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This article is divided into several sections.
1. For each section (except the Introduction), record 5 facts/ideas that you felt were interesting
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Mexico's Drug War
Author: Aimee Rawlins
December 13, 2011
In 2006, Mexican President Felipe Calderon launched a massive crackdown against drug
trafficking organizations, in conjunction with the United States. Since then, over forty thousand
people have been killed in drug-related violence, leading some to conclude that Mexico is on the
verge of becoming a "failed state" (Stratfor). While the United States has supplied funding and
labor to increase Mexico's institutional capacity to address drug trafficking, its primary focus has
been on cross-border policing and targeting U.S. drug users. Analysts differ on how to address
Mexico's growing internal strife, but a growing number agree that the U.S. war on drugs is a
failure and necessitates a new approach.
Mexico's Drug Trafficking
For decades, drug trafficking organizations used Mexico's entrenched political system to create
"a system-wide network of corruption that ensured distribution rights, market access, and even
official government protection for drug traffickers in exchange for lucrative bribes," according to
a March 2011 CFR report. However, it was not until the late 1980s that Mexican organizations
rose to their current prominence, in the wake of the United States' successful dismantling of
Colombia's drug cartels. As the Colombian route was disrupted, Mexican gangs shifted from
being "mere couriers" for Colombia to wholesalers, explains a June 2011 Congressional
Research Service report (PDF).
By the time Calderon took office in 2006, with a pledge to eradicate trafficking organizations,
drug violence was already on the rise, says University of San Diego Mexico expert David Shirk.
"Moving very aggressively to promote a law and order agenda was a deliberate strategy to cope
with this chaotic moment," Shirk says of the Calderon administration.
Mexico is a major supplier of heroin to the U.S. market, and the largest foreign supplier of
methamphetamine and marijuana. Mexican production of all three of these drugs has increased
since 2005, as has the amount of drugs seized at the southwest border, according to the U.S.
Department of Justice (PDF). While assessments vary as to how much of the marijuana
originates in Mexico, a 2010 Rand Corporation report (PDF) estimated it at anywhere from 40 to
67 percent. An estimated 95 percent of cocaine now travels through Mexico (PDF) into the
United States, up from 77 percent in 2003. Overall, the U.S. State Department found that U.S.
drug users send between $19 and $29 billion annually into the coffers of Mexican drug cartels.
Mexico's drug system is not as labor-focused as that of Colombia or Afghanistan, says Brookings
narcotics expert Vanda Felbab-Brown, but the drug trade still provides direct or indirect
employment for much of its population. She estimates that as much as 40 to 50 percent of the
Mexican population works in the "informal, if not illegal, economy." Officials estimate that the
drug trade makes up 3-4 percent of Mexico's $1.5 trillion annual GDP--totaling as much as $30
billion--and employs at least half a million people.
Mexico's War Effort
Since 2006, Calderon has sent over fifty thousand soldiers onto Mexico's streets, invested
billions of dollars on equipment and training, attempted to vastly reform the police and judicial
systems, and strengthened Mexico's partnership with the United States (PDF). But a legacy of
"political manipulation of law enforcement and judicial branches, which limited
professionalization and enabled widespread corruption" has left the government with "only weak
tools to counter increasingly aggressive crime networks," writes CFR's Shannon O'Neil in
America's Quarterly.
The police are easily bought, in part because in many cities, they earn less than teachers or even
burrito vendors. On the website InSight Crime, Patrick Corcoran notes that "an underpaid officer
could double or triple his salary by simply agreeing to look the other way." The CFR report notes
police agencies "suffer from dangerous and deplorable working conditions, low professional
standards, and severely limited resources."
The Calderon administration has attempted to counter police corruption by dramatically
increasing the role of the military in the fight against drug cartels. Not only have tens of
thousands of military personnel been deployed to supplement, and in many cases replace, local
police forces, they have also been heavily recruited to lead civilian law enforcement agencies
Mexico's judicial system--with its autocratic judges and lack of transparency--is also highly
susceptible to corruption. The Congressional Research Service report noted that even when
public officials are arrested for working with a cartel, they are rarely convicted. Shirk says that
Calderon has not done enough to reform the judicial system and root out abuses. "The one thing
he seems obsessed about is strengthening the power of police to use tactics that are very
dangerous even in a democratic society: wire tapping, the ability to abduct people, [holding]
people without charge for up to eighty days."
"It is ultimately the great shame of the last decade that we've made all this effort, we've lost all of
these lives, and at the end of the day, we've made no real substantive progress in reducing the
availability of drugs, and the cost is extraordinary violence." --David Shirk
Calderon's militarization strategy has also resulted in accusations of serious human rights abuses.
A November 2011 report by Human Rights Watch found that "rather than strengthening public
security in Mexico, Calderon's 'war' has exacerbated a climate of violence, lawlessness, and fear
in many parts of the country." The report, which looked at five states, documented more than one
hundred and seventy cases of torture, thirty-nine disappearances, and twenty-four extrajudicial
Despite the problems associated with the militarization of Mexican law enforcement, it is
"widely believed to be the best hope for promoting law and order in Mexico" and enjoys a
remarkably high degree of public confidence (PDF). By mid-2010, Calderon's aggressive push
had resulted in the seizure of nearly one hundred tons of cocaine, sixty-five hundred tons of
marijuana, nine hundred and fifty kilograms of heroin, seventy thousand small and large caliber
arms, nearly five thousand grenades, and over $400 million. The Congressional Research Service
report noted "dramatic successes" (PDF) with the arrests or killings of more than thirty-five
"high-value targets."
