The War on Drugs: A Pan-Regional Fight

• The drug and gang war goes binational as Washington turns in its observer status in favor of a full combatant’s role.

On March 23, 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael G. Mullen visited Mexico City in a massive and unprecedented display of support to President Felipe Calderón as well as his beleaguered Mexican military and civil colleagues, who are shouldering the bulk of the fight in the anti-drug war against traffickers along their common border. In the course of the visit, Secretary Clinton referred to the previously authorized $ 1.4 billion budget for the “Mérida Initiative,” as a collaborative security program between the United States, Mexico, and the Central American nations. Its purpose is to provide an intelligence capacity as well as a training regime for regional law enforcement officials as well as sophisticated military aid and detection technology to their drug enforcement officers. Dispatching the high level U.S. initiative to Mexico City is meant to signal a firm U.S. commitment to end the bloodbath now occurring across the Río Grande.

One might think that $1.4 billion would be a generous budget to fight the growing conflict that is destroying the inner fabric of Mexican and Central American society. But the fight against drugs involves more than a token dosage of funds and a military buildup—it requires a serious political and security commitment involving deeds as well as words and close collaboration between the U.S. and Mexico. In order to be successful, this effort will have to entail neutralizing criminal organizations, the creation of corruption-free institutions, the pursuit of a non-porous border, and the formation of empowered local communities willing and able to help contain the violent agenda of the drug cartels. A report prepared by Mexican authorities points out that President Calderón has launched a new program called “We Are All Juárez” aimed at fostering employment, creating anti-addiction programs, jobs, parks, opening galleries, and building schools in the most violent neighborhoods of the city. According to Mexico’s Citizen Council for Public Security and Justice, Ciudad Juárez has become one of the world’s most violent urban centers, with 191 murders for every 100,000 residents per year. Although these planned projects pinpointed by the Mexican side seem to shed some hope on the drug-stricken city, experts such as Leticia Castillo, coordinator of the sociology department at the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juárez, questions whether gains that have been achieved up to now can be maintained if corruption or impunity continues to prevail.

Mexico and Colombia: Parallel Stories but a Failure in Parallelism

It would be an exaggeration to say that Mexico is a failed state or that it has fallen under the same pattern of protracted warfare that Colombia has been suffering for more than 50 years. But both countries share a common fate when it comes to coping with the flow of drugs and the battle against their producers, traffickers and the gangs that dominate the cartels’ trade in illicit substances. Although the Mexican phase of the drug war began in earnest in the late 1980s, by 2006, Mexican authorities had become increasingly engaged in the fight against the principal cartels even before then. It was during this period that the public began to become absorbed with what was happening in Cuidad Juárez. In this process, Tijuana, the Beltrán-Leyva Cartel, Los Zetas, los Negros, the Sinaloa Cartel, Gulf Cartel, and La Familia Michoacana cartels all became the equivalent, to one degree or another, of nation-states. Recently, President Calderón has dispatched 6,500 Mexican troops to Cuidad Juárez and across the country, nearly 45,000 members of the armed forces, as well as state and federal police officers, have now been allocated to various stages and fronts of the drug war. Enduring combat has led to numerous casualties on both sides of the conflict: more than 1,000 police officers and members of the federal forces have been killed and dozens of journalists reporting on the conflict have lost their lives in recent months alone. In addition, more than 20,000 cartel gun slingers and leaders (chief among them, Marcos Arturo Beltrán Leyva, head of the Beltrán-Leyva Cartel) have lost their lives, and an additional 50,000 have been detained.

Mexico’s latest large-scale drug engagement dates back to the 1980s when Colombian drug cartels—dominated by Pablo Escobar and his Medellín Cartel—presented a similar tableau of violence that is currently jolting Ciudad Juárez. The Colombian cartels came to prefer Mexico’s smuggling routes into the United States after Washington’s anti-drug law enforcement programs had become more effective at interdicting drug shipments to South Florida, as well as throughout the Caribbean. With an established source for heroine and marijuana, as well as ideal transportation and a huge adjacent market, it became clear that Mexico now possessed the right logistics and infrastructure for Colombian kingpins to distribute their inventory in the U.S. market.

