A U.S. War with Mexican Consequences

American drug policy has been a central component of U.S.–Mexican relations, and of Mexican drug policy, at least since 1969, when Richard Nixon unleashed Operation Intercept at the San Ysidro-Tijuana border, inspecting every vehicle that crossed the border with the hope, not of finding any drugs, but of pressuring the government of then-President Gustavo Díaz Ordáz to expand Mexican drug enforcement. Since that time at least, the United States has followed a policy of criminalization, interdiction, and de facto drug-consumption acceptance, given that American society has been reluctant to pay the price of a full-fledged attempt at zero tolerance. This has transferred a significant share of the burden of drug enforcement to the supply side of the equation, and in consequence, to the foreign policy domain.

Until very recently, an overwhelming proportion of the drugs consumed in the United States have come from abroad, and since the mid-1980s, from or through Mexico. The exception today begins to become marijuana, where U.S. production has probably now surpassed imports, though not by much. Drug traffickers and organized crime have reached the same conclusions as everyone else – i.e., the easiest way to enter the United States, for people, goods, services and money — is from Mexico. Thus a disproportionate concentration of U.S. drug enforcement efforts abroad have centered on Mexico. The only exception has perhaps been Plan Colombia since the late nineties, but many, including this writer, believe the Clinton-Bush initiative was as much a counterinsurgency effort as a drug enforcement program.

While every Mexican administration since the sixties has piously declared that it intended to intensify its drug enforcement efforts for domestic motivations — drug addiction, corruption, national security, etc — the fact is that the real reason, except possibly for the current president, Felipe Calderón, has always been American persuasion or pressure. It’s not that absent the U.S. factor Mexico would have no drug enforcement policy at all, but rather that the priority attached to it would be much lower.

This has always generated ambivalence in Mexico. From the outset of this period of U.S.-Mexican relations, there has usually been a feeling in Mexico that the United States, because of what Hillary Clinton recently called its “insatiable demand” for drugs, and because of its peculiar gun laws, has created a problem for Mexico that Mexico cannot solve. Mexico puts up the bodies, the boots on the ground, and the money, and Mexico lives with the violent consequences of an American dilemma, which Mexico believes the United States only addresses hypocritically.

This is why in general there is scant support for a tough drug enforcement stance in Mexico; most of the country’s inhabitants tend to think that in this field, at least, Mexico is doing the United States’ dirty work. The only way to get around this challenge has been to fabricate other explanations, which almost always are at best half-truths. This is what has taken place under President Calderón: he has provided several rationales for his crackdown — consumption in Mexico, violence, loss of state control in certain parts of the country, corruption — which, while not totally false, are at best ongoing plagues that the country has managed and lived with for decades. In the case of consumption, the rationale is simply false: Mexican drug use, according to the government’s own statistics, remains remarkably low, and has barely grown over the past decade. Initially, a justification like Calderón’s works well, because it casts the government’s policy as homegrown and domestic-driven; but after a while the weakness of the argument begins to surface, and public opinion starts noticing a substantial gap between the magnitude of the efforts deployed and the reasons for doing so.

It is worthwhile recalling that Mexico has traditionally produced marijuana and heroin, and more recently methamphetamines, but not the most attractive drug from a business perspective: cocaine. Heroin suffers from a ceiling on the number of addicts at any given time, in any given country, although it is a high-value, low-volume merchandise; marijuana is tremendously bulky given the profits it fetches, even if the universe of its consumers can and does expand; only cocaine brings together the business advantages of both drugs, without the inconveniences of either. But since coca leaf does not grow in Mexico, the country is exclusively a trans-shipper to the United States: if the latter did not exist, or did not use cocaine in any of its variations, Mexico’s drug “problem” would almost vanish or, more precisely, be reduced to the traditional use of marijuana and probably the consumption of synthetic drugs by affluent teenagers in night clubs. So again, even the economics of the drug trade make Mexican policy highly U.S.–driven: it is because of American demand that Mexico is “forced” to wage a war on drugs that otherwise it would not have to fight.

All of this serves to show why current U.S. drug policy — i.e., the one in place since the sixties — would have to change in order for the Mexican stance to change. It also explains why it is virtually impossible for Mexico to follow a different policy unilaterally. When in 2005 then-President Vicente Fox attempted to modify the country’s laws to decriminalize the possession of very small quantities of marijuana, heroin, and cocaine, essentially to eliminate the Mexican equivalent of the so-called Rockefeller laws and not imprison minor drug offenders, he met a ferocious resistance from the Bush administration, which in addition to direct pressure also argued that a supposedly imminent immigration reform would be jeopardized (it was never approved anyway). Fox backed down, basically having no choice.