Escalating Violence
But instead of diminishing the cartels' presence, in many instances this has amplified drugrelated violence. Since 2006, over three thousand Mexican soldiers and police have been killed
by the cartels (NPR). The Wall Street Journal reported that more than twenty-two thousand
people have been killed since the beginning of 2010, a rate of one every thirty-five minutes.
Moreover, in 2010, the nature of the violence began to shift. Between January 2010 and August
2011, nineteen sitting mayors were allegedly killed by cartels (IBT), and many other politicians
have since been killed or have disappeared. Massacres of civilians, beheadings, and mass graves
also have become increasingly common (Reuters).
The eradication efforts also have led to violent succession battles within the cartels (PDF)."Every
time Calderon's strategy worked in terms of capturing or killing a major figure, it created a
vacuum in those organizations," explains Claremont McKenna Mexico expert Roderic Camp.
"So not only have you seen a dramatic increase in drug-related homicide, you see an increase in
homicides that are the product of one cartel killing members of another cartel."
The Committee to Protect Journalists cites Mexico as the eighth deadliest country for reporters.
Traditional media outlets have come to fear reprisals for reporting drug-related crimes, which has
led to an increased use of blogs and social media outlets, although these, too, have been
increasingly targeted by the cartels (AS/COA).
And while violence has decreased in some areas, a report by the University of San Diego's
Trans-Border Institute found that in other states, it dramatically increased (PDF), showing that,
"at best, troop deployments appeared to merely displace the violence." The violence is also
spilling into other parts of Central America (FP). In 2011, 60 percent of cocaine traffic into the
United States traveled through Mexico via Central America, up from 1 percent in 2007, which is
considered a significant contributor to the region's high murder rates.
U.S.-Mexico Cooperation
In a 2009 speech, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton acknowledged the U.S. role in fueling
Mexico's drug violence, and said the United States had a responsibility to help address it. In
February 2011, the New York Times reported that the United States began sending unarmed
drones to collect intelligence on traffickers. In August, the Times reported that the United States
had expanded its role in cross-border raids, sending CIA operatives and retired military
personnel to a Mexican military base, while training federal agents to assist in wiretaps,
interrogations, and running informants. The United States has also ramped up security on its own
side of the border, spending approximately $3 billion annually on patrolling the border.
In 2008, the United States instituted the Merida Initiative, which designated nearly $1.4 billion in
U.S. funds for Mexico, Central America, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. The bulk of the
money went to Mexico, with a mandate to "break the power of organized crime, strengthen the
U.S. southern border, improve Mexican institutional capacity, and reduce the demand for drugs,"
according CFR's O'Neil (PDF). In March 2010, this partnership was renewed with Beyond
Merida, which expanded the program to also target judicial and political corruption.
The United States supplies 90 percent of the weapons that are confiscated in Mexico (PDF),
according to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. The arms component has
become increasingly relevant, due to a controversial ATF gun-trafficking sting known as "Fast
and Furious." In 2009, two thousand U.S. weapons were sold to people known to be involved
with the drug cartels, but some fourteen hundred weapons were lost, many of which later turned
up at crime scenes, including at the site of a shooting of a U.S. border patrol agent in December
2010 (LAT).
Policy Options
Decriminalization--or not arresting people for simply possessing drugs--is one of the most
argued-for policy options. In October 2011, Calderon hinted at support for decriminalization, or
legalization, in the United States, which he has not backed in the past. At the UN General
Assembly, he said the way to take down the cartels was to cut demand, but if that was
impossible, governments were obligated to consider "market alternatives" (LAT). In 2009, a
commission of Latin American experts, including three former presidents from the region,
concluded that the drug war required a paradigm shift (PDF) to focus on decriminalization and
health services. A 2011 report by the Global Commission on Drug Policy advocated treatment
services instead of arresting users, noting successful decriminalization programs in Portugal and
Australia that did not lead to increased drug use in either country.
While acknowledging that decriminalization would result in fewer U.S. incarcerations, Mark
Kleiman questions this strategy in Foreign Affairs, arguing that it would put more drugs into the
hands of users and increase the size of Mexico's export market. Instead, he advocates focusing
U.S. enforcement efforts on the most violent dealers and dealing organizations, while
simultaneously working to reduce the drug demand of criminally active heavy users. Frequent
drug testing and swift, but mild, probation and parole for these users has seen remarkable success
in programs like Hawaii's HOPE program (PDF), which has reduced both drug use and days
A major piece of the U.S. and Mexican strategy against cartels has been to target so-called "highvalue" individuals or low-level, highly visible "foot soldiers." But Brookings' Brown advocates
aggressively targeting the middle layer, which is intrinsic to the operational capacity and not as
easily replaceable. Their ouster also does not result in the same number of people violently vying
for leadership roles. She and other experts support a more hierarchical approach to targeting
traffickers, prioritizing those that are most violent, rather than "lashing out in an indiscriminant
manner whenever any intelligence comes in."
Brown does not believe that violence will continue at the levels seen in recent years, stressing
that the situation in Mexico is not indicative of "how drug markets behave," but she remains
unsure what will drive the violence down. She cites the situation in Tijuana, which has seen a
dramatic reduction in violence, as something of a "narcopeace" between cartels (PDF). While
this end result might be desirable, she says, "It can be fractured if something changes on the drug
market, which law enforcement doesn't have the ability to control."
Regardless of the proposals, many experts are not optimistic about the situation improving in the
short term. "It is ultimately the great shame of the last decade that we've made all this effort,
we've lost all of these lives, and at the end of the day, we've made no real substantive progress in
reducing the availability of drugs, and the cost is extraordinary violence," says Shirk.