Rehabilitating Mexico’s Drug War: Drug Challenges Rising in the U.S. and Mexico

The U.S. Department of Justice decision yesterday to cease the prosecution of the state-sanctioned use and distribution of medical marijuana constitutes a significant step away from militarized federal enforcement of drug laws, and toward a model more responsive to local needs and in line with international realities. In recent weeks, the international community has grown increasingly critical of the negligible gains and onerous costs brought on by Washington’s forty-year prohibition strategy. Countries from Northern Europe to Latin America have embraced an approach to drug policy emphasizing public health over criminalization through new strategies to reduce harm and treat addiction. The Obama administration now appears ready to de-escalate the “War on Drugs” waged by its predecessors, rejecting prior terminology and relinquishing greater power to the states. However, Washington continues to play a crucial role in setting the tone for a drug policy debate with its southern neighbors, who have suffered the brunt of decades of drug warfare. Even as Washington recedes from its dominant role in the War on Drugs at home, it must reform its policy guidelines abroad to accommodate the regional debates and national initiatives aimed at alleviating the damages of the drug war to many societies throughout the hemisphere.

In Mexico, as widespread violence repeatedly disturbs local communities and dominates international headlines, the fundamental miscalculations of the long and inconclusive drug war in the country have come under increasing scrutiny. The massive militarization of the anti-drug strategy employed by the administration of President Felipe Calderón — and funded by the United States — has scarcely impeded the two-way movement of drugs and weapons across their common border. The influx of funds serves to raise the stakes of the trade, ignite inter-cartel turf wars, profit corrupt public officials, and vastly escalate violence on the border and across major transit points across the country. Ciudad Juárez, just opposite the border from El Paso, was propelled to the top of global murder rate rankings last year; by September of this year, the number of homicides in the city had already surpassed the total for all of 2008. Out of more than 300 homicides in Ciudad Juárez that month, two of the most deadly massacres targeted drug treatment facilities. The recent violence in Mexico’s drug rehabilitation centers has shed light on the troubling spillover of the corruption and violence already afflicting Mexican prisons into the public health system. While recent policy shifts in both the U.S. and Mexico show promise for a transformation of drug policy in the hemisphere, the emergence of this new battleground in Mexico’s war on drugs signals the urgent need for development of the drug treatment system in the country and comprehensive drug reform across the continent.

From Transit to Entrenchment: the Impact of a Militarized Drug Policy in Mexico

The militarized model of international drug interdiction and prohibition pursued by the United States over the past forty years has had critical ramifications for the hemisphere, and continues at no small social and human cost, particularly for its southern neighbors. Drug traffic routes have made significant inroads through Mexico in recent years as an unintended consequence of Plan Colombia, the Washington-Bogotá military initiative to crack down on cocaine traffic in that country. The supply-side strategy of targeting local Colombian “kingpins” and policing Caribbean smuggling routes successfully disrupted the existing trade trajectories. However, since Plan Colombia continuously fell short of addressing the role of the American-side demand factor in the drug trade, new routes into the U.S. quickly arose to replace the old. Officials on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border were troubled by its emerging role as the principal gateway for illicit drugs moving north: not only cocaine, but also marijuana, heroin and methamphetamines.

Since assuming office in late 2006, Mexican President Felipe Calderón has made national security a core objective of his administration, chiefly by means of heightened counter-narcotics policy and unqualified cooperation with the United States. The Bush administration, recognizing what a Congressional Research Service report called the “unprecedented willingness [of the Mexican President] to cooperate with the United States on counterdrug measures,” negotiated the Mérida Initiative, a security cooperation based on the provision of $1.6 billion in American resources over three years to combat drug trafficking and organized crime in Mexico and Central America. The initiative, known derisively as Plan Mexico for its likeness to the bundle of policies at work under the rubric of Plan Colombia of the previous decade, has been the target of significant criticism since its inception. Characteristic of the war on drugs long waged by Washington and replicated abroad by Calderón and others, the Mérida Initiative inadequately addresses root causes of drug trafficking, while inadvertently exacerbating its symptoms.

In addition, Mexico has established itself as a producer country increasingly on par with the Andean region, with expanding marijuana, coca, and poppy fields under cultivation. Bolstered by American training and equipment, the Mexican military has sought to eradicate these illicit crops. However, their efforts have amounted to little more than a scorched earth campaign leaving in its wake far more hardship and alienation of the abused local population than development opportunities for the country’s peasantry. As with the trade routes, the eradication of these crops turns out to be only temporary as long as they continue to turn massive profits; consistent with the balloon effect, targeted pressure in one area simply causes another to expand.

