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Foreign Policy In Focus

Drug War Doublespeak

Through late February and early March, a blitzkrieg of declarations from U.S. government and military officials and pundits hit the media, claiming that Mexico was alternately at risk of being a failed state, on the verge of a civil war, losing control of its territory, and posing a threat to U.S. national security.

In the same breath, we're told that Mexican President Felipe Calderón, with the aid of the U.S. government, is winning the war on drugs, significantly weakening organized crime, and restoring order and legality.

None of these claims is true. Instead they're critical elements in waging the hypocritical drug war in Mexico.

Drug-war doublespeak pervades and defines the U.S.-Mexico relationship today. The discourse aims not to win the war on drugs but to assure funding and public support for the military model of combating illegal drug trafficking, despite the losses and overwhelming evidence that current strategies are not working.

Sorting Reality from Hype

Mexico, particularly in border cities and other key points along the drug routes, has a serious problem. In these places, violence characterizes daily life. But Mexico isn't a failed state. It's a tragic example of the results of failed policies - on both sides of the border. Both governments want to obscure this simple fact.

In the past, exaggerated risk assessments, amplified by the media and accompanied by dire warnings to the public, prepare the ground for military intervention. They usually pack hyperbole or outright lies, the most recent example being the "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq.

While military intervention in Mexico isn't on the horizon, the recent hype has been accompanied by requests for military build-up on the border. Texas Governor Rick Perry jetted to Washington to ask for $135 million and 1,000 soldiers. Talk of sending more National Guard circulated, along with mentions of a border "surge." The Texas state government announced a rapid-mobilization plan in case Mexico "collapsed," replete with tanks and aircraft.

After outgoing Homeland Security head Michael Chertoff spoke of a contingency plan for the border, the media wondered aloud whether incoming head Janet Napolitano would be tough enough. She responded by calling the situation a "top priority." Secretary of Defense Robert Gates called the Mexican drug war "a serious problem." He raised a maelstrom of protest in Mexico with the announcement that the disappearance of Mexico's anti-Pentagon biases had cleared the way for tighter cooperation. The U.S. embassy was forced to issue a press release declaring that the United States had no intention of sending troops into Mexico.

Congress also leapt to respond to the rhetoric. Hearings have been called in both houses, including the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee under Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) who, according to news reports, will be looking for "potential implications for increased terrorist activity." The committees will likely hear testimony primarily from persons who confirm the perceived threat in lurid and imprecise terms.

The Mexican government has responded by lobbing counter-accusations at the United States. Calderón cites the U.S. role in gun-running, money-laundering, and demand for narcotics.

The motivations behind the recent hype vary. Alarmist cries of a collapse of Mexico help clinch the passage of measures to further militarize the southern border and obtain juicy contracts for private defense and security firms. Local politicians are finding they can be a cash cow for federal aid.

The flurry of panic about the spillover of violence from Mexico also arises just as Congress considers the latest installment of the Mérida Initiative, now tucked inside the omnibus spending bill. The Mérida Initiative, designed by the Bush administration, is the $1.4 billion vehicle for bolstering the war on drugs launched by Calderón in 2006. It provides military-to-military aid for the domestic battles being waged by some 40,000 Mexican army troops, and imposes U.S. training in policing, forensics, penal, and judicial practices.

The Meaning of Success

The most glaring example of drug-war doublespeak is the definition of "success." Although Mexico is supposedly on the brink of collapse, members of the Obama administration, Congress and the Pentagon have unanimously proclaimed the contradictory message that since Calderón launched the offensive against organized crime in December 2006, his government has made great progress against illegal drug trafficking and the power of cartels, with the help of the U.S. government through the Mérida Initiative.

But this assertion doesn't stand up to scrutiny. Congress has wisely begun to place measurable benchmarks in appropriations to avoid the budgetary and military quagmires of the past. The Mérida Initiative contains four performance measurements: break the power and impunity of criminal organizations, assist the governments of Mexico and Central America in strengthening border air and maritime control, improve the capacity of justice systems in the region, curtail gang activity in Mexico and Central America, and diminish the demand for drugs in the region.

In any other context, performance measurements so patently weak, vague, and one-sided would be considered useless for real evaluation. They avoid accomplishing their stated purpose by being immeasurable as written and containing no indicators of success or failure. Given the failure of the similar Plan Colombia to meet its objectives as shown in a recent GAO evaluation, the omission was probably intentional.

For instance, the second item on the list - assisting the governments - isn't a performance measure, unless exporting U.S. defense goods and services is indeed the end goal. Improving the capacity of justice systems could conceivably be measured in shortened court times and a higher ratio of convictions to arrests, but that data is not yet available. It will be interesting to see if it is accurately compiled and presented at a later date.

For the measurement calling for the curtailing of gang activity and demand for narcotics, the United States excluded its own market - the driving force of the illicit drug trade. The performance measurement requires the initiative to show reduction of drug demand only in the southern countries. Despite the dictates of common sense, the Mérida Initiative contains no funds or commitments whatsoever for the reduction of U.S. demand.