Just as in today’s Mexico, when the Colombian government first decided to crack down on the then burgeoning Medellín and Cali Cartels, Bogotá’s war on drugs began to rack up a murderous toll on the country. An early victim of the stepped-up conflict was Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, then-Minister of Justice during the Belisario Betancourt administration. In 1984, two young hitmen ambushed the minister and killed him. This dolorous event began the first lengthy string of assassinations that came to include lawmakers, journalists, political figures, as well as hundreds of police officers and members of the military. On August 18, 1989, even Luis Carlos Galán, whose strong stance against Pablo Escobar helped place him in the lead in the presidential polls, was murdered while surrounded by a throng of adoring followers and bodyguards.

The dreams of many Colombians were shattered after Galán’s death (the equivalent of the gunning down of Mexico’s PRI Presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio), jarring the country’s very stability and orderly political development. Similar to today’s Mexico, Colombia was subject to the daily toll of abductions of important media and political figures hence, providing Gabriel García Márquez’s inspiration for his book, News of a Kidnapping. It was during this period that car bombings in major urban sprawls and constant threats leveled against various governmental agencies began in the late 1980s. This started occurring after the Virgilio Barco administration had successfully extradited detained kingpins to the United States. These terrorist acts were mainly planned by a group called “Los Extraditables” to which Escobar belonged along with other top Colombian kingpins such as Fabio Ochoa Vásquez and Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha. As a group, they adamantly opposed the government’s initiative to send them to the U.S. prisons, as evidenced by the slogan “We prefer a grave in Colombia than a U.S. cell.”

During the early 1990s Bogotá, with a good dose of intelligence assistance from Washington, did not succumb to Escobar’s demands. Colombian officials became emboldened to lay siege to the drug market worth hundreds of millions of dollars at the cost of tens of thousands of casualties on all sides. The Gaviria administration managed to gun down Escobar in 1993. During the Ernesto Samper administration, which lasted between 1994 and 1998, the Cali Cartel led by the Rodriguez Orejuela brothers, was dramatically decimated. In 2000, toward the end of the Clinton White House, Washington began to support Colombia with augmented hardware, software, training and strategic support against the FARC guerrillas as well as the drug traffickers. Under the “Plan Colombia,” a six-year blueprint to end Colombia’s drug trafficking and to bolster social development, a number of objectives were reached. Despite still being the world’s main producer of narcotics, U.S. diplomats would insist that Colombia is safer today, due to Bogotá’s “Democratic Security” initiative fashioned by the Uribe administration. This has allowed Colombian society to engage in a more proactive role in reducing the nation’s level of violence. According to the la Casa de Nariño, the result has been a significant drop in homicides, kidnappings, and terrorist attacks by a figure of almost 50 percent as of 2004 (the lowest in almost 20 years).

Mexico would be wise to learn from Colombia’s painful experience if it wishes to regain control of its sovereignty and territorial domain. But it must safeguard itself against learning the wrong lessons. In fact, President Álvaro Uribe expressed his solidarity with the Mexican government in 2009 in its effort to neutralize that country’s drug lords. But President Calderón’s plan must become not only national in scope, but it must also be free of corruption, effective in design, and take a comprehensive approach in targeting its goals. In fact, Colombian society was largely distorted and self-manned with the help of inappropriate strategies vended by Washington. This means that Mexico’s anti-crime and drugs campaign must be social instead of just being security-oriented. This must include a zealous concern for the strict observance of human rights and civic guarantees. Regarding its determination in upgrading its law enforcement capacities, Mexico’s efforts must be fused to Washington’s fulfillment of its good faith efforts to cut the flow of U.S.- sourced weapons being smuggled into Mexico and to slash the demand for Mexican-supplied drugs.

To reiterate, suppression of the drug gangs must take place within a context in which democratic procedures are respected. A Plan Mexico modeled after Plan Colombia might be beset by problems resulting from a dramatically different set of political and historical factors if Washington searches for parallels in both countries.

