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A “War of Choice” on Drugs in Mexico?

Is the violence raging south of the U.S. border the fault of drug cartels or a consequence of Mexico’s President Felipe Calderón’s war waged against them? While it may seem odd to blame authorities for the violence that results when criminals resist government attempts to curtail their illegal activity, that’s the viewpoint of one former Mexican government official, who recently called Calderón’s efforts a “war of choice.”

At a panel discussion sponsored by The George Washington University and the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College, Jorge Castañeda, who served under Calderón’s predecessor Vicente Fox as foreign minister of Mexico from 2000 to 2003, said the campaign was a political decision rather than a security necessity. “It had nothing to do with drugs, nothing to do with security, nothing to do with violence,” Castañeda said.

Though Castañeda suggested that Mexico would do better to address the problem through a national police force, he also apparently sees nothing wrong with having drug cartels operate freely in the country. “The ‘live and let live’ approach to drugs had been working very well for the previous 40 or 50 years; there was no good reason to kick over the beehive,” he told event attendees.

Drug-related violence in Mexico, however, had been increasing since 2005, prior to the crackdown by Calderón, who didn’t take office until December 2006. Media reports show that the number of drug-related murders jumped 18 percent to 1,537 in 2005 from the year prior and steadily increased until peaking at more than 5,000 drug-related killings last year. 

Some analysts attribute the rise in violence to the political shift away from the 71-year-old autocratic rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, that occurred when Fox was elected in 2000. These analysts say the PRI both regulated and protected the cartels. 

Castañeda maintains that Calderón hoped to use the war on drugs to gain the support of the armed forces and legitimize himself “in the eyes of a society that had only elected him with a third of the vote and where another third or another half of the population didn’t think that he had been elected.”

The results of the 2006 election were initially contested by Calderón’s opponent, but Calderón’s victory was ultimately validated by the Federal Electoral Tribunal, the body responsible for resolving election disputes in Mexico.

Calderón has given several reasons for the war, such as protecting public safety and putting an end to political corruption. He also has noted that Mexico is no longer just a country of drug transit, but is now also one of consumption.

The United States, which is a huge consumer of Mexico’s illegal drugs, has encouraged its neighbor to fight the drug cartels and has supported Mexico’s efforts, most recently through the Merida Initiative, a multi-year aid package to which the U.S. Congress has already appropriated $700 million primarily to equip the Mexican army with advanced technology like helicopters.

Castañeda took issue not just with the fight itself but with the means by which it has been waged. He said that the army, which has been given the lead in the effort, was never intended to fight wars. It is “an army that historically has been maintained deliberately in a low state of training, equipment, honesty, professionalism, etc.” in an effort to prevent the military from seizing power, he said.

“The efforts of U.S.-Mexican cooperation should be centered much more on the only thing that with time will one day improve Mexico’s drug enforcement capability and security and crime capability, which is a national police force,” Castañeda said.

Mexico currently has approximately 20,000 national police troops, according to Castañeda, and 400,000 municipal and state police. He said the latter are corrupt and should be eliminated in favor of a single national police force, which is the approach that has been pursued in other Latin American countries, such as Colombia and Chile.

Fred Burton, vice president of counterterrorism and corporate security at Stratfor, a global intelligence company, says it may be too late to try such a reorganization in Mexico. In addition to municipal and state police, the country has the Federal Investigations Agency, or Agencia Federal de Investigación (AFI), which is modeled in part on the FBI in the United States, and the Federal Preventive Police, or Policía Federal Preventiva (PFP).

“Old bureaucracies die hard,” Burton told Security Management. “I’m not so sure [that] combining organizations—with as many problems as they have inside of Mexico with the corruption and the cronyism issues—is going to fix things,” Burton says.

He also questions how such an entity would work with the Mexican military, which he says “appears to be the only stabilizing force in the flare-ups of violence as they’ve occurred.”

Planning is hampered by a lack of resources. “One of the discussions I had with a very senior Mexican intelligence officer is, ‘What is the endgame here, meaning what is your 25-year plan?’ And there is nobody looking at that from that far out because, in reality, all you’re looking at is your day-to-day quelling of violence,” Burton says.

Castañeda called for a clarification of the mission. He cited Colombia’s success at eliminating the “collateral damage” of the drug trade, such as kidnappings, violence, and corruption and suggested Mexico might enjoy a similar success. He warned that if the goal was to eradicate drug trafficking in Mexico, then the country would lose.