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.