A report by the State Department last week acknowledged the inaction of Mexican authorities in response to the 2,050 complaints received by Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission against the Mexican military for human rights violations. Though 15% of funding under the Mérida Initiative is conditional upon human rights standards set by Washington, this has proven to be an inadequate deterrent to abuses of authority in the armed forces as well as other enforcement agencies. Furthermore, as of now domestic fiscal appropriations are trending away from military equipment in favor of strengthening the rule of law and institution building. This has been insufficient to tackle systemic issues like corruption among public officials. Despite the downgrading of local police forces in favor of martial law enforcement, military misconduct and corruption at high levels of Mexican public institutions continue to undermine the efforts of honest officials.

Raising Stakes at the Border, Mounting Addiction at Home

On the other side of the border, Washington has neglected to uphold its obligations under Mérida to mitigate domestic demand for drugs as well as the movement of unauthorized American arms into Mexico. Although the American discourse on illicit border traffic is overwhelmingly focused on the flows from south to north, the north-south weapons trade plays a key role in arming drug gangs and sustaining the inter-gang violence that has dominated recent Mexican headlines. The militarization of the Mexican law enforcement effort has proven ineffective and unsustainable. It continues to exact high fiscal and social costs even as, according to a 2007 study of the Government Accountability Office, drugs continue to flow “virtually unabated” into the U.S.

Though the impact of the Mérida Initiative on the volume of illicit arms and drug traffic still occurring over the border is negligible, Mexico’s militarized counter-narcotics strategy is largely responsible for the destabilization of the previous drug trafficking regime. Pressure at the border has merely intensified the efforts of traffickers to traverse it, escalating the turf wars among the gangs in order to gain footholds along the border and dislodge competition. On October 4, Journalist Ignacio Alvarado of Ciudad Juárez explained to The Observer:

The collapse of the old narco pyramids has made the drug business much more democratic. There has been de-monopolisation, outsourcing to the street and stimulus to the free market – which of course generates great freedom of opportunity.

The Juárez cartel, also known as La Línea, “is down to its last line of defense” as a target of both the Mexican military and rival Sinaloa cartel, according to Alfredo Quijano, editor of local newspaper El Norte. The decline of La Línea has presented an opportunity for the emergence and growth of rival Juárez trafficking factions, whose determination to secure a place in the enduring market for illicit drugs in that city is the source of much of its violence.

As drug traffickers intensify their efforts to elude counter-narcotic enforcement forces and to best their rivals, they have accelerated, consciously or not, a new front further entrenching Mexico’s illicit drug trade: domestic drug consumption and addiction. Mexico’s National Addiction Study, completed in 2008, found that drug addiction, while still minor in Mexico as compared to the United States, had risen 51% in the past six years. Furthermore, officials acknowledged that this is likely an underestimation due to the intrinsic dangers of collating information in turbulent border states such as Sinaloa and Baja California. A 2007 report by the Latin American Network of Drug Researchers (REDLA/OAS) found that cocaine, heroin, methamphetamines and inhalant use along the border, where consumption and addiction are the highest, mirror usage patterns in the southern United States, affirming the National Survey’s argument that long-term exposure to drugs is a key risk factor for addiction.

The convergence of these two trends — rising inter-gang violence and drug addiction — can be seen in the recent spate of attacks on Mexican drug treatment facilities. On September 2, 2009, gunmen lined up and shot recovering addicts against the wall of the Casa Aliviane center in Ciudad Juárez, killing 18 and wounding others. This was the country’s largest massacre in six months and one of at least six attacks on drug rehab centers in the past year. Barely two weeks later a shooting at the Anexo de Vida facility, also in Ciudad Juárez, left ten dead including the director and doctor. State officials verified that the patient victims were linked to local drug cartels and were likely using the centers as hideouts from rival gangs. Five Sinaloa gang members were arrested for their involvement in the El Aliviane shooting at the end of the month. The conversion of rehabilitation centers to gang hideouts and even recruitment centers reflects the spread of the drug war violence and corruption to yet another sector: public health. The raids on the drug rehabilitation system by Mexican drug traffickers, and the resulting bloodshed, demand the attention of both Mexican and American policymakers committed to diminishing the substantial social cost of the drug war.

The recent upsurge of drug-related violence, corruption of public officials, violations of human rights of the local population by the military and, in spite of all efforts, the continued flow of drug traffic, has disillusioned many Mexican analysts with the current downward trajectory of the drug war. According to a Cabinet of Strategic Communication poll taken in July, the majority of Mexican respondents believe the underworld is winning the drug war; little more than a quarter of those polled believe the federal government has the upper hand. While the majority of Mexicans remain skeptical of the potential of alternative drug policy strategies, a poll of Monterrey residents taken by Milenio in April suggests potentially transformative change: the majority of young people believe regulation or legalization could help end the drug violence.

