to failure.

    April 14, 2009 at 7:43 pm |
  7. Linda

    You are right when you say that it has to be an effort between the US and Mexico, but the responsibility of the US needs to also be closing these boarders! We need to be responsible to our own citizens! And who really cares what John Kerry has to say? We in Texas could care less what Washington has to say because it is a different world down here. A couple of months ago, Washington was denying that anything was going on, as our local news was showing the drug runners in SUV's jumping our boarders and shooting at our boarder patrols. Kerry is not even from a boarder state! He just wants the news coverage, not unlike Hillary Clinton.
    And Joe,
    Yes! "war on drugs" is stupid name. We always have a war on something, and it hasn't worked out so well. Our government has not done squat on this southern boarder. Believe me, I live here, and even the governors are sick of it! Until we get a handle on the boarder, nothing will change, and unfortunately, our CITIZENS are being caught in the middle.

    April 14, 2009 at 7:27 pm |
  8. redge

    Let us flashback to the 70's,when cocaine was on the cover of Time magazine. The Black Panthers ran daycare centers and handed out school lunches,while hiding from the FBI. We skipped school to play pinball machines,we had OUR dodgeball,football,basketball,and baseball teams in the neighborhood. the people from all over came to the projects to look,examine,study,and fix us folks living in the blight of poverty.The result was a statement,nobody should be forced to live like that!I cant remember who told me that,but I believed it.I got out of that horrid place where pimping was a career,stealing was a job,and hustling was a form of entrepreneur.Education,experience,and excellence was the ticket out,,if one had the opportunity.See the socialists came to the projects to fix failure,but in the USA,failure has to be included.The country I am so proud of is built off the backs of those who could never hope to succeed.In order to have any success,someone has to fail.If not,how do we identify the winners,the middle? Yes folks,I am identifying myself as a loser from the 70's,a former failure.Now I'm in the middle,middle-class that is,up from poverty and the doomed.We blasted the projects,arrested the panthers,and let the kkk kill the communists in the neighborhood.We had new lessons in school,new barriers to cross,and new opportunities to grasp.Today,is the best day of the rest of my life.That's my personal motivator.I can only move on because the folks who failed,aren't around me anymore to comfort my falls.As I creep in age and memorialize the fallen,I ask everyone to pause and pray.1973 created the DEA,beginning the War on Drugs.It is 2009 and in the middle of everything that is happening around the world and in our homes,somebody is going to die today from this super-funded war.As I remember mine, lost and fallen,can you stop,and remember yours'? It has been over 30years since last we all spoke.

    April 14, 2009 at 7:26 pm |
  9. Joe G. (Illinois)

    I have been hearing about this "War on drugs" since ever more I care to remember.. Why not call it then something else..? The Obama Administration is good at this kind of Public Relation Failure Management.. Here is my suggestion (Free of Trillions of dollar in expenditure cost): “War on something not really important for anyone to care about but political enough to merit headline news once in a while.”

    April 14, 2009 at 7:16 pm |
  10. Michael

    While I agree that the war on drugs is a collaborative effort between the US and Mexico, many people seem to be in denial that the US has any responsibility with this issue. In fact, a few weeks ago Senator John Kerry held a conference in El Paso, Texas to address this issue. Senator Kerry spoke with community leaders, such as, the district attorney and county attorney. The overall concensus was that there is not a problem in the United States and the violence is overblown by media coverage. My question has been and always will be...when are people going to take this issue seriously and accept responsibility for perpetuating this war?

    April 14, 2009 at 7:09 pm |