The Failed War on Drugs in Mexico

March 25, 2009
By Manuel Pérez Rocha

Associate Fellow, Institute for Policy Studies, Washington D.C.

The United States has released the first $296 million dollars of a $400 million counter-drug assistance package approved in June 2008 by the US Congress for Mexico. This aid package, termed the Merida Initiative and also referred to by many civil society organisations as "Plan Mexico" (in reference to similarities with the Plan Colombia), has become one of the key elements in the joint US-Mexico anti-drug strategy. The $400 million dollars are part of the first year of US security assistance for Mexico and Central America; the Central American countries, the Dominican Republic and Haiti, received $65 million from the US for this time period. President Bush originally proposed a three-year $1.4 billion dollar aid package for Mexico based on his March 2007 visit with Mexican President Felipe Calderon in Merida, Mexico.

Although the recognition by the United States of its shared responsibility for drug trafficking and drug related violence is encouraging, the aid package and strategy itself are misguided and ill conceived because they are based on the imperatives of the Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America. The Merida Initiative concentrates too much money on hardware, particularly military hardware and not enough on the root causes of drug trafficking and the related problems of violence and corruption. Less than a quarter of the assistance will be spent on judicial reform, institution-building and other activities aimed at strengthening the rule of law and combating corruption in Mexico.

At the same time, what is glaringly absent are any additional commitments from the US for enhanced domestic efforts to curb demand for drugs and to address arms trafficking issues. Drug-related violence resulted in more than 5,700 killings in 2008 alone and more than 10,000 thousand in the present administration (see Justice in Mexico”, News Report, No. 28. Trans-Border Institute. University of San Diego, December 2008). Human rights organisations in Mexico and the United States fear that the military hardware may be used by the Mexican military as part of its repression of social discontent, dissidence and protest given the steep rise of economic hardship during Calderon's administration

A violent and failed crackdown

During the two years of Felipe Calderon’s presidency Mexico has experienced unprecedented levels of drug-related violence. As the drug trafficking organisations battle for turf, local drug markets and routes into the United States, the Mexican government’s strategy has shown itself to be incompetent, misguided and subordinated to the imperatives of the United States’ war on terror.

The growing perception in Mexico that the government has failed in its endeavour to tackle the drug cartels has been exacerbated by attacks to the civilian population like the one on September 15, 2008 in Morelos, Michoacan, which left eight people dead (see: Perez Rocha Manuel. A Violent Mexican Independence Day). A recent Washington Post editorial indicated that "more Mexican soldiers and police officers have died fighting the country's drug gangs in the past two years than the number of U.S. and NATO troops killed battling the Taliban." Of the thousands of people that died in 2008 in drug-related violence, at least 500 were police and soldiers.

The Mexican government has adopted several strategies to address public security and organised crime in the country. However, to tackle this problem in the coming years it is necessary to understand how the Mexican government’s war on drugs and the US security assistance package to Mexico fit within the logic of the framework of the much criticised Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP) of North America that has tied Mexico and Canada to the imperatives of George W. Bush’s war on terror. It is too soon to discern the new course that President Barack Obama may give to the United States’ binational relationship with Mexico and if the SPP is to continue.

The exclusive Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America

The Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America (SPP) was launched in March of 2005, as a “trilateral effort to increase security and enhance prosperity among the United States, Canada and Mexico through greater co-operation and information sharing”. This trilateral initiative was announced as “our security (Canada, Mexico and the U.S.) and our economic prosperity being mutually reinforcing”. Therefore, according to official definitions the SPP “provides the framework to ensure that North America is the safest and best place to live and do business. It includes ambitious security and prosperity programs to keep our borders closed to terrorism yet open to trade” and it “builds upon, but is separate from, our long-standing trade and economic relationships. It energises other aspects of our co-operative relations, such as the protection of our environment, our food supply, and our public health.” 

The SPP consists of a Security Agenda that includes the creation of a perimeter of enhanced security in the North American region, namely against “external threats” and “internal threats” within the region, as well as increasing the “efficiency of safe and low risk transit” through the shared borders; and a Prosperity Agenda: for the promotion of further deregulation in trade and investment to boost “competitiveness”. This agenda is also known by civil society organisations as the “NAFTA Plus” and includes building infrastructure projects, the further removal of trade tariffs and rules of origin, reducing the transaction costs of trade, and promoting regulatory harmonisation.

