Mexico politics: Whither the war on drugs?


There has been widespread domestic and international criticism of the Mexican government’s inability to tackle spiralling levels of drug-related violent crime. Increasingly, Mexicans are calling for a new approach to the drug war launched in late 2006. There are signs that the authorities are rethinking some elements of their security policy. President Felipe Calderón has even raised the possibility of a debate on the legalisation of drugs. A shift in strategy may well be needed, though that might not be the most likely one.

As the head of the armed forces, the president has had to be very careful in his use of words, as he cannot afford to undermine the morale of military and police units engaged in the anti-drug campaign. The message regarding legalisation came via Mr Calderón’s Twitter account, stating that although he personally was against it, he was not opposed to this issue being fully debated. (Others urging legalisation include his predecessor as president, Vicente Fox, and some leaders of the left-leaning opposition party, Partido de la Revolución Democrática).

The willingness of Mr Calderón to encourage a discussion on legalisation marks a sharp break with the harsh language he had employed when referring to this issue during the first half of his six-year presidential term. It also suggests a potential shift in the government’s approach to security amid a mounting death toll from feuding drug gangs and growing public scepticism of the official efforts to improve public safety.

There has been some progress, no doubt, including the death of a senior member of the Sinaloa cartel in late July and in recent days the arrest of another high-ranking drug lord, US-born Edgar Váldez Villareal, known as “La Barbie” (making him the third big drug boss killed or captured by the Mexican police this year). However, every major success chalked up by security forces has been overshadowed by bold and shockingly violent episodes. The most recent was the discovery at a ranch of more than 70 massacred migrants, believed to have been kidnapped and then killed by members of the Zetas drug gang. Drug cartels also in recent days killed a second Mexican mayor in as many weeks.

Admission of failure?

At an event to discuss public security in early August, Guillermo Valdés, the head of the Centro de Investigación y Seguridad Nacional (CISEN, the intelligence agency), admitted that the federal government had not only failed to reduce drug-related violence, but that it was continuing to rise. Mr Valdés stated that 28,000 people had died as a result of organised crime during the current administration. As recently as July 17th the attorney-general’s office had tallied 24,000 murders. According to Milenio TV, the last five months have been the bloodiest this year.

Mr Valdés also spoke of the government’s lack of progress in dealing with money-laundering, kidnapping and extortion. And he mentioned delays in the creation of a professional police force and the delivery of resources by the US to combat crime under the US-funded Mérida Initiative, a bilateral agreement designed to address drug-trafficking and crime.

Mr Calderón is clearly worried about the spiralling violence, which he had hoped to reduce significantly by this stage of his presidency. He is also concerned that it could damage the ruling Partido Acción Nacional’s (PAN) hopes of retaining the presidency in the 2012 election, as well as his own credibility. The worsening situation was probably a factor in the 2009 mid-term elections, in which the PAN lost control of the lower house of Congress. The public’s frustration also could cost the PAN votes in the 2012 presidential race. Many will turn to the Partido de la Revolución Institucional (PRI), which held power for 71 years prior to 2000, in search of a more effective authority.

Change of tack?

Even before the most recent upsurge in murders, there had been some efforts to adjust the security strategy. This includes greater collaboration with the US. In March a high-level US delegation—included the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, the secretary of defence, Robert Gates, and the secretary of homeland security, Janet Napolitano—met in Mexico City with Mr Calderón and leading cabinet members to discuss the Mérida Initiative. Ms Clinton acknowledged that demand for drugs in the US and illegal arms shipments were fuelling the violence in Mexico. The two governments announced the establishment of additional bilateral programmes to deal with border violence in the Tijuana-San Diego and Ciudad Juárez-El Paso areas.

These programmes will be more clearly focused on promoting economic and social development. Mexico and the US also launched a programme to stem the illegal flow of arms and financial assets south of the border and to investigate, detain and punish those involved in money-laundering. The Mexicans have been attempting to improve monitoring of foreign-exchange transactions at exchange houses but a joint approach is likely to yield better results.

However, stemming illegal arms flows will prove much harder given the difficulty of policing such a long border (despite the recent addition of thousands more border patrol agents). As such, the likelihood that these efforts will lead to a dramatic reduction in violent crime is slim given slow progress on much-needed police reform.

Reform still lacking

Attempts to deal with the drug-trafficking problem are hampered by the absence of a unified national police force and the low pay and standards of most local forces. There are 2,200 municipal police operations in Mexico, in addition to the state police. The capital, Mexico City, has over 60 different police forces. There is little co-ordination or information-sharing among all these operations. In March governors agreed on the need to integrate the municipal police into the state police forces as a crucial first step towards reform. Establishment of 31 state police forces plus one for Mexico City, together with a well co-ordinated federal police force, would help to prevent infiltration by criminal groups, clamp down on corruption and pursue drug-traffickers more effectively.

Genaro García Luna, minister of public security and head of the federal police, has long talked about the importance of establishing a unified national force, but most governors had until recently been reluctant to accept this idea. The dramatic increase in drug-related crime has been the main factor behind the shift in opinion.

Nevertheless, the task remains huge and progress has been slow. Mr Calderón continues to negotiate with the 32 governors to convince them to move ahead with creating the unified force. A reform bill could be presented to the federal Congress in September.

In the meantime, the government is trying to weed out corrupt or ineffective policemen under its control. On August 30th authorities fired 3,200 federal officers, or nearly 10% of the 34,5000-strong force, after they failed basic competency tests. An additional 465 officers, including a police chief, are to lose their jobs for failing to carry out their duties.

Military operations

In the absence of more comprehensive police reform, the armed forces will remain at the forefront of the war on drugs. Some 50,000 troops have been deployed around the country. In April the minister of defence, General Guillermo Galván, said that the army would likely continue to head the campaign against organised crime for 5-10 years. However, the army lacks a legal mandate and the training for such a role, so Mr Galván has sought the support of lawmakers from all parties for a new legal framework that clarifies the involvement of the armed forces in the fight against criminal groups. He has also reportedly acknowledged that there have been some documented cases of human-rights violations by the armed forces and of break-ins in private homes without search warrants.

Even if legislation governing the armed forces’ involvement is passed, the debate about whether or not to continue the crackdown will grow. For now, the Calderón administration stands behind the military operation, despite the climbing death toll. But more Mexicans now say that the campaign is not working. As the violence has spread beyond the traditional areas of drug-related conflict in the northern border region, some are starting to call for more direct military assistance from the US, and others for more radical changes, perhaps even complete cessation of the operations. Clearly there are no easy or quick solutions ahead.

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