Mexico’s War of Choice

Three years ago this month, Mexican President Felipe Calderón donned military fatigues and declared a full-scale war on drugs, ordering the Army into Mexico’s streets, highways, and villages. Back then, Calderón received broad support, both domestically and from abroad, for what was viewed as a brave, overdue, and necessary decision. Tangible results were predicted to come soon. Moreover, George W. Bush’s administration quickly promised American support – the so-called Mérida Initiative, signed in February, 2007 – and public-opinion polls showed that Calderón had, in one fell swoop, left behind the travails of his close and questioned electoral victory, gaining the trust of the Mexican people. But today, things look very different. At a recent debate with, among others, Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek and CNN, Asa Hutchison, the former head of the United States Drug Enforcement Agency, the main question was whether the US was to blame for Mexico’s drug war. I pointed out that neither the US nor Mexico was to blame; only Calderón was. Just like Bush’s invasion of Iraq, Mexico’s drug war was a war of choice. It was a war that Calderón should not have declared, that cannot be won, and that is doing enormous damage to Mexico. Today, a growing number of Mexicans shares this view. As the war drags on, positive results are nowhere to be seen, while violence in the country is escalating. On December 9, for example, according to the daily newspaper Reforma , 40 people died in firefights between police and army forces and the drug cartels. More than 6,500 fatalities will have occurred this year alone, topping last year’s total, which was double that in 2007. I believe that Calderón declared this war because he felt the need to legitimize himself before Mexico’s people, given the doubts surrounding his victory in the 2006 presidential election – doubts that his supporters, like me, never shared. And I believe that it is unwinnable because it fails to comply with the tenets of the Powell Doctrine, elaborated 18 years ago by Colin Powell, then Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, in relation to the first Gulf War. Powell enumerated four conditions that must be satisfied in order to succeed in a military operation. One was deployment of overwhelming force, which the Mexican military lacks. Another was definable victory, which one never has in a war on drugs (a term first used by Richard Nixon in the late 1960’s). The third condition was an exit strategy at the outset, which Calderón lacks, because he can neither withdraw in defeat in his own country, nor withdraw and declare victory. Calderón still does enjoy the support of the public – Powell’s fourth condition – but he is beginning to lose it. Over the past three years, more than 15,000 Mexicans have died in the drug war. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the United Nations Human Rights Council Universal Peer Review have all documented, with more or less evidence and precision, a proliferation of abuses and an absence of accountability for them. Of the more than 220,000 people arrested on drug charges since Calderón took office, three-quarters have been released. Only 5% of the remaining 60,000 or so have been tried and sentenced. Meanwhile, acreage used for poppy and marijuana production has risen, according to the US government, to 6,900 and 8,900 hectares, respectively. Restrictions on the transshipment of cocaine from South America to the US have made only a dent in street prices, which spiked in 2008 but have stabilized in 2009 at levels well below their historical highs in the 1990’s. According to the US government’s International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR), opium, heroin, and marijuana seizures have decreased since Calderón began his drug war, and drug production in Mexico is on the rise. In 2008, according to the US State Department, potential heroin production reached 18 metric tons, up from 13 metric tons in 2006, as production of opium gum rose to 149 metric tons, from 110 metric tons. Cannabis production grew by 300 metric tons over this period, to 15,800 metric tons. In other words, since Calderón began his war on drugs, more Mexican drugs are on the market, not less. There is no easy way out of this quagmire. The National Police Force that Mexico’s last three presidents – Ernesto Zedillo, Vicente Fox and Calderón – have tried to build is still far from ready to replace the Army in drug-enforcement tasks. American assistance, as a US General Accounting Office report made clear in early December, is barely trickling in. Indeed, by some accounts, only 2% of the projected $1.3 billion in aid has been disbursed. Perhaps the least bad solution would be to proceed by default: gradually allow the drug war to vanish from television screens and newspapers, and have its place taken by other wars: on poverty, on petty crime, and for economic growth. This may not be ideal, but it is better than prolonging a fight that cannot be won.

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