The Southwest Border Counternarcotics Strategy — More, Better Drug War?

June 12, 2009
By Phillip Smith
The Drug War Chronicle

The Obama administration last Friday unveiled its Southwest Border Counternarcotics Strategy to deal with the unremitting prohibition-related violence plaguing Mexico, and especially its border cities. Since Mexican President Felipe Calderon enlisted the military in his offensive against the so-called cartels in December 2006, some 11,000 people have died in the violence, and the streets of Mexican border towns have at times resembled battlefields.

In recognition of the continuing violence and heedful of Mexican criticism that the US is not doing enough on its end to undercut the cartels, the administration responded first with increased funding for border law enforcement in March and now with the new counternarcotics strategy. The new strategy will emphasize reducing demand in the US and targeting the flow of money and weapons south. It includes:

* Building visual shields near border-crossing points so drug cartel spotters can’t alert approaching motorists about inspections.
* Improving non-lethal weapons technology to help officers incapacitate suspects and disable motor vehicles and boats used by traffickers.
* Reviving an interagency working group to coordinate intelligence.
* Using more intelligence analysts to uncover drug-dealing networks.
* Helping Mexico bolster its judicial system through training in the United States.
* Focusing on combating corruption among US law enforcement and elected officials.
* Delivering an additional $60 million to border law enforcement agencies.

“This new plan, combined with the dedicated efforts of the government of Mexico, creates a unique opportunity to make real headway on the drug threat,” said Gil Kerlikowske, head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), at an Albuquerque press conference unveiling the new strategy.

“International cooperation is very, very key,” said Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, taking time to praise Calderon for his efforts. “We have an unprecedented opportunity to work on drug trafficking on both sides of the border,” she said. “We should not let this opportunity go by.”

According to the Justice Department, Mexican and other South American drug trafficking organizations are laundering between $18 billion and $39 billion a year in drug profits in the US. Some of that money then goes to purchase weapons in the lightly-controlled US gun market. Traffickers use those weapons against each other, as well as Mexican police and soldiers, as evidenced dramatically last weekend in the Acapulco shootout that left 18 people dead, including two soldiers, and the killings of 13 people in Ciudad Juarez last Friday despite the presence of more than 5,000 soldiers patrolling the city.

Reducing demand in the US is a key part of the struggle, said Napolitano. “We can’t just fight drugs at the border. We can’t just fight drugs by fighting traffickers. We must fight drugs in the United States,” Napolitano said.

“This strategy is tough, it’s strong, and it’s balanced,” said Attorney General Eric Holder, adding that it will be “an effective way forward that will crack down on cartels and make our country safer.”

Others weren’t so sure that would be the case. “The new plan simply calls for rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic,” said Aaron Houston, director of government relations for the Marijuana Policy Project. “The plan ignores the central problem, which is that our policy of marijuana prohibition has handed the Mexican cartels a massive market that keeps them rolling in cash, not just in Mexico, but according to the Department of Justice, in 230 American cities.”

“Rather than trying to make America’s 15 million monthly marijuana consumers go away, we need to gain control of this market by regulating marijuana like we do beer, wine and liquor,” Houston continued. “Any anti-drug effort that leaves the marijuana trade in the hands of the cartels is nothing but a full-employment plan for professional drug warriors and cartel bosses alike, not a serious proposal to address the problem,” he said.

The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) was a bit more diplomatic. “The violence on the US and Mexico border is spiraling out of control because of the Mexican drug war. We are hopeful that Obama’s new strategy will bring real change, and not more of the same policies that are failing our nation and communities,” said Julie Roberts, acting director of Drug Policy Alliance New Mexico. “It is disappointing that our federal officials today remained focused on targeting the supply side of the Mexican drug war. Of course we need solutions that improve public safety and keep our country safe, but we also need to develop a public health plan for safely reducing drug demand in this country.”

“The time has surely come to give serious consideration to taxing and regulating marijuana like alcohol,” added DPA executive director Ethan Nadelmann. “That wouldn’t solve all of Mexico’s and America’s prohibition-related problems, but it would prove invaluable in breaking the taboo on open debate and honest policy analysis, without which there can be no long term solutions to today’s challenges.”

While the criticism from drug reformers was blunt, some Latin Americanists had a more nuanced response. “This is the Obama administration’s response to Mexico’s criticism about the US not doing enough on arms trafficking, money laundering, and drug consumption,” said Maureen Meyer of the Washington Office on Latin America. “The idea of enhanced cooperation among the different US agencies involved is an important step forward, and enhanced cooperation with Mexico is also important.”

But while the administration is talking a good game, said Meyer, a look at the federal drug budget reveals a drug policy on cruise control. “The ONDCP drug control budget is a continuation of the same focus in US drug policy, with its objectives focusing a lot on interdiction and law enforcement, and not so much on arms trafficking. There is a slight increase in funding for treatment programs, but a reduction in funding for prevention. I don’t see any shift in the balance,” she said.

“When it comes to Mexico, what we need to see is a larger focus on some of the structural issues, such as reforming the police and the judicial system,” Meyer said. “That is going to have more of a long-term impact than just providing more equipment for the police and the military.”

For Larry Birns, executive director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, the new strategy appeared mostly symbolic. “I think the announcement of this strategy is way to put drug issues on the back burner for awhile while the administration deals with more pressing issues, like health care,” he said. “The administration is trying to inoculate itself from criticism rather than undertaking an effort to effectively deal with drugs, which would involve the thornier border issues of immigration reform and the NAFTA traffic.”

The border is a complicated place, affected not only by the drug trade but by licit trade, human migration, and weapons, among other issues. The drug trade in turn is driven by demand. Unfortunately, the Obama administration’s Southwest Border Counternarcotics Strategy is largely more of the same old drug war, the critics suggest. Perhaps all the other issues would be better dealt without that drug war.