The Beginnings of a Bi-National Drug War

The United States, as recently acknowledged by Secretary Clinton, can be held partially accountable for Mexico’s fragile situation. But this is not the first administration, nor the first time Washington has faced a similar challenge. Since the Nixon years, and through numerous subsequent administrations, Washington has had to grapple with increasing drug use among its own youth. However, the so-called “Forgotten War” has become even more marginalized, and now not only do Mexican drug dealers operate on their own turf, but also increasingly across the border in United States. It can now be said that the drug war has become bi-national.

According to Lynn Roche, of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, 90 percent of the weaponry seized in the aftermath of an episode of gang violence is likely to have originated in the U.S. and used by gang members and drug dealers to attack the authorities and as well at each other.

The nature of the Obama administration’s commitment to Plan Mérida, which arguably is grossly underfunded, was supposed to be illustrated by sending a high-level delegation to Mexico. This interest in Mexico is based on the fact that the anti-drug battle is increasingly being fought on both sides of the border. Now that it is facing a fused conflict where the stakes facing the U.S. are potentially as dangerous to this country as it is to its southern neighbors, Washington is being forced to acknowledge that the anti-drug conflict has to be fought not only on Mexican soil, but also on its own. The need to keep a tighter control on the influx of guns across the Mexican border is no less serious than the of interdiction drugs headed for the U.S. border. As the White House acknowledges the gravity posed by the drug war, it can now be expected to take over much of the funding and operations of the anti-drug war in close collaboration with Mexican authorities.

It is a long and treacherous road ahead to end the war on drugs, as Mexican entrepreneurs and their U.S. and South American confederates have found new routes such as through Haiti, Dominican Republic, and Guinea Bissau, more effectively to smuggle cocaine and other illicit substances.

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17 thoughts on “The War on Drugs: A Pan-Regional Fight

  • April 30, 2010 at 10:09 pm

    This article totally ignores the foundation of the problem of drugs, that is, US prohibitionist policy and law that force drug sales and drug use to be illegal, thus creating the huge black market for drugs. It is this black market that – as Secretary Clinton acknowledged – fuels the cartels in Mexico and funds their side of the "durg war." Just as the prohibition of alcohol did not work but only resulted in a black market and a failed "war" against it, the more than forty-year-old war on drugs will continue to get worse, creating more destruction in Mexico as well as in the US and at increasing costf in lives and money. This disaster will only end when a system for the regulated, legal sale of these drugs is implemented in the US. Hopefully, this will occur before Mexico does become a "failed state."

      • May 8, 2010 at 4:16 am

        Indeed, where are the policies for stopping the US from being the world's largest consumer of narcotics?

        It's a bit much listening to a strung-out addict targeting its dealers as 'the problem'.

        • May 8, 2010 at 7:59 pm

          well if we do not change society a great deal of people will try to escape reality….like in 'nam but like 'nam once the danger goes away so did the drugs….statistically only about six to eight percent become true addicts regardless of the amount of drugs consumed over any given length of time….dealers nor addicts are the problems the situation is…if most people have no reason to look for escape they would step over the drugs if they were left on the street and sidewalk…cure the reason prevent the problem….no money no business see the 18th amendment and its repeal before and after….crime stats dropped like a rock…of course there was that whole depression thing skewing the stats upward….it was still a sizable decrease….do your home work before you criticize or ask questions you don't truly understand….

          • May 9, 2010 at 12:40 am

            Are you suggesting that this response 'educates' me?

            Extremely wealthy and successful people consume drugs. Or has that single simple fact escaped you?

            Let me see, perhaps – "do your home work before you criticize or ask questions you don't truly understand…."

          • May 9, 2010 at 12:46 am

            Also. If you are going to educate me, or indeed, anybody else, would it be beyond your sage-like powers to write complete sentences in lieu of this brain-damaged telegraph style you've appropriated. You're writing on a foreign policy blog, in case you hadn't noticed.

            I look forward to your next message, perhaps it will be in Morse code.