As the critics of a wide array of civil society organisations in the three countries of the North American region state, the SPP is mostly about bringing prosperity to large corporations who want to remove all obstacles to unfettered investment and security for the United States by means of drawing up changes to Canadian and Mexican regulations and procedures so they will be in sync with Washington’s security agenda. The SPP is defined as the “agreement in which the executives of the three countries along with the CEOs of great transnationals and the military industry attempt to impose on our peoples through a transnational, oligarchic and militarist project, another mechanism for the geo-economic and geo-strategic expansion of the United States not only at a regional but also at hemispheric and global levels”. (Some of the main critics in Mexico include the Mexican Action Network on Free Trade. See their recent publication (PDF) on the SPP)

A lack of democratic oversight

The main concerns in terms of process include the lack of democratic oversight, the exclusion of civil society and the media and in contrast the participation of large corporations (through the ad-hoc North American Competitiveness Council) as the only “stakeholders”. These politics of exclusion have contributed to the polarisation of the US public, adding fuel to anti-immigrant sentiment in the country and causing a reaction against Mexican migrants (See Perez Rocha Manuel: Divergent U.S. Critiques of the SPP). In terms of content, the SPP aims to continue the economic and financial deregulation for trade and investment; contribute to advancing the agenda for securing energy sources for the United States (oil, gas, water); create multifunctional transport corridors without environmental considerations; and contribute to ongoing agreements on regulatory convergence to US standards. In relation to security the purpose is to scale up measures to secure the U.S. borders as well as an intensification of regional militarisation including the extraterritorial presence and influence of the US military.

The Merida Initiative, although not a direct result of the SPP trilateral bureaucratic apparatus of 20 working groups , is a bi-national product of the same logic designed by the United States, and it contributes to enhance the incorporation of the Mexican military in counter-drug operations. It has been during the presidencies of Vicente Fox (2000 – 2006) and Felipe Calderón (2006 to date), both from the conservative National Action Party (PAN), that a “combination of economic-business and military-police strategies have opened up according to two interlinked designs of the White House: the SPP and the Merida Initiative”. Critics of the SPP explain that the trinational agenda for “deep integration”   means the looting of natural resources (gas, oil, minerals, water, and biodiversity) in tandem with a labour apartheid with a sharp exclusion of the population and of congresses. The SPP is also the wider framework by which the United States has guaranteed that its two neighbours to the North and South subordinate and adopt measures, like the Merida Initiative, to guarantee its security priorities and extend its security perimeter.

The failed war on drugs in Mexico

On its part, the Mexican federal government’s strategy to combat organised crime must be seen in relation to its need to gain legitimacy after the much questioned 2006 electoral process and the growing political, economic and social fragility in the country. This is particularly the case in the expanded use of the Mexican military in counter-drug operations throughout the country, which should correspond to the civilian police forces. The dependency on the military has been at the expense of adopting much needed reforms to Mexico’s police and judicial institutions to have effective police and judiciaries who are free from corruption and who are able to identify, prosecute and punish drug traffickers.

The main component of the Mexican government’s strategy to counter drug trafficking has been the massive deployment of soldiers and the federal police in 14 states in the country; it is estimated that over 35,000 soldiers have been involved in these operations. In spite of the government’s efforts, drug trafficking organisations have expanded their reach in Mexico -80 Mexican municipalities are considered to be dominated by the drug cartels- and some groups have expanded their operations beyond drug trafficking to also include extortion, kidnapping and pirated goods. Drug-related violence in Mexico has also expanded at alarming rates. During 2008 the number of drug-related killings jumped to approximately 5,700, almost doubling 2007 figures. Staggeringly, 400 killings have occurred during the first 25 days of 2009. (some statistics are available here)

400 killings in the first 25 days of 2009

The Mexican government has stated that the increase in violence in Mexico is a sign of the success of their counter-drug strategy as traffickers compete for fewer routes to traffic drugs into the United States. However, other factors are also at play such as the control over the leadership of organisations -particularly due to the detention of key capos in recent years-, efforts by rivals to take advantage of this leadership void in some organisations to take over territories or routes, as well as the Institutional Revolutionary Party’s (PRI) loss of control over the federal, state and local government as many argue that previously the PRI “served as a referee for the drug “cartels”, regulating, controlling, and containing the drug trade, while also protecting drug trafficking groups and mediating conflicts between them.” 

Given the different forms of power vacuum among the cartels, violence has been adopted as the only way for traffickers to settle scores, enforce deals with customers and intimidate law enforcement agencies. In this climate of escalated violence, innocent civilians are increasingly becoming caught in the crossfire, taken as hostages or, as in the case of the attack on Morelia, the target of terrorist intimidation. Another effect of this escalation is that “the most efficient trafficking networks survive. Not only do they survive, but they thrive because law enforcement has destroyed the competition for them by picking off unfit traffickers and letting the most evolved ones take over lucrative trafficking space” .

Mexican drug cartels

In this sense, equally concerning is the fact that the Mexican drug cartels have been increasing their presence in the United States, Central America and even South America, indicating that they seek to diversify their operations to other continents.

The failure to develop a comprehensive long-term strategy to address organised crime and drug trafficking in Mexico suggests that the government has not taken into account “the clear lesson of nearly two decades of efforts to confront powerful trafficking organisations: quick fix solutions divert attention and resources from the long-term reforms in the police and justice sector that are needed to deal effectively with the inter-related problems of illicit drugs, crime and violence. More military involvement in the “drug war” has increased corruption within the institution, generated human rights violations and failed to make a dent in the narcotics trade.” 

