Jorge G. Castañeda
Mexico Goes to War
May 28, 2007 issue - Felipe Calderon is on a roll these days. Mexico's young president has an approval rating of between 57 percent and 68 percent, according to various polls: twice his score in last year's election. The reason is his war on drugs, which has convinced most of his countrymen and the "commentocracy" that he means business. It's a fight that, according to the media, "had to be waged" and was "too long postponed" against a drug trade that almost "tore the country apart."
So why are so many doubts being voiced in private? Current and former government officials, experts and pundits are quietly questioning the campaign: its name (why call it a "war"?), the wisdom of using the military, the absence of an exit strategy, the budgetary implications and the threat to human rights. Many wonder whether Calderón's new team has really thought the project through and if the entire "war" is more media ploy than strategy.
There's no question Mexico's drug problem is bad and getting worse. Last year about 2,000 drug-related murders took place, and there have already been over 1,000 so far this year. But Ricardo Clemente Vega, the Defense secretary of Calderón's predecessor, Vicente Fox, refused to throw his troops into the fray. Though his military did an outstanding job at intelligence gathering, interdiction and crop eradication, the secretary rejected Fox's entreaties to engage the Army in police-work like interrogations, manning checkpoints, conducting searches and disarmament.
The reasons for refusing were basic: the Mexican military is not trained, equipped or enthusiastic about such chores. And it is much easier to bring the Army out of its barracks than it is to send it back in. Third, Mexicans refused to let the Army become an excuse for postponing a more lasting solution, namely, the creation of an effective, well-trained, well-equipped and well-paid national civilian police force. Critics also recognized that drug work would inevitably discredit the armed forces, as soldiers became abusive after months of being stationed in impoverished areas under high degrees of stress and boredom.
These fears are now being proved right. The controversial president of Mexico's National Human Rights Commission issued a frightening report this week on human-rights violations in the state of Michoacán, where Calderón sent in troops last December. More than 50 serious complaints of abuse by the military were lodged last month, including rapes, beatings and thefts. Calderón has said he will investigate and punish whoever is responsible, but the problem will likely get worse before it gets better.
Does this mean he should have refrained from waging this expensive, dangerous and open-ended war? No. But many critics, including this one, believe that several questions have not been adequately addressed. Mexicans have never been told what we're fighting for. Do we want to defeat and banish the cartels, or just force them back into their lairs? Do we want to spare Mexico (but not the United States) by sealing off Mexico's southern border, thereby rerouting drug shipments from South America to the United States via detours in the Caribbean and the gulf?
Our strategy needs to keep up with the changing nature of the drug problem. In past years the country was only a production and transshipment base; today it has become a drug-consuming society, and most of the violence is now due to gangsters' duking it out over the Mexican (as opposed to U.S.) market. Calderón hasn't publicly addressed any of these issues, so the country can't know if he has resolved them for himself.
The president deserves the benefit of the doubt—but not forever. In the early '70s, President Luis Echeverría unleashed his own drug war in the Pacific coast state of Sinaloa. It lasted a couple of years, was brutal and costly, destroyed entire towns, involved egregious human-rights violations and was extremely effective ... in driving the drug lords south to the state of Jalisco. Mexicans will not stand for another pyrrhic victory like that one, opinion polls notwithstanding. Fox governed with his eyes on the polls, for which he has been roundly and justifiably criticized. Calderón is beginning to do the same thing: his war on drugs is popular, but that is not the best way to gauge its wisdom or effectiveness.