Re-Evaluating Mexican Drug Policy: the Decriminalization Shift

Public figures in Mexico have challenged the current policy as well, joining the growing ranks of hemispheric leaders calling for a re-evaluation of the Washington-led War on Drugs. Early this year the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, led by former presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, César Gaviria of Colombia, and Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico, urged a “paradigm shift.” This shift would overhaul the U.S. model of drug prohibition and penalization that for decades has dominated the region in favor of the European Union model of harm reduction and treatment. Former Mexican president Vicente Fox also spoke out this spring in favor of decriminalizing marijuana, a policy initiative he sponsored in 2006 while still in office but, under pressure from the Bush administration, refused to sign once the bill had passed Congress.

In late August, President Calderón signed into law a similar bill to the one first proposed by Fox three years earlier, well-known in the U.S. for its provision to decriminalize small amounts of drugs including marijuana, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine for personal use. The decriminalization measure serves to formalize the de facto delineation between drug users, small-time dealers, and large-scale traffickers that has emerged from the realities of drug crime enforcement in the country. Prior to the passage of this bill, Mexicans caught with small amounts of illicit substances could expect little worse than a shake-down from the police, as courts and prisons were already far too backlogged to warrant pursuing petty cases. According to the Public Safety Secretary, of the 21,456 people apprehended for possession from 2004 to 2007, 20,371 were released without charge. However, while it aims to shield drug users from police extortion, the Ley de Narcomenudeo grants unprecedented authority to potentially corrupt municipal agencies to persecute “narcomenudeo,” or petty drug dealing, in order to free up the federal police force and judiciary to focus on major trafficking. Notwithstanding the occasional nod to public health strategies and the concept of harm reduction, the law concerns itself principally with the allocation of law enforcement resources to relieve the current burden on judicial and penitentiary systems.

Even this meager step towards re-evaluating national drug policy has been interpreted in hyperbolic terms by Americans on both sides of the debate. Mexico’s “decriminalization law,” as it was understood in the United States, dealt a significant blow to Washington’s strictly prohibitionist War on Drugs. It was lauded by reformers and censured by drug war advocates such as Julie Myers Wood, head of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement under President George W. Bush, who expressed her disapproval of Mexico for “just giving up.” San Diego Police Chief William Lansdowne insisted to the local Union-Tribune that “it defies logic why they would pass a law that will clearly encourage drug use.” President Obama has reserved judgment on the new Mexican legislation, instead adopting a characteristically cautious “wait-and-see” attitude. However, his continued funding of the troubled Mérida Initiative suggests he is unwilling to deviate significantly from the established trajectory of Washington’s drug policy in the hemisphere.

The new drug legislation has been met with relative ambivalence within Mexico, as lawmakers, policy experts, and public officials strive to assess its likely impact and possible shortcomings. The most vocal opposition to the decriminalization measure has come from vested interest groups, such as the directors and staff of drug treatment facilities, who share the concerns of Chief Lansdowne that the law will lift the cultural stigma associated with drug use and encourage more widespread consumption. By decriminalizing limited amounts of all drugs in the Mexican market, the new law diverges from other recent drug legislation in the region, which differentiate drugs based on addictiveness and harm, raising concerns that lawmakers are unresponsive to the realities of drug use and only nominally interested in substantive reform.

The reformers of Mexico’s Collective for an Integrated Drug Policy (CUPIHD) are in favor of the legal distinction between drug users and drug dealers, and they support the removal of mandatory rehabilitation sentences for third possession offenders, a measure sponsored by both Calderón and Fox. However, they argue that the dangers anticipated by rehabilitation workers would come less from excessive decriminalization than from the limitations of the legislation. The CUPIHD suggests that the administration has missed a key opportunity to launch a comprehensive strategy integrating public health, human rights, and security in favor of “intensifying a military and police strategy that has proven to be a failure.” For enabling human rights violations, exacerbating corruption, and failing to adequately address public health concerns, the new drug policy legislation has been largely deemed inadequate by the Mexican public.

Lagging Institutional Capacity: Mexico’s Troubled Drug Treatment System

Drug rehabilitation centers have come under increased scrutiny since the passage of the law, as the administration moves to rely on treatment over penalization. The burden on prisons emerged as a key public concern last spring with the leak of an embarrassing prison surveillance tape in which over fifty inmates walked out of Cieneguillas state prison with minimal resistance from the guards; over half of the prisoners were associated with drug cartels. Mexican prisons were subsequently exposed as hotbeds of bloody gang warfare as well as “universities of crime,” in the words of Pedro Héctor Arellano, the director of a Mexican prison outreach program through the Episcopal Church. However, the efforts of the government to bring some relief to the penitentiary system may turn out to rely excessively on the ability of a faltering public health system to absorb the spillover of drug users. Without increased political attention and adequate funding allocated to rehabilitation, recent legislation may prove worse than inadequate, and could in fact carry dangerous consequences for Mexico’s troubled drug treatment system.