This leaves us with the first benchmark. Common indicators for reduced "power and impunity of criminal organizations" would logically entail a reduction in production of illegal drugs, and an increase in confiscation, thus attacking the earnings of the cartels. It would also imply more arrests and fewer violent confrontations. We can compare these goals with the findings of the 2009 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report to see if the first installment of the $1.4 billion dollar plan is on track. Between 2007 and 2008 net cultivation of opium and cannabis in Mexico increased. Production of opium gum, heroin, and cannabis all increased. Eradication of poppies and cannabis both decreased significantly since the beginning of the 2006 drug war. Meanwhile, seizures of opium gum, heroin, methamphetamines, cannabis, and cocaine all decreased significantly. Destruction of labs fell by nearly half. In addition, the report notes, drug use among Mexican youth is rising.

The drug war model maintains that the opposite should be occurring. In fact, the only statistic that could be construed as positive in the report is an increase in arrests. But to truly evaluate this as progress, we would need to know the conviction figures as well.

The conclusion of the Mexico section of the report flies in the face of its own data. "The restructuring of security forces, coupled with the military's strong engagement in the fight to dismantle major drug trafficking organizations (DTOs), has proven to be effective. These efforts led to numerous arrests of key narco-traffickers, the discovery of clandestine drug laboratories, and a dramatic decline in the importation of methamphetamine and precursors." Curiously, there are no statistics offered for the last claim. The report is forced into bizarre contortions to spin the drop by half in seizures of illegal drugs as "success": "U.S. law enforcement agencies attribute this reduction to better enforcement which has forced traffickers to seek alternate routes or alternative enterprises."

The U.S. report acknowledges the shocking increase in violence. But nowhere does it say that from 2007 to 2008, drug-related deaths more than doubled, from 2,500 to 6,290. Faced with yet another inconvenient fact, the report concludes: "The increase in violence may be due to the success of President Calderón's aggressive anticrime campaign which has broadly deployed the military in searches and regional security plans, while more effectively using tools such as extraditions."

The U.S. government comes up with a speculative excuse for almost every poor result listed in its own report. In the doublespeak of the Mexican drug war, organized crime branching out into new regions and new enterprises - human trafficking, for example - is a positive sign. Violence is progress. Murder is an indicator of success.

Toward True Stories and Corrected Policies

Organized crime isn't the sole and leading actor in the U.S.-Mexico relationship. We share a rich and highly integrated relationship, with common interests and challenges but different responsibilities. Each nation must assume its own responsibilities to face the very real transnational threats.

A real solution to the drug war violence and the power of organized crime would require both governments to stop playing the blame game and recognize that transnational crime is transnational. Its growth is a phenomenon of globalization. Transnational crime escalates as a result of the convenient frequency of border crossings that make real inspection impossible, internationalized, and unscrupulous financial systems for moving and laundering mega-earnings, and other byproducts of globalization. Mechanisms of cooperation are necessary but pointing the finger at Mexico is a grave mistake.

Second, both countries need to cut off pork-barrel contracts to defense contractors and private security companies, and factor public health into the equation. The call to treat drug addicts as patients, not criminals, and to deal with the illegal drug trade at least in part on the community level through rehabilitation, prevention, and harm reduction programs is growing throughout the world. Meanwhile, the Mexican drug war moves us in the complete opposite direction. Third, a new approach means opening up debate to all options, including legalization. For the most part, this option has been slapped down in the U.S. discussion as untimely, non-viable, or immoral. It's time to bring it back to the table, with serious studies on potential impacts, positive and negative, of a selective end to prohibitionist laws.

That´s exactly the proposal of the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, led by former presidents and drug warriors Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, César Gaviria of Colombia, and Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico. In a recently released report, they pronounce the war on drugs a failure and call for a "paradigm shift."

The authors state: "The traumatic Colombian experience is a useful reference for countries not to make the mistake of adopting the U.S. prohibitionist policies and to move forward in the search for innovative alternatives." They suggest that Mexico, an "epicenter of violent activities," could take the lead in encouraging global debate on the current policies of the U.S. government. And they call on Europe and the United States to take seriously the challenge of demand reduction. The paradigm shift they propose focuses on public health, reducing consumption, and opening up debate, even on the legalization of marijuana possession.

Real bilateral cooperation along the lines of these more humane, lasting solutions could end the collateral violence and social costs of the failed drug wars. In the long run, they will likely be more effective in fighting organized crime. They can't be any less effective that the drug war being waged today by the U.S. and Mexican governments.

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Laura Carlsen

Laura Carlsen

Laura Carlsen  is director of the Americas Policy Program in Mexico City, where she has been an analyst and writer for two decades. She is also a Foreign Policy In Focus columnist. Email: (lcarlsen(at)

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