THE WAR ON DRUGS: Calderon at the crossroads

Lack of progress in Mexico's drugs war could be punished at the polls

  • By Lucy Conger
  • 21 Mar 2010
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When Felipe Calderón, Mexico’s president, visited Ciudad Juárez, the country’s most violent city, in February, he was greeted with waves of angry protesters carrying placards reading “Calderón. Assassin.”

Calderón’s anti-drugs strategy – which saw 8,000 federal police and army soldiers deployed last year to fight drug traffickers in the border town with the US – was slammed as a failure.

The president responded by pledging to broaden his drug war by increasing social spending and introducing programmes to reduce unemployment, increase schooling and recreation for youth and combat addiction. “We’re all Juárez; let’s reconstruct Juárez,” he said.

But it’s going to take more than slogans to calm the outrage of Juárez residents after the January slayings of 15 young people attending a birthday party. In the disputed drug corridor, homicides have increased sharply, rising from 316 murders in 2007 to 2,640 in 2009. On February 17, the same day that Calderón spoke to distressed Juárez citizens, no fewer than 12 people – including a mayor and three district attorney’s agents – were killed in Juárez’s state of Chihuahua in the north of the country.

The economic impact of the drug wars has been huge. In recent years, hundreds of Juárez businesses have closed, and thousands have fled the city. “The government long thought its security strategy was popular in the north because the PAN, the National Action Party, enjoyed good support there,” says Allyson Benton, Mexico analyst with the Eurasia Group political risk consultancy. But as the protests in Juárez showed, the thinking was misplaced.

Ten governorships are up for grabs this year, including July 4 elections in the northern states of Chihuahua and Sinaloa where PAN has long had strong support. In all 10 state contests, PAN faces an uphill battle, says Benton. In 2009 mid-term and gubernatorial races, PAN suffered humiliating defeats.

The former ruling political force, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), regained a majority position in the lower house of Congress last year and foresees a steady march back to statehouses and victory in the 2012 presidential race.

Drug trafficking is at the top of the agenda in this year’s state elections, and PRI’s chances of trouncing PAN will be enhanced by growing doubts over Calderón’s drugs strategy.

Security is fast becoming a top priority for Mexicans. In one mid-February poll it trumped concerns over the economy, which last year shrunk by 7%, though other polls contradict this. Disillusionment with the war against drugs increased, with 56% of those surveyed saying the country had become more insecure owing to the war on drugs, according to Buendia & Laredo, a Mexico City polling agency. Seven out of 10 Mexicans believe that violence related to drug-trafficking has increased in the past six months.

Across Mexico, Calderón’s deployment of force has resulted in yet more killings. Nationwide, some 40,000 soldiers and 20,000 federal police have been mobilized since the drug war was launched in December 2006. More than 7,700 people were killed throughout the country in 2009 in slayings associated with organized crime – a sharp increase from 2,700 in 2007 and 6,000 in 2008, according to the murder count kept by El Universal, a Mexico City daily.

The result? Calderón has begun to take heat from his own PAN party. Manuel Clouthier, a PAN federal deputy from northern Sinaloa state, made a stinging denunciation of Calderón’s drug strategy on February 18. “Three years of Calderón’s government has passed, and in Sinaloa we’ve not seen decisive action against the narcos; nothing is being done seriously,” said Clouthier, son of the PAN party’s popular presidential candidate in 1988. The response he got was a demand from his party to resign his seat in Congress.

In Juárez for the first time, Calderón recognized that his war on drugs cannot be waged exclusively with force, and he has opened himself to listening to public opinion.


Generating a new strategy – especially a broader, multi-faceted approach to combating drugs and violence – is a daunting task. “The strategy is failing; there isn’t a consensus about a new strategy,” says Ana Paula Hernández, a specialist in drug policy and human rights and leader of the Mexico-based Collective for a Comprehensive Drug Policy.

Calderón’s proposal in Juárez of a new strategy aiming to mend the city’s social fabric was met with scepticism. “The president is all about re-electing the PAN; there is no overriding strategy,” says Daniel Lund, director of Mund Group, an opinion research agency.

Social spending, employment programmes and school and playground rehabilitation won’t have an impact on rehabilitating youth and regenerating barrios unless the cartels are dismembered, says Jorge Chabat, a political scientist specialized in security issues with CIDE, Mexico City’s Center for Economic Research and Teaching. In Medellín, Colombia, the violence-ridden city was able to make a comeback only after drug lord Pablo Escobar was slain and other capos taken out of action.

A host of structural problems must be tackled, such as cleaning up and training police forces, beefing up intelligence and bolstering enforcement on money laundering. Local police forces are responsible for prosecuting all homicides, and only 5% of all murders are punished. The low probability of being jailed for crimes reduces fear of the police.

A recent law to crack down on small-scale drug consumption puts municipal and state police in charge of the arrests, giving more power to the unprofessional security forces that are subject to corruption, says Maureen Meyer, associate for Mexico at the Washington Office on Latin America, an advocacy group based in the US capital.

Greater ability to fight crime effectively requires building more capacity to investigate drug traffickers. In a celebrated case, 19 mayors from all three leading political parties were arrested in Calderón’s home state of Michoacan last year for alleged links to drug trafficking. Most were later released after being held for a relatively short period of time by Mexican judicial norms.

A far-reaching police reform is needed to create professional forces accountable to their superiors and the public. The problem runs deep, says Ernesto López Portillo, a former security adviser to the attorney-general and Congress and now head of the Institute for Security and Democracy (INSYDE). “From its origin, the police force was designed as an arm of political control, was not given the necessary resources but was authorized to finance itself,” says López Portillo.

The police have been given more powers but have not evolved into a professional, reliable and capable force. Lopez Portillo heads a number of programmes to develop accountability and professionalism in several local and state police forces.

Nothing short of an overhaul of the police and their responsibilities nationwide will begin to solve the problems of law enforcement, analysts say. A national police force operating under uniform codes should be created to supplant the fragmented and weak structures of municipal and state police.


Mexico’s laws for combating money laundering are in line with international conventions, but implementation is inadequate. “There must be the political will to apply the law; the instruments are not used and you are not going to generate results,” says Samuel González Ruiz, a lawyer and former government adviser on organized crime.

Shutting down money laundering has eluded most governments. Because of its porous 3,100km border with the US, Mexico faces enormous challenges in controlling all types of illegal exchange across the frontier. Moreover, each year, some $25 billion flows into Mexico in the form of remittances sent by wire in sizes of $200 or $300 by migrant workers in the US. In recent years, remittances have also been used to launder money.

Mexico cannot solve its problems alone, says Jorge Castañeda, a former foreign minister, and Héctor Aguilar Camín, a historian and commentator writing in a recent article in Nexos magazine. “It makes no sense to declare war on the narco if you don’t have the necessary army, police and intelligence, and the only way to have them is with foreign aid. In our case it can only come from the US,” they say.

The Calderón strategy is correct, argue other analysts, but it is the first stage of a long-term strategy. “In the short term, it won’t have results,” says Chabat of CIDE. The only other option is to legalize drugs, but without backing from the US, that is not feasible.

The question now facing the government – and shortly to be considered by voters in the state elections – is how much the PAN will take the blame for its failure to bring down the cartels and tame the violence.

  • By Lucy Conger
  • 21 Mar 2010

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