Changing tack in drug war


Alarmed by the escalation of violent crime in Mexico, Washington and Mexico City are looking to adjust the ways in which they collaborate on drugs and security issues. A high-level visit by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other cabinet members to Mexico on March 23rd highlighted growing concerns on both sides of the border. It also underscored the realisation that military power alone is insufficient to stem the violence and its underlying drivers.

President Felipe Calderón initiated an unprecedented military offensive shortly after taking office in December 2006 against drug gangs and other organised criminals. The government has deployed 50,000 troops around the country, mostly in the most violent cities near the northern border. While initially praised, the initiative has come under increased scrutiny as the number of killings has escalated rather than abated.

Ever higher

According to estimates by Milenio TV, a television news channel, 8,280 drug-related killings occurred in 2009, making it the most violent of Mr Calderón’s three years in office. Although these estimates vary by source (the newspapers Reforma and El Universal put the number at 6,587 and 7,724 respectively), all estimates show a marked rise in recent years. According to El Universal’s estimates, there was a 38% rise in drug killings in 2009, after a doubling in 2008.

The most recent incidents were the most bold: on March 13th gunmen killed a US consulate employee and her spouse, as well as the husband of another employee, in Cuidad Juárez as they all were leaving a children’s birthday party. It remains unclear whether they were specifically targeted or were victims of mistaken identity. Nonetheless, the attacks have fuelled fears that Mexican drug gangs might be starting to target US government officials. This is the first time since 1985 that a US employee has been killed by organised criminals (the last was an official of the US Drug Enforcement Administration).

Tweaking the strategy

The spike in violence is heightening popular pressure on the Calderón administration to modify its anti-drugs strategy. It is also triggering beefed-up security measures by governors of states on the US side of the border. While direct US police or military involvement in Mexico’s anti-crime campaign is unlikely for now, the nature of the bilateral co-operation is shifting.

Even before Ms Clinton’s visit, Mr Calderón was changing tack. After a January 30th massacre of 15 young people at a house party in Cuidad Juárez, he visited the city on February 11th to unveil an emergency social assistance plan designed to address some of the root causes of gang- and drug-related violence. The emergency plan, which is supported by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), entails investment in education, health, child-care and sports facilities.

The government, together with the US, has taken this revised strategy a step further. On March 23rd Ms Clinton and her counterpart, Mexican Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa, unveiled a US$331m plan to upgrade civilian law enforcement institutions and to rebuild local communities afflicted by poverty and crime. The importance of the meeting with Mexican officials was underscored by the presence of US Defence Secretary Robert Gates;   Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano; Adm. Mike Mullen, who is chairman of the US Joints Chiefs of Staff; and Dennis Blair, the director of national intelligence.

Beyond Plan Mérida

The US has been assisting Mexico in its anti-drug war under the rubric of Plan Mérida, which was initiated by the George Bush administration and modelled after a similar Plan Colombia that has helped fund Colombia’s battle against drug traffickers and leftist guerrillas for several years. The three-year Plan Mérida, which has amounted to US$1.3bn in aid and is now nearing its end, involves co-operation among US and Mexican and intelligence agencies and some US training of Mexican police, judges, prosecutors and public defence attorneys. But more than half of the funding has gone for the purchase of equipment by the Mexican military.

Under the new plan more attention will be given to improving border security—by moving away from the building of a physical fence in favour of better screening procedures. More US funds will also go towards programmes to address the socio-economic and unemployment problems that drive young people into criminal activities. Most importantly, the focus will shift somewhat from US financial assistance to the Mexican military towards more training of the police and judicial institutions. And it will involve communities and civil organisations more directly in the effort. The revised strategy will first go into effect in Cuidad Juárez, the most violent city, and Tijuana.

Is this enough?

Whether such adjustments, whatever their merits, will be enough is subject to doubt, given the severity of the crime problem and the Calderón government’s inability over three years to alleviate it. Some critics are even calling for more radical solutions, such as a pullback of soldiers entirely or even a legalisation of drugs.

Ruling out such options, the most important message from the Mexico-US meetings seems to be the acknowledgement that a mostly military approach has not worked and that a more comprehensive strategy is needed.

But the mix of measures announced by Ms Clinton seems rather improvised and is unlikely to lead to any substantial short-term results. Better border controls, if effective, might help reduce the risk of a spill over of the violence into the US and make it tougher for drug traffickers to get their product onto US soil. However, much more aggressive steps will be needed on the US side to curb demand for drugs at home and to stem the flow of arms and drug proceeds into Mexico. Without this, there is little likelihood that the drug cartels can be crippled any time soon. Moreover, any steps taken to tackle socio-economic problems in the afflicted areas will probably only generate benefits over the longer term.