The Merida Initiative and its shortcomings

Mexico’s efforts to combat drug trafficking and address its security crisis cannot be seen in isolation from US counter-drug policies and the framework of US security policy towards the region under the SSP. The Merida Initiative - a security assistance package presented by the Bush Administration in October 2007 for three years of funding to combat drug trafficking, organised crime and other security threats in Mexico, Central America, Haiti and the Dominican Republic - is a key aspect of this strategy.

The Merida Initiative however, is deficient, misdirected and one-sided . The first year of the aid package concentrates its funding on helicopters, planes and other equipment and technology, while placing little emphasis on supporting reforms to Mexico’s judiciary and civilian public security institutions. Although the Calderon’s government has been right in calling on the US to do more domestically to provide additional funding for drug rehabilitation and prevention programs, exercise a tighter control over raw materials for drugs that arrive from Asia via California, increase control over money laundering and provide more oversight over the loose regulations that govern gun sales which facilitate their trafficking into Mexico - the Merida Initiative has not resulted in any increased commitments from the US government on these issues and has been accepted by the Mexican government as such.

The war on drugs and human rights

Due to the efforts of some human rights organisations, the Merida Initiative includes withholding 15% of police and military funding until the State Department reports to the US Congress on the efforts made in Mexico to improve police transparency and accountability and ensure investigations into human rights abuses committed by federal policy and members of the military. The use of the military in counter-drug operations, as supported in the Merida Initiative, is an important concern for human rights organisations in Mexico who have already documented multiple human rights abuses in these operations. Several international and regional human rights mechanisms have repeatedly expressed their concern on the participation o the Mexican military in public security tasks.

Since the 1980s, subsequent presidents of Mexico have increasingly incorporated the armed forces in drug control efforts and, more recently, in public security operations by which the Mexican Army has assumed the role of the police corps, combating drug trafficking, fighting against terrorism and in the contention of social and insurgent movements. Moreover, the Defence Ministry’s (SEDENA) Sectorial Program for National Defence (Programa Sectorial de Defensa Nacional) establishes a role for the Army in the fight against drug trafficking and organised crime until at least the end of Calderon’s government in 2012.

The Mexican Army and public security

The participation of the Mexican Army in public security tasks is of great concern given their human rights record and their lack of accountability to civilian institutions. Since 2000, the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) has received 2,966 complaints against the military of which 983 occurred in the context of the military-dominated counter-drug operations launched by Calderon in December 2006  . In the same period (2000-2008) the military have committed 6,874 violations to civil guarantees. In 2008 alone, the CNDH issued 14 recommendations to SEDENA for grave human right violations committed by members of the military; the majority of these abuses took place during counter-drug operations in the states of Tamaulipas, Michoacán, Sonora and Sinaloa. These violations included the death of seven civilians, including one minor, torture, arbitrary detention, violations to juridical security and being held incommunicado. 

According to the CNDH, the military presence in public security actions covers the country from South to North, the inclusion of the military in public security bodies is increasing and their intervention in the prevention of crime and to combat delinquency is an undeniable fact, not withstanding that the federal government itself has recognised that it is necessary to withdraw the military gradually from these tasks; it is a situation that gravely endangers the system of public liberties and human rights in the country.

An escalation of the criminalisation

Concerns regarding military abuses fit within the general context of human rights abuses in Mexico, the failure to comply with the recommendations made by international, regional and national human rights bodies, and several legal reforms that represent a setback for the respect for human rights. Examples of this situation include the alarming escalation of the criminalisation of dissidence and social protests, like those against the expropriation processes of communal and social goods, or commons, and modifications to the Article 27 of the Constitution by which foreign companies could engage in the exploitation of non renewable energy. In 2007 alone, the National Network of Human Rights Organizations, “All Rights for All” registered 60 cases of the criminalisation of social protest in 17 states of the country; 32 cases refer to human rights violations in the framework of economic development projects (roads, dams, mining, etc.) and 20 cases are specific to social protests linked to the demands for economic, social, cultural and environmental rights .

Moreover, the deregulation and profit-maximisation nature of the “prosperity” components of the SPP will only exacerbate conflicts of this nature in Mexico. The push for greater access for transnational corporations to land and natural resources and the lack of consultation with the local population for “development” projects is a pattern that will continue under the present regime. There are several examples of recurrent violations of economic, social and cultural rights of the population to give way to private projects where the military presence is imminent. Equipping the military for the struggle against drug trafficking is increasingly seen in Mexico as pretext within the growing tendency to label protesters and social activists as delinquents. The criminalisation of social protest and the growing militarisation of civilian life so that it is the military that confronts protests and social discontent are marking a very dangerous path for the future of Mexico.


International co-operation for combating drug trafficking in Mexico is necessary but it should be focused on structural reforms to the police and judicial systems and include full observance of human rights and civil society participation. Therefore, future years of the Merida Initiative should not include support for the military, nor additional equipment and hardware, but rather focus on co-operation mechanisms that strengthen Mexico’s efforts to increase the accountability and professionalisation of its law enