Mexico’s losing war on drugs

May 3, 2011

Helen Redmond discusses the enormous human cost of Mexico's drug war--and how U.S. and Mexican government policy has only made the crisis worse.

THE CORPSES continue to pile up in the war on drugs in Mexico. According to official sources, more than 35,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence in the last four years.

But incredibly, Mexico's President Felipe Calderón insists that the number of dead demonstrates that the war on drugs is winning.

Michele Leonhart, administrator of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, agrees. "It may seem contradictory, but the unfortunate level of violence is a sign of success in the fight against drugs," she said. "They are like caged animals, attacking one another."

By any humane measure, however, the war is lost. Despite the deployment of 45,000 army troops and 20,000 federal police across the country, marijuana, methamphetamine, cocaine and heroin are widely available in Mexico and the U.S.; the purity has increased; and prices have dropped.

Billions spent on beefed-up border patrols, armed checkpoints and drug-sniffing dogs at the 42 U.S.-Mexico border crossings haven't stopped the flow of drugs, guns or money. Systematic corruption of the police, military and immigration officials on both sides of the border guarantees that drug shipments get to their destinations.

A candlelight vigil in Cuernavaca in March held for victims of growing violence in the drug war
A candlelight vigil in Cuernavaca in March held for victims of growing violence in the drug war

And the violence never pauses. Entire cities have descended into urban war zones between rival gangs skirmishing to control drug markets and transit routes.

The war on drugs in Mexico was imported from the U.S. courtesy of the Bush administration. The Merida Initiative, an agreement signed by Presidents Bush and Calderón in 2007, allocated a package of $1.4 billion to the Mexican government to purchase semi-automatic weapons, Bell 412 military helicopters and surveillance systems to ramp up the drug war.

The Obama administration continued funding the drug war, providing an additional $1.2 billion. But the arsenals of the Mexican narcotraficantes (drug traffickers) are well stocked with military-grade hardware, too, including antitank rockets, fragmentation grenades and grenade launchers. Caches of AK-47 assault rifles are purchased from dealers conveniently located in the border states of Texas and Arizona.

The killing power of the weapons used in the war on drugs is responsible for the rising number of casualties. Alberto Islas, a security consultant for the Mexican government, explained, "There is an arms race between the cartels. One group gets rocket-propelled grenades, and the other has to have them."

The super-profits at stake encourage extreme retribution. The illicit drug business generates $40 billion a year for the drug cartels.

The militarized violence is similar to the violence of counterinsurgency wars fought by the U.S. in countries like Afghanistan and Iraq. Targeted assassinations, ambushes, shoot-outs, car bombings and highway blockades are the new normal in Mexico's war on drugs. Mutilated, bullet-ridden and beheaded bodies are left in public spaces to display the power of the cartels to kill without conscience or consequence.


CUIDAD JUÁREZ is ground zero for drug war atrocities and a lethal sexism known as femicide. Vicious combat between the Sinaloa and Gulf cartels over domestic markets and smuggling routes into the U.S. has laid siege to the city.

Calderón sent a "surge" of military troops and federal police into Ciudad Juárez, but that only escalated the violence. The fighting has killed 7,000 people, with drug murders averaging 12 a day. Since 1993, more than 800 women and girls have been raped, tortured and murdered--and the narcotraficantes are suspects in some of the killings.

Women's rights groups believe the bodies are ritually mutilated and dumped around Cuidad Juárez to "mark their [drug cartels] territory." Pink crosses memorializing the victims dot the landscape. Up to 200,000 people have fled the city, and those who remain live in fear for their lives.

The drug cartels are diversifying operations as a result of losing markets, customers and smuggling routes. They have expanded to include extortion, kidnapping for ransom and human trafficking, which has led to yet more slaughter.

In the state of Tamaulipas, 72 migrants were shot to death reportedly for refusing to give money or work for Los Zetas, a powerful drug gang composed of former Mexican army Special Forces soldiers. The sole survivor was an Ecuadorian teen who was shot, but managed to escape.

In response to the carnage, a government spokesperson said that the government would "continue its frontal assault against these organizations so that terrible events like those that occurred this week will not be repeated." But a massacre like Tamaulipas will most likely occur again, because drug cartels kill with impunity and most murders aren't investigated or prosecuted.

Drug cartels have infiltrated and corrupted law enforcement officials and the criminal justice system--and it's most extreme on the state level. Complicity between police, prosecutors and narcotraficantes is pervasive, and the idea of getting justice is a joke when $3 billion in bribes are paid out every year to maintain the status quo.

The Mexican media is under sustained, violent assault and has been effectively shut down in cities where drug cartels control much of the government. According to a report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) titled "Silence or Death in Mexico's Press," since 2006, 30 journalists and media workers have been murdered or disappeared.

Joel Simon, the CPJ's executive director, wrote, "Plomo o plata. Lead or silver. It's a well-worn phrase in Mexico, one that's all too familiar to the country's journalists. It means, simply, we own you. Take our plata (slang for money) and publish what we tell you. Or we kill you."

In the city of Reynosa, the Gulf cartel's control extends from local government officials and police, to taco venders and "pirate" taxi drivers on the streets, to journalists. The cartel dictates which stories are published and enforces its editorial line with a mix of chayo (bribes), threats and murder. Freedom of the press is another casualty in the war on drugs.

Eliseo Barrón Hernández, a veteran reporter in Durango, was murdered after he wrote a story about police corruption. A banner hung by the Sinaloa gang on a main road warned, "We are here, journalists. Ask Eliseo Barrón. El Chapo and the cartel do not forgive. Be careful, soldiers and journalists."

Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman is the kingpin of the Sinaloa cartel. Forbes magazine estimates Guzman's fortune at more than $1 billion and lists him among the "World's Most Powerful People," ranking him above the presidents of France and Venezuela.


MEANWHILE, PRESIDENT Calderón continues to celebrate drug war violence and ephemeral "victories" with his backers in Washington. President Barack Obama called Calderón personally and congratulated him for the killing of "Tony Tormenta," a leader of the Gulf cartel. The U.S. State Department had a $5 million bounty out on Tormenta.

But this "Whac-a-Mole" approach to the drug war triggers turf wars, internecine fighting and the splintering of cartels into new gangs. Humberto Palomares, a researcher at El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, noted, "They cut off one head and many more grow back."

Mexico's four-year drug war cannot be won. Just across the border, the biggest bully in the Northern Hemisphere--the United States--has been fighting its own war on drugs for 40 years, with no end in sight. Every so often, the U.S. declares a victory, and then the war continues.

The Mexican people are fed up with war on drug's violence and, in a magnificent display of solidarity, showed the only way to end it--mass protest.

Javier Sicilia, a nationally known journalist and poet whose son was murdered by a Gulf cartel hit man, called for national demonstrations on April 6. Twenty-six cities held protests. In Cuernavaca, 50,000 people marched, demanding that the army withdraw from the streets. In Mexico City, 20,000 rallied in the Zócalo, the main plaza in the city.

Protesters wore T-shirts with the slogans "Legalicen las drogas" (Legalize drugs) and "Tunez, Egipto, Yemen, México" (Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Mexico), and carried signs that said, "¡Ni uno más!" (Not one more!)

In a written statement, Sicilia called for the legalization of drugs and suggested that the consumption of drugs be treated as a public health matter. Calderón opposes the legalization of drugs, even marijuana, and thinks it would "send the wrong message." But it's the war on drugs--with its thousands of dead--that sends the wrong message and must be stopped.

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