            Here ..-. ..- -.-. -.- / -.– — ..-

          • May 9, 2010 at 11:31 am

            I must apologize, in assuming that for not understanding that you were in capable understanding a higher level of communication. If I had been aware of the state of your ability to process information i would have written in large block letters, in very simple sentences, avoid using words of more than one syllable, and in crayon.

            Real eduction is understanding one's audience. Having worked with k thru 12 students (including severely compromised special needs children); I should have been more aware of the difficulties dealing with those of limited cognitive skills. Merely assuming that one is at a level of marginal intellectual ability because they have managed to form complete sentences was my error.

            When one uses adhominem attacks, when dealing with the obvious logic of cogent arguments, is an obvious sign that that person has no real rebuttal to factually based propositions. Clearly this is your impairment. I therefore apologize for over estimating your ability to communicate and argue in coherent fashion. Perhaps you might consider attending a fine school that teaches logic, rhetoric and debate before you attempt anything as complex as sarcasm. A few history, and civics courses may also be of service not to mention a better understanding current events might be of help. "Snarkiness"
            (a linguistic invention) is not your strong suit.

            A little education is a dangerous thing and the minimal amount that you have displayed is all to evident you pathetic attempt to "one up me" and borders on a weapon of mass distraction. As I might expect from one of questionable ability to argue the most simple proposition, ergo. the drug "war" and all of its attendant problems are easily fixed with an honest effort put forth by the proper authorities.

            p.s. Please get someone with a much better comprehension of english to translate the parts of this you do not understand.

  • May 1, 2010 at 2:49 pm

    An intersting, if patently biased, article. The writer may however like to consider further efforts writing for AIPAC, as she has rightly identified the omnipresence of US-made & supplied wea[pons as a key issue in this -and by entension other- ‘wars’ that are being fought.

    Lots of hot air is produced by American ‘leaders’, accompanied by much hand-wrining and moist-eyed please for peace, when the first step and the loudest message would be sent by placing an embargo on weapons and arms sales to Israel and other US client states. The second step would then be to compel Israel to comply with the NPT and to allow unrestricted access to UN weapons inspectors.

    Until then, US will continue to be seen by most of the world as a liar, a bully and a supplier of weapons in support of fights it is too scared to fight itself honestly.

  • May 1, 2010 at 10:38 pm

    General McChrystal has ordered our troops in Afghanistan to patrol the myriad opium fields but NOT harm them. The troops are to ensure the opium gets harvested so the locals aren't offended. With the U.S. Army now part of the heroin cartels, is the DEA going to bust them? This article is myopic and ridiculous. We live in a Nation gone insane.

  • May 2, 2010 at 7:39 pm

    are we really nuts….anybody remember liquor prohibition and how well that worked out,,,,LEGALIZE YOU IDIOTS….before it is too late…though it may be…had we turned the drug problem from a law enforcement problem and make it medical one and the war will vanish…..starve the beast by taking away the profit motive….lets have a tea party for that….remember a thirties nick name for pot was tea…..wake up….WAKE THE F^^^ UP

  • May 2, 2010 at 1:47 pm

    The War on Drugs may be more profitable than the drug trade it combats. Smart money will hedge both bets And it does..

  • May 3, 2010 at 2:37 pm

    Mr. Valencia is a "researcher"???!!! Turn in your ID card, Bob, because you wouldn't pass the first pop quiz in any of my classes on the subject.

    Your first mistake was the erroneous assumption that the drug laws ever had any good purpose. You can start your reading with the following:

    The short history of the marijuana laws at… This story is funny and fascinating. Marijuana was outlawed for two major reasons. The first was because "All Mexicans are crazy and marijuana is what makes them crazy." The second was the fear that heroin addiction would lead to the use of marijuana. Tell us, Mr. Valencia, which one of those reasons do you think best justifies this kind of war in Mexico?

    Licit and Illicit Drugs at… This is the best overall review of the drug problem ever written. It has been used as a basic college textbook for decades. If you haven't read it, then you simply don't know the subject. It is painfully apparent that you have never read it.

  • May 3, 2010 at 2:39 pm

    Major Studies of Drugs and Drug Policy at This is a collection of the full text of every major government commission report on the drug laws from around the world over the last 100 years. It is obvious that you have never laid eyes on any of them. So much for your "research" when you couldn't even find the largest studies of the subject ever done.