Private and nonprofit rehabilitation centers have sprung up recently throughout Mexico in response to the growing need for drug rehabilitation centers to treat addiction. As Haydee Rosovsky explained to Ken Ellingwood of the L.A. Times last year, “there are not enough good treatment centers. … All the money is put in helicopters and soldiers and firearms.” Mexican drug treatment often takes the form of religiously oriented 12-step programs; underfunded, they operate out of small facilities with minimal security, and often without official certification. Unregulated by the government, these organizations are exploited and even deliberately run as centers to hide and recruit gang members. In 2008, the arrest of Rafael Cedeño of the southern cartel La Familia Michoacana unearthed his role as the overseer of nonprofit drug rehab centers across western Michoacán, a state in southwestern Mexico; Cedeño claimed to have recruited and trained 9,000 recovering addicts for the cartel in 2008.

Sergio Belmonte, a spokesman for the mayor of Ciudad Juárez, affirmed that “there are unregistered centers that [traffickers] set up themselves, they are recruitment centers, because their most faithful soldiers are the addicts.” With the upsurge in violence in recent months, the need to conceal and to replace members has become even more acute, reinforcing the importance of the rehab centers to local gangs.

As the drug trade became increasingly dangerous, drug treatment centers had come to be seen as a safe haven for youths looking to clean up and escape from gang life. However, breaking free of drug gangs is a dangerous undertaking, and one which Mexico’s rehab facilities are ill equipped to handle. According to health care provider Jose Romero, “One common fear among drug addicts who deal drugs is that their suppliers higher up will find out about their desires to come clean. …To become clean is to break free of the drug cartels. That could cost them their lives.” Furthermore, the violence that reformed gang members bring to rehab centers acts as a deterrent to others seeking treatment. As Ciudad Juárez resident Christine Umtuch told NPR, “there’s a lot of people that want to clean up and do the, you know, right thing, but they’re scared now.” Mexico’s rehabilitation centers currently lack the institutional capacity to confront the role they have inadvertently acquired as both a refuge and a battleground in the nation’s drug war; action — or inaction — on this front could have a profound impact on the trajectory of violence and addiction in the country.

The current challenge to the Calderón administration, as well as to the larger international community, is to reconcile public health and drug policy issues to reflect the changing realities of drug addiction and treatment in Mexico. The recent closure of unregistered treatment centers in Ciudad Juárez will only serve to stigmatize rehab centers and patients if not matched with constructive policies to allow for the recuperation of the system by building new facilities and bolstering existing ones. Carlos José Rodríguez of the National Council Against Addiction (CONADIC) revealed to the press that only 26% of rehab facilities have passed its certification standards, signaling the need to develop existing centers. The Mexican drug rehabilitation system demands more exacting comprehensive reform rather than the superficial, reactionary treatment that has come to characterize recent policy.

Mexican officials have championed the Centers for Primary Attention to Addictions (CAPA) program announced in the spring of 2007, which authorized the construction of over 300 “New Life” centers to be principally financed by funds recovered from drug traffickers. Up until now, under the leadership of First Lady Margarita Zavala de Calderón, the “New Life” centers have focused on youth outreach and prevention education. However, the program has an untapped potential to set the standard for effective, secure drug addiction treatment that the country unmistakably needs. The introduction of drug courts, announced in July during a joint press conference between then-Attorney General of Mexico Eduardo Medina Mora and U.S. drug czar Gil Kerlikowske, could also provide vital support to struggling rehab centers in determining eligibility for treatment. However, drug treatment reform in Mexico has fallen short in the face of ever-mounting challenges as a result of inattention and underfunding.

The Calderón administration cannot afford to overlook drug rehabilitation reform as it strives to alleviate the social cost of the drug war in terms of violence, corruption, and health. The escalation of drug-related crime over the past month should send a strong signal to the Calderón administration to re-evaluate its policy, particularly its role in the Mérida Initiative. It should also be prepared to engage the nation in public debate toward a more constructive policy. Across the border, the Obama administration cannot “wait and see” as Mexico struggles to deal with the fallout of failed policies. Committed to partnership, the United States must actively support its southern neighbor to pursue a more constructive policy that is attentive to the needs of the Mexican people.