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The Limitations of US Counter-Narcotics Policy in Mexico


The Security Assistance Bandage: The Limitations of US Counter-Narcotics Policy in Mexico
By Jacob Parakilas*

narco_raidIf you spend some time reading English-language media reports about the ongoing drug violence in Mexico, you will begin to see the same themes repeated over and over. You will read that Mexico is “in the grip of a criminal insurgency”, “locked in a struggle against drug traffickers”, or simply “under siege”. The story those headlines tell is one of a formerly peaceful nation afflicted by violent, drug-trafficking gangs whose government is fighting against them for the quality or even continuation of its national life. It is a compelling story, but an incomplete one.

Drug violence in Mexico is indeed a major problem and has been since before President Felipe Calderón declared war on drug cartels shortly after his 2006 election and deployed the federal police and military to combat drug traffickers, starting with his home state of Michoacán. Since then, nearly 50,000 Mexicans have died in battles between and within drug trafficking groups, and between those groups and the nation’s military and police forces. But the simple “siege” narratives disguise a number of other aspects of the story, including the human rights and due process violations committed by Mexican authorities in the process of combating the cartels and the complex set of relationships and antipathies between the different players amongst the drug trafficking groups. Perhaps most importantly, though, they suggest that the violence in Mexico is solely a Mexican problem.

There is a germ of truth in that perception – the violence has mostly occurred on Mexican soil (although recently there have been increasing reports of Mexican drug trafficking groups expanding south into Guatemala and further into Central America), and the perpetrators are usually Mexican, as are the victims. But to look at these indications and see a Mexican problem is to diagnose only the symptoms; and to have policy based on such an assessment will only serve to prolong and intensify the underlying conditions upon which the structure of this conflict is based. Instead, the conditions which have led to such wanton bloodshed are a result of a complex mix of international factors, including the economic imperatives of globalization, the creation of a global drug prohibition regime, the contemporary economic and political conditions of the Americas, and – perhaps most importantly – the complex relationship between Mexico and the United States of America. As the most powerful actor in this drama, the United States bears a particular responsibility to make policy based on such a holistic assessment of drug violence on its southern border, but the news there has been mixed at best.

First, the good news: the Obama Administration has at least acknowledged the basic premise that drug violence and drug trafficking is driven by American demand. The United States remains the world’s largest single market for illegal narcotics; without Americans buying cocaine, marijuana, heroin and meth, the business model which supports the drug trafficking networks in Latin America would largely fall apart. Without this acknowledgement, a sound policy cannot be implemented. However, there is still a substantial gap between recognizing the American role in driving drug violence outside the nation’s borders and instituting policy which repairs that gap. And fundamentally, the United States government approaches drug trafficking as a security problem, rather than a complex problem with security aspects.

For example, although American policy towards Mexico is driven by a number of disparate considerations and executed differently by different executive agencies, the most direct and visible aspect of it is very much a security programme. The Mérida Initiative, as it is known, was signed in 2008 and represented roughly US$1.5 billion in aid, though much of that figure remains allocated but unspent. While some of that money has been set aside for institution-building and development, the vast majority has been allocated as aid for the Mexican military and police forces, some in equipment (including a small number of expensive items like helicopters) and some in training. Those security assistance programmes are by no means wasted – Mexican government forces facing well-funded cartels whose members are frequently equipped with weapons, armour and communications gear as good as or better than their own need all the help they can get – but it represents a fundamentally short-term approach to the problem. If a certain percentage of the population is willing to risk its life participating in drug trafficking, then the ability of the government’s security forces to win fights with them can only manage, rather than solve, the problem.

Part of the issue is that the last decade has seen the United States, largely thanks to the War on Terror and its experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, invest heavily in counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism tools and capabilities. With so much recent experience training and equipping foreign military and police forces for irregular combat, the security establishment in the United States feels comfortable advocating for a similar approach in Mexico. Train competent security forces, the thinking goes, and they will solve the problem on their own without any American involvement – like the old cliché about teaching a man to fish, except with an assault rifle instead of a fishing pole. This thinking has lately been manifested in efforts to have drug trafficking groups listed as terrorist groups by the state department, and in a House of Representatives bill which explicitly calls for a counterinsurgency strategy for Mexico.

But both of those perceptions – that the conflict is an insurgency and that its participants are terrorists – are basically false. Terrorists and insurgents by definition have political, ethnic, or religious objectives, and can be defeated by denying them control of the population. Drug traffickers simply need to coerce the population, which can be accomplished by fear, bribery or some combination of the two. Proponents of a militarized strategy argue that attacking traffickers head-on worked against the Cali and Medellín cartels in Colombia. But Mexico is not Colombia, and in any case, the destruction of the Medellín and Cali cartels did not end, or substantially reduce, violence in Colombia; nor did it strongly affect the production and availability of Colombian cocaine – it simply forced drug trafficking groups to change their organisational structures and tactics. The potential profits from drug trafficking are so large that increasing the pressure on traffickers only forces them to become more innovative and – frequently – more violent.

What is really needed is a cooperative strategy undertaken by the two governments which undermines the basic economic calculus which permits drug trafficking organisations to draw from a seemingly endless pool of disaffected individuals who rationally choose a high-risk, high-profit life working for a criminal organisation over the limited opportunities afforded by legitimate work in Mexico or the prospect of crossing into the United States for undocumented work. This is the fundamental issue that no amount of training, funding or equipment for the security services can provide: as long as legitimate economic opportunities are not available for Mexican youth, drug traffickers will have an effectively bottomless well of recruits willing to trade life expectancy for money, power and a very specific type of glory.

The Mexican government has taken a few tentative steps towards this approach with civil-society building efforts such as Todos Somos Juárez (We are all Juarez) campaign, although thus far they have had limited success. The American government certainly doesn’t condemn such efforts, but its attention seems to be focused much more on short-term security assistance than confronting the inequalities which enable drug trafficking groups to replenish their losses rapidly and maintain their operations even under pressure. That will have to be a long-term strategy which will rely on an unprecedented level of cooperation between Mexican and American federal and local governments, civil society groups – but doing so holds out the chance to end the violence, where security assistance can only hope to manage it.

*Jacob Parakilas is a PhD candidate in the Department of International Relations at the London School of Economics, writing a dissertation on drug violence in Mexico. Prior to arriving at LSE, he worked as a contractor for the United States Department of Homeland Security, for the World Security Institute and for the Arms Control Association. He received an MLitt in Middle East and Central Asian Security Studies from the University of St Andrews in 2006, and a BA in International Relations from Hampshire College in 2006.

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