Mexican Leader Tough on Drugs (At Least for Now)

Mexican President Felipe Calderón’s recent dispatch of military units to the states of Michoacán, Tijuana, and Guerrero is being hailed by some observers as a forceful launch for the new government’s energized anti-drug platform. U.S. Attorney-General Alberto Gonzales is among the many who effusively have praised Mexico City’s actions, while Calderón himself boastfully declared on January 15 that there has been “more peace and certainty” throughout the country since he began his term. Early results from Michoacán have demonstrated some success, with the arrests of several mid-level traffickers. The Tijuana operation also brought on the disarmament of the entire local police force in an attempt to uncover growing numbers of corrupt officers suspected of collaborating with the cartels. On January 18, Mexican authorities announced the capture of Pedro Diaz Parada the ringleader of the Oaxaca “Diaz Parada” cartel. This gang is suspected of controlling drug trafficking through seven southern states and is the first high-profile arrest of Calderón’s newly sparked crusade. The following day’s extraditions of four infamous drug lords to the U.S. inspired Attorney General Gonzales to call the transfers “unprecedented in their scope and importance.” Despite some initial successes in the raids, Calderón must remember that he is facing a complex problem that has been repeatedly tackled by previous administrations without any lasting success.

An Immediate Impact
After taking office on December 1, Calderón optimistically pledged to combat Mexico’s drug problem by restoring order on the streets. Immediately following his inauguration, he unleashed over 6,000 federal troops on Michoacán, a city notorious for its gang-related bloodshed involving cultivators of opium and marijuana. The following days saw the arrests and, in some cases, the deaths of several high-profile dealers, as the military battled to regain control of drug-infested regions. The progress registered by Calderón’s campaign prompted subsequent action in Tijuana after he ordered 3,300 troops to the border city on January 3. At the close of the Michoacán operation the same day, a battle-clad Calderón triumphantly stated his ultimate goal of “[recovering] the security, not only of Michoacán or Baja California, but of every region in Mexico that is threatened by organized crime.” Smaller clusters of soldiers recently invaded Acapulco and two smaller cities in the coastal state of Guerrero on January 10, seeking similar outcomes to what were billed as anti-drug missions.

A Complex Issue
The drug problem is one of the most pressing issues facing Mexico today. Grossing an estimated $142 billion annually in the U.S. and Canada, profits from the production, transportation, and distribution of illicit substances have skyrocketed in recent years. In 2005, the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy announced that Mexico had surpassed Colombia as the hemisphere’s primary narcotics producer and distributor, supplying the U.S. with large amounts of cocaine, marijuana, methamphetamines, and heroin. The fight for control over the vast industry has fueled bloody rivalries among Mexican gangs. Escalating disputes over lucrative smuggling routes and franchises have resulted in the deaths of over 2,000 Mexicans in 2006. The use of intimidation tactics by the cartels along with widespread police corruption has led to the virtual takeover by drug bosses of several Mexican cities’ civic operations.

Mexico is not the only hemispheric country struggling to eliminate drugs from society. Similarly, Washington has waged its own “war on drugs” throughout the years. Formally beginning with the Nixon administration, the U.S. made the extermination of drugs a matter of the highest priority. A series of specialized bureaucratic structures such as the Drug Enforcement Agency in 1973 and the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) in 1988 were heavily financed efforts in response to the rising influence of drugs in American everyday society. In 2006, the U.S. budgeted a weighty $12.4 billion to address the drug problem, yet despite their efforts, there continues to be a constant demand and a steady supply for a wide range of illegal drugs throughout the United States.

The pledge to eradicate the drug problem did not begin with Calderón. His predecessor, Vicente Fox experienced great difficulty in dealing with the drug problem, even after launching a comparatively promising start to his anti-narcotics’ campaign upon taking office. Like Calderón, Fox began his presidential term vowing to fight the corruption and social delinquency spawned by the drug industry. After an initial string of high silhouette arrests, the destruction of thousands of acres of marijuana crops, and the removal of large numbers of corrupt police and government officials, U.S. authorities couldn’t praise Fox enough for his strong stance. Nevertheless, over the course of his six-year term, attempts by Fox to curb drug traffickers became increasingly intermittent, leading to increased violence in various parts of the country, as former underlings battled to fill the vacuum created by the capture of top bosses.

Signs of Trouble
One would think that as a result of the overwhelming odds he is facing, Calderón would reach out across the political spectrum in order to unify Mexico’s riposte to this universally recognized and increasingly severe social problem. Upon inspection, it appears that banal political undercurrents led Calderón to select Michoacán and Tijuana as the first sites for his interventions under his anti-drug offensive. Both states are scheduled to conduct all-important gubernatorial elections within the next twelve months, and a successful outcome by Calderón’s PAN party will likely lift its electoral prospects in his home state of Michoacán, where the PAN has only managed to lag a distant third behind PRI and the PRD. Although not as politically shaky, a solid showing in Baja would also fortify constituent support for Calderón and the PAN. In response to the growing skepticism from his critics, his recent involvement in Guerrero marked the first state where the military was sent in which no elections are scheduled in the near future. However, it should not go unmentioned that Calderón has not yet intervened in any PRI-controlled state, which are generally regarded as generating equally grave drug issues.

Signs of difficult times lie ahead, even with Calderón’s only minimal initial progress. Though the Michoacán sortie is being hailed by Mexico City as a major success, reports soon arrived notifying the press that no cocaine – the major Mexican drug export to the U.S. – was confiscated. The marijuana found during the raids presents another obstacle, as the field-grown plant’s resistance to pesticides as well as to the uprooting techniques used in cultivation demonstrates the growing sophistication on the part of the campesinos in the evolution of drug-trafficking technology.

In Tijuana, death threats have been issued by angry cartel bosses to the unarmed local police, intensifying the potential for a violent eruption. After initially claiming that Calderón’s decision to order the military intervention had halted the random drug killings, Mexico City soon recanted, now conceding that four have been murdered since the deployment of the armed forces in Tijuana. Skeptics are calling for less political grandstanding of the kind which Calderón exhibited in his Michoacán speech, and more definitive action.

Future Prospects
To succeed where Fox failed, Calderón will need to continue to vigorously confront Mexico’s drug problem, acknowledging that publicized initial exploits do not necessarily guarantee long-term achievement, but are more likely to be nothing less than politics. Reports indicate that the Mexican president is considering installing a bureaucratic structure similar to the U.S. drug czar’s office, which runs the ONDCP. If he does this, he would be wise to set aside all of his well-noted political craft in order to intervene appropriately when dealing with a common problem which bedevils both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border.

Just as it was with Fox and his predecessors, it is likely that the drug war is a fight Calderón cannot win. Mexico possesses far fewer resources and a much more exiguous anti-drug infrastructure than the United States, which, despite all of its advantages, has encountered few victories in its long-term losing war against drugs. The Mexican president is dangerously putting much of his modest political capital behind what has to be seen as a tall order. Martial law and military forays may produce temporary tranquility, but the status quo relating to corrupt local police forces will soon be restored. Due to lingering controversy surrounding the 2006 election as well as his hard-line stance in favor of law and order, the fate of Calderón and his presidency could ultimately be determined over the next few months, depending on how the new president fares in the face of his professed determination, although by no means proven fact, to fight the drug problem in a non-photo-op manner.