Shannon K. O'Neil

Latin America's Moment

O'Neil analyzes developments in Latin America and U.S. relations in the region.

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Welcome Move on Mexico's Drug Wars

by Shannon K. O'Neil
March 24, 2010

I published this brief on CFR’s First Take. 091202-N-0696M-122

On their high octane visit to Mexico City yesterday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and senior administration officials formally announced changes in U.S.-Mexico security cooperation that had been in the works for months. The U.S. delegation–including chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, and top officials from the DEA, Justice Department, border security, and other agencies–met with their Mexican counterparts to officially unveil a “new stage” in bilateral cooperation.

Merida 2.0
The new program will build on the Merida Initiative, a Bush administration policy passed in 2008 that allocated $1.4 billion over three years to fight organized crime and violence across Mexico and Central America. The joint strategy will expand beyond the previous military focus on dismantling drug trafficking organizations and reforming law enforcement institutions to incorporate initiatives to improve border surveillance and to address social and economic factors that underpin the violence. These new strategic priorities will increase vigilance of vehicles going south (not just north), while also moving much of the vigilance away from the actual border through programs to certify cargo at plants. It also means that U.S.-Mexico cooperation will now include local-level operations, providing technical and financial support to local police community-based initiatives alike.

The starkest shift is in how funding will be spent: While over half of the allocated Merida funds has gone to military equipment and training, most of the requested $330 million for the program’s 2011 budget will be targeted to Mexico’s judicial reforms and programs on good governance.

Expect Bumps in the Road
Military to military cooperation will continue to be an important part of the relationship. This makes many uneasy in Mexico, and it is always an easy target for politicians looking to rile up nationalist sentiment. From the U.S. side, worries will continue regarding rising allegations of human rights abuses by the military and others, and the chicken and egg problem of dealing with the weak existing institutions (that permit, for instance, human rights abuses) while simultaneously trying to transform and strengthen them.
Another potential sticking point is the U.S. recalcitrance to address the demand that drives the illegal drug market. As Secretary Clinton made clear in her curt negative response to a question of decriminalization or legalization of drugs at the press conference following the announcement, this subject remains a political non-starter in Washington. More room exists to address the flows of money and guns south, though here, too, powerful U.S. lobbies limit the extent of U.S. actions.

Despite these potential pitfalls, this new strategy to combat drug trafficking and limit today’s extreme violence is welcome. A military solution to a police and judicial problem was never going to change things over the long term.

Yet while attaining these ultimate goals is now more feasible with the broader focus, the chosen path is also much more ambitious. Attempting to address the complex nature of the drug trade and organized crime in Mexico is not easy. Many of the problems undermining current bilateral efforts–incompetence and corruption in Mexico’s police and court system, the lack of legal economic opportunities for Mexico’s youth, limited and uneven access to education, and underfunding in public health and other community programs–are difficult to change.

The results of this more comprehensive approach will only appear in the longer term. It is the next generation of young people that will benefit from better schools, better jobs, and from prevention programs for at-risk youth. Realistically, it will also take a generation to transform Mexico’s police and courts, creating systems where impunity is the exception not the rule.

The question remaining is whether, as the murders pile up daily along the border and elsewhere in Mexico, politicians in both countries will have the patience to see this strategy through. If they do, there is a chance ten years from now that things will be better in Mexico. If they don’t, both countries will be fighting the same drug war in a decade.

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  • Posted by Mike Charlton

    I can certainly understand Secretary Clinton’s refusal to discuss either decriminalization or legalization as a means to reduce drug demand. First, it is something of a third rail in political discussion but more importantly, we have no real idea whether it would work. We might find out more about that alternative if California legalizes marijuana sales but at this point there is no data to support such a move. We also can only speculate whether such a move would actually reduce the violence in Mexico; if there is any truth to the assertion that the cartels are already involved in US domestic drug production, then the answer would almost certainly be no.

    This, however, is not to say that we can’t reduce drug demand. The last year has seen significant increas in research funding into methamphetamine addiction for which there is currently no proven therapy. The cartels manufacture and create most of the methamphetamine intended for US consumption. There have been an increasing number of steps taken by the US judicial system to divert drug offenders from prison to rehabilitation and an increasing sense that we incarcerate far too many drug offenders.

    What is missing, however, from the discussion is the extent to which reducing drug demand increases our security and thus, is in our national interest to pursue. There seems to be no interest in discussing the real financial impact of US drug consumption on the Mexican economy. We can read in American newspapers that drug monies contribute anywhere from $12 billion (General Berry McCaffrey) to as much as $35 billion or more but we have no way of assessing which of those extremes is more accurate.

    We can’t seem to discuss to what extent our drug consumption supports the Mexican economy, if it does, and what effect might reducing demand have on increasing emigration from Mexico to the US.

    I guess in short, I am glad that there is some sense that we, as a country, bear some responsibility but we need more of of a committment to understanding that relationship and what we can realistically hope to achive.

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