Foreign Policy / Politics

No, CNN, Mexico’s drug strategy is not working…

Last week CNN ran a column by Mariano Castillo entitled “Is Mexico’s’ drug war strategy working?” as part of a continuing series about the ongoing conflict in Mexico. My response to that question would be an emphatic “no, Mexico’s drug war strategy is not working!” Castillo’s article begins by noting that “on paper” the Mexican government and its armed forces have landed some impressive blows against the cartels. Twenty-two of the 37 most wanted drug traffickers are now out of business, including 16 leaders of the hyper-violent Zetas cartel. While this high-value target strategy has made for headlines that might give the illusion that the government is winning its war against the cartels, I would point out there is a third, innocent side in the ongoing battle: the Mexican citizens, and they are most definitely losing.

The majority of Mexico’s citizenry is innocent in this current conflict, but it is these people who shoulder the largest burden in the Mexican government’s war against the cartels. According to the CNN article, Mexican citizens have suffered through the loss of approximately 50,000 people, an estimated $50 billion in additional security costs (money and aid that could have gone to socio-economic programs to alleviate some of their suffering), and countless human rights violations. Therefore, I argue that the correct question is: if the Mexican people have sacrificed this much already, is it worth it to them to see the current strategy (centered around armed confrontation of the cartels by the Mexican armed forces and law enforcement) through until the cartels have been defeated?

We will find out soon enough because current Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s six-year term comes to an end this year and he cannot stand for immediate re-election. Therefore, the Mexican people will get their say in what the future strategy against the cartels will be during the 2012 Mexican presidential election. Undeterred by criticism, Calderon and the supports of his militant strategy (on both side of the US-Mexico border) claim that the Mexican government now has a chance to win its war against the cartels. I believe that such a statement is akin to the fallacy that “we are winning the war on drugs.” It is an overly optimistic statement made by politicians, when those who live on the frontlines of the battlefield each and every day know that it is far from the truth.

The cost of the “progress” made against the cartels has already been outlined. And, in January of this year, Calderon himself admitted that insecurity is still one of the main concerns of Mexican citizens. This is a significant admission, directly from the man responsible for this six-year long armed confrontation between the state and the cartels. Possibly more worrisome, according to Castillo, is that the partial death toll that was recently released for 2011 is projected to set a new record for number of deaths in a year for Mexico. In my opinion, Mexicans have endured more than necessary. It seems many of them agree, as they are making their voices heard leading up to the July election.  Peace movements and public demonstrations have become more widespread since the government and armed forces originally began their offensive in 2005. Recently, local and international groups, including Human Rights Watch, are releasing reports on and filing complaints alleging hundreds of human rights violations and the mishandling of human rights abuse complaints that have been filed in the past. Sadly, I think that such allegations will not adequately be confronted or resolved until the waves of violence caused by Calderon’s militant campaign cease.

While I have not yet heard an assertion from Mexican politicians or high-ranking army officials that they are “winning” the war against the cartels, Castillo notes that they believe the tide is turning. Furthermore, Castillo adds that Andrew Selee of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute, a Washington, DC based think tank, shares their idea that the war has reached a turning point and significant progress against the cartels can be made. Selee stated that we should look at “the glass as half-full.”

I have a great deal of respect for Mr. Selee and the Mexico Institute’s work, but I am not as optimistic about the outcome of a continuation of a militarized campaign against the cartels. In fact, I directly oppose it. There have been too many lives lost and dollars spent on weapons—dollars that I believe should be directed at social and economic programs. If 50,000 lives is the cost of getting to a “turning point,” what will the final cost be? I think that the Mexican people who live through these daily horrors would agree with me when I say, I don’t want to find out because the cost already has been far too great. The citizens of Mexican deserve a full glass, not one that is debatably half-full or half-empty. At the present, half a glass should indicate to Mexico, the United States, and anyone monitoring the situation that Mexico’s current drug strategy is not working. It should also demonstrate that the same answer is appropriate to what I believe to be the more accurate question: should the Mexican people, who already have sacrificed so much, continue to see this strategy through until the cartels are defeated?

– Max Rava