Colombia’s victory but Mexico’s losing battle

By Alice Stevens

Last June, the United Nations reported that the production of the coca leaf, the main ingredient in cocaine, has fallen by 60 percent in Colombia in the last decade. A top producer in the 1990s, Colombia has been devastated by years of violent drug-related conflict.

Unfortunately, the drop does not represent a victory in the ongoing war against drugs in South and Central America but simply a shift in production and trafficking. As Colombia cracks down, drug trafficking has moved elsewhere. In Peru, production of cocaine has gone up by 55 percent in the last decade; Bolivian production has doubled over the same period.

Mexican drug lords have evolved to become the most powerful criminals on the continent. In a recent interview, Hillary Clinton went as far to suggest that the situation in Mexico resembles that of Colombia in the 1990s. “It’s looking more and more like Colombia looked 20 years ago, where the narco-traffickers controlled certain parts of the country,” Clinton said at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. “These drug cartels are showing more and more indices of insurgencies.” The Secretary of State even indicated that it may be necessary to send US troops into Mexico.

President Barack Obama has rejected the comparison between Mexico and Colombia but nonetheless, the situation in Mexico has reached crisis point.. While martial intervention may not be the answer, a change in policy is essential to resolving the deeply entrenched and violent conflicts in the country.

On 25 August, 2010, 72 Central and South American migrants were found murdered on a ranch in Tamaulipas in what is the biggest drug cartel massacre to date. The murders are assumed to be the work of the Zetas, a cartel described by the Mexican Defence Ministry as “the most formidable death squad to have worked for organised crime in Mexican history”. A survivor of the massacre testified that the Los Zetas opened fire on the migrants after they refused to carry out assassinations for them.

This atrocity is just the latest in a pattern of ongoing and escalating violence that has characterised Mexican life since Mexican President Felipe Calderón declared “war” on the drug cartels shortly after his election in 2006. Since then, drug violence has claimed more than 28,000 lives.

Felipe Calderón was elected amid allegations of electoral fraud. His declared “war on drugs” and the militant propaganda that accompanies it gives his presidency a legitimacy it failed to achieve in the election. Edgar Buscaglia, organised crime expert and a leading critic of Calderón, calls it the “Afghanistanisation of Mexico”. The war has provided the government with a powerful goal around which they can garner support. Mexico has become a war zone, and the army, not the police, have been used to combat the drug trade.

This militarisation has been heavily criticised both outside and inside the borders of Mexico The army practically occupies a number of communities in the north, where they control checkpoints, curfews and inspections. Human rights groups have accused the army of rape, pillage and extrajudicial killings.

But the strongest criticism is that Calderón’s militaristic tactics have unleashed a torrent of drug violence that the government is unable to control. Support for Calderón’s government has gradually diminished as it has become increasingly apparent that the war on drugs is a losing battle.

The United States, citing human rights concerns, have recently decided to withhold a portion of promised antidrug aid under the Merida Initiative. Nik Steinberg, Mexico researcher for Human Rights Watch, said, “Any withholding of funds would be a step in the right direction, but given the total impunity for military abuses and widespread cases of torture, none of the funds tied to human rights should be released”.

Calderón’s government insist that the violence is simply an inevitable outcome in a war against the cartels In a recent interview, Calderón said: “I wish there was less violence, but – being honest – that is not foreseeable in the short term, in which high levels of violence will remain. Violence will decline over the medium and long terms.” He points out that his government was the first to take on the drug trafficking organisations.

Such assertions do not conceal the fact that, whatever the intent, Calderón’s tactics have failed. Instead of pumping money into weaponry and deploying tens of thousands of soldiers and federal police to take on the cartels, the government needs to put money into alleviating the social problems that drive young men into the drug trade.

The failure to fully address money laundering, political corruption and poverty has not only triggered more violence but has allowed the cartels to penetrate even deeper into society. The current expensive and arduous not worked.

For the war in Mexico to reach any kind of resolution, the policies of the current government must change. However, change also needs to be implemented outside Mexico. The United States and Europe cannot ignore their own responsibility in the drug wars that have devastated countries like Colombia and Mexico.

As Calderón has pointed out, it is American consumers that fuel the demand and American weapons that help maintain the cartel’s violent campaigns. Instead of focusing solely on stamping out supply in other countries, the West needs to address the issue of demand in their own countries.

The problem is never just one country. For instance, Guatemala has also experienced a surge in violence in recent years, largely related to the movement of drug trafficking into the country. In what is known as the balloon effect, if production is squeezed in one place, it will balloon somewhere else. The West and the Mexican government need to be part of a larger, unified approach to an issue that reaches far beyond the borders of Mexico.