Mexico cannot really hope to alter its drug-enforcement approach while the United States doesn’t act accordingly. We cannot legalize, decriminalize, or move to harm reduction if the United States doesn’t do the same, because we would become, like Zurich in the recent past, a sanctuary for U.S. consumers of one sort or another. We cannot successfully pursue a full-fledged direct onslaught against the cartels — like Calderón has chosen to do — without both failing and paying an enormous price. And while we might be able to return to the tacit modus vivendi of the past, it will not be easy, now that Mexico has asked for American support, and has at least partly received it. Washington will not willingly retract itself from the commitments and praise it has showered on Felipe Calderón if he were to draw back from his war on drugs and search for some type of accommodation (which he seems, by the way, totally opposed to doing). So where does that leave Mexican policy for the second half of the Calderón administration, and Barack Obama’s first term?

If current trends toward medical decriminalization continue, if the Webb Commission in the Senate concludes that some changes in U.S. drug laws are necessary and desirable, and if the Obama administration pursues a de facto harm reduction approach without explicitly stating it, there may be a way for Mexico to extricate itself from its current, tragic predicament. Otherwise, though, there does not seem to be any accessible, affordable, and acceptable exit strategy from the current war. And Mexico will continue to pay an exorbitant cost for having plunged, with U.S. support and encouragement, into a war with no ostensible victory in sight.

By taking on all of the cartels, all the time, throwing the Mexican military at them, and obviously not engaging with means to achieve his ends, Calderón has painted himself into a corner. The end is obviously not to eradicate drug production or trans-shipment in Mexico, but rather, to limit local processing and acreage, and to sufficiently raise the cost of using Mexican territory as an entryway to the United States to “push” the cartels away from Mexico toward other routes. The two aims require three ingredients: an effective police force for domestic law enforcement; an effective military to seal off land, sea, and air frontiers; and considerable U.S. support in training, equipment, intelligence, detection, and so forth. None of these are available at this time, not will they be at any time soon. We will now see why.

For all practical purposes, Mexico does not have a national police force. There are roughly 2,500 municipal police corps, thirty two state police forces, and since 1999, a Federal Police (PF) actually made of two army brigades, with about 18,000 operational troops. The country also has a federal investigative police, the AFI, modeled on the FBI, which was supposed to be merged with the PF, though this ultimately proved impossible. The roughly 350,000 members of the municipal and state police departments are basically useless as law enforcement agencies, and even more so as drug enforcement entities. The last three governments (Zedillo, Fox and Calderón) have known this, which is why they all tried, so far unsuccessfully, to build a national police, along the lines of Chile’s Carabineros, or Colombia’s Policía Nacional. Calderón founded a new police academy in 2007, but as of this writing, and in response to direct questions posed by Human Rights Watch, for example, his government has stated that not one single combat-ready “cop” has graduated from the six-month instruction (woefully insufficient, in any case) that the academy provides. The only graduates are “intelligence analysts,” which Mexico has anyway in its National Security and Intelligence Center (CISEN). As long as any Mexican president can use the army to do police work and drug-enforcement jobs, there is no reason to believe that he won’t do so. And the National Police Force will remain a work in progress.

The Mexican Army is one of the most respected institutions in the country, but the government makes too much of this. Firstly, poll questions can be formulated in many different ways, and depending on the poll, the army is more or less admired. Secondly, it is liked more where it isn’t stationed than where it is; and thirdly, Mexican society knows full well that the corruption scandals in the military do not just belong to the past (Zedillo’s drug czar, General Gutiérrez Rebollo, was arrested in 1998 for drug trafficking). Moreover, the modern Mexican military, founded after the Revolution in the twenties, has always been held on a short leash by the civilian leadership of the country. The non-military presidents, from 1946 onward, preferred to compress — or depress — the training, equipment, professionalism and overall combat readiness of the army, largely as a way of forestalling any temptations it might have had to intervene in politics. Unlike in much of the rest of Latin America, the Mexican military is not an aristocratic corps, nor have they staged any coups or pronunciamientos in nearly a century. But this, then, is deliberately an army, navy, and air force unready for sophisticated, complex, multifaceted, rapid deployment operations like sealing off the southern border by air, land, and sea.

Mexico’s aerospace effort began in the early nineties, with P-4 flights piloted by Mexicans but with an American advisor on board; aerostatic balloons, mini-AWACs, radars and swift boat pursuit groups were set up in the late nineties; more mini-AWACs were purchased from Brazil in 2001, but all of this has largely come to naught. Today, many experts believe that although according to some intelligence sources, small plane drug shipments from Colombia and Central America have already dropped significantly, Mexico, with massive U.S. support, could go further and create the equivalent of a no-fly zone in the south, where every unauthorized and unidentified aircraft would ipso facto be shot down without further notice. Maritime surveillance is more complex, because of the endless Mexican coastlines. Even if the navy only patrolled in the south, it would be spread across three seas: the Pacific, the Caribbean, and the Gulf of Mexico, and detecting all night time incursions, semi-submersible vessels, and other stealthy intruders would be virtually impossible. Again, the only way to do this is with the type of U.S. support that allowed Washington to cut off the South Florida routes in the mid-eighties. Finally, the land border, given the incredible porousness of the Mexico-Guatemala border, might best be sealed off at the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, as the intelligence agency has contemplated since 2004, but again, this also would involve American cooperation, now in the Mexican hinterland, no longer just at the border.