    The Drug Hang-Up by Rufus King at… This book was written by a former president of the American Bar Association. In it, he tells the story of what happened when he got together with the AMA to do an analysis of US drug policy. It is a terrifying story of how badly American drug policy has gone wrong.

    That will keep you reading for the rest of the week, Bob. You REALLY need it. You start with wrong assumptions and proceed to wrong conclusions. The problem is that you never really did the research and you couldn't pass the first pop quiz on the subject. You should be embarrassed.

  • May 3, 2010 at 2:42 pm

    And, for the benefit of Bob who never read the history:

    These drugs were first outlawed in the US in 1914. Prior to that, they had been sold over the counter without any restrictions at all. Cocaine was included in everything from toothache drops to soda pop to tobacco cheroots (crack). Lots of patent medicines were fifty percent morphine by volume. Heroin was included in baby colic remedies. There weren't any age limits, either, so kids could buy the stuff.

    There weren't any advertising restrictions or labeling requirements, either. People didn't even know what they were taking. Advertisers commonly advertised that their concoction would cure any problem had by you or your mule. (not an exaggeration) Even the Pope was in ads telling people to drink cocaine wine for their health.

    Even under those conditions, these drugs were not considered to be a major social problem. The percentage of addicts was about the same as it is today. However, the addicts were not criminals and did not commit crimes to support their habits. There were no drug gangs, either. Those problems did not start until immediately after the Harrison Tax Act was passed.

  • May 3, 2010 at 2:46 pm

    Only two doctors testified at the hearings for the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. The representative of the AMA said there was no evidence that mj was a dangerous drug and no reason for the law. He pointed out that it was used in about 250 common medicines. In response, the committee told him to shut up and leave.

    The only other doctor to testify was Dr. James C. Munch. His sole claim to fame was that he had injected some extract of mj directly into the brains of 300 dogs and two of them died. When they asked him what he concluded from this, he said he didn't know. He later testified in court, under oath, that mj would make your fangs grow six inches long and drip with blood. He also said that, when he tried it, it turned him into a bat.

    Dr. Munch was the only doctor in the US who thought mj should be illegal so he was appointed US Official Expert on mj, where he served for 25 years.

    Does this all sound perfectly sensible to you, Bob? What year do you think this story started to make sense?

  • May 3, 2010 at 2:50 pm

    IN 1973, President Nixon's US National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse completed the largest study of the drug laws ever done. At the end of their study, they said the real drug problem was not marihuana, or heroin, or cocaine.

    The real drug problem, they said was the ignorance of the people who kept telling everyone what drug policy should be — but they had never read the most basic research on the subject. In a perfect illustration of their point, Nixon refused to read his own report and limited publication of it.

    Robert Valencia is the latest example of the deliberate ignorance behind this policy. He is a "researcher"???!!! He has never laid eyes on the best research on the subject.

    Furthermore, I am betting that he refuses to read. He could do some reading and write a much better article. My bet is that he never will. He will just continue the same ignorant diatribe. That is typical of the people who write this stuff.

  • May 4, 2010 at 1:30 am

    Here is a question for you, Bob. Listed below are the approximate deaths from drugs in the US in a typical year.

    Tobacco – 400,000
    Cheeseburgers (obesity) – 350,000
    Alcohol – 100,000
    Prescription drugs – 100,000
    All the illegal drugs combined – 10,000
    Heroin – 3,000
    Cocaine – 3,000
    Tylenol – 3,000
    Water overdoses (drinking too much, not drowning) – 100
    Marijuana – 0

    For other problems, alcohol accounts for half of all deaths from homicide, suicide, road accidents, fires, and drowning. It also accounts for about half of all domestic abuse, two-thirds of all sexual assaults on children and – by some estimates – as much as 40 percent of all inpatient hospital care. According to the US DOJ, alcohol is the ONLY drug with any real connection to drug-induced violent crime.

    Now, Bob, which one of these problems justifies a war in another country? Explain your answer.


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