Which brings us to the third issue, which we have in fact already touched upon repeatedly: U.S. cooperation. The Merida Initiative may have been, as both governments hailed it, a watershed in that on the one hand Washington accepted its responsibility in the drug quagmire (although it in fact has always acknowledged this since the sixties), and Mexico finally requested and received far greater sums of American aid than before (although in relative terms this is arguable: see Zedillo’s receipt and return of more than sixty Vietnam-vintage “Huey” helicopters in the nineties). But this is nowhere near significant enough for the challenges outlined above.

In addition to U.S. budgetary reasons, it is insufficient because Mexico does not want more, given the stringent conditions which generally accompany American aid. Most importantly, and in stark contrast to Plan Colombia, where nearly one thousand U.S. personnel (openly official, or “contractual”) have been operating for a decade, Mexico will not accept American “boots on the ground.” This is perfectly understandable, given the two countries’ history, but it is contradictory. The Pentagon and Congress will not readily provide sophisticated technology to Mexican forces if they subsequently switch sides, as the infamous “Zetas” did in the late nineties; they want to do the vetting themselves. Worse still, it costs immensely more to train Mexican forces in the United States, than to send U.S. trainers to Mexico. And lastly, in order for intelligence cooperation to function effectively, the level of trust, cooperation and real-time, on-the-ground collaboration in pursuit operations must reach levels unheard of until now. None of this is anywhere near the realm of the possible, and in all likelihood will not become feasible any time soon.

Hence the paradox U.S. drug policy has wrought. As long as criminalization, its hypocrisy, and serious discussions of the alternatives are banned from public discussion, U.S. drug policy will remain what it has been for the past forty years: a supply-side, foreign-policy, nickel-and-dime war waged beyond U.S. borders. In the case of Mexico, for a series of specific reasons, that policy, as well as domestic Mexican political considerations, have led to a war that cannot be won and should not be waged. Unless the United States is ready and able to provide much more support for Mexico, with a much longer-standing commitment, and with far greater “cultural” obstacles, than Plan Colombia. And in addition, Mexico has to let itself be helped if it wants to win the war of choice that President Calderón has embarked upon. It would have to accept conditions and terms of U.S. support that have always been anathema in the past, and that Mexican society is probably not yet ready to countenance.

There is no optimum solution to this conundrum. But the only conceivable alternative lies in a change in U.S. drug policy: not demand reduction, or supply interdiction, but decriminalization, harm reduction, adjusting laws to reality instead of uselessly attempting the opposite, and understanding that the last thing the United States needs is a fire next door.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In his lead essay, Jorge Castañeda observes that the consequences of the U.S. drug war fall unevenly on Mexico. The U.S. taste for drugs — and for prohibition — are the chief causes of drug-related crime in Mexico, he asserts. This creates a problem that Mexico cannot solve on its own. U.S. assistance has been insufficient, and Mexican resources are too few to take on the drug cartels effectively. Even if the resources were available, the militarization of life in Mexico would be politically unacceptable to most Mexicans, who have enjoyed a relatively tranquil military in contrast to many other Latin American countries. Another approach to the war on drugs would simply be decriminalization, but again, Mexico cannot unilaterally decriminalize, because it would face severe diplomatic consequences from the United States and possibly become a refuge for addicts. The United States must lead the way toward solving this problem, which is of its own making.

Response Essays

  • Stephanie Hanson suggests that decriminalizing drugs, and possibly legalizing marijuana, is a promising strategy for reducing drug-related violence. Yet she acknowledges that coordination problems exist between the United States and Mexico on this issue, and she suggests that a second-best option may be to enforce stricter controls on guns leaving the United States and heading to Mexico.

  • James Roberts faults Prof. Castañeda for taking the easy way out: Drug legalization might not be much work for the elites, but it will ruin lives and degrade regional democracies. It won’t stop violence and may even increase it. The United States and Mexico should work together to fight Mexican drug cartels because the survival of the Mexican state is at stake, along with American lives and American morals. Mexico in particular needs to step forward, reform its corrupt government and enforcement agencies, and get its own house in order, rather than seeking U.S.-based solutions.

  • Ted Galen Carpenter commends Jorge Castañeda for recognizing the nature of the problem that besets his country, but he suggests a more radical solution: As long as U.S. prohibition remains in place, he writes, violent criminals will dominate the trade in narcotics. Only ending prohibition can solve the international problems of the drug trade. Militarization of enforcement simply escalates the violence and corruption, because the cartels have enough money to bribe and/or fight their way through any escalation we’d be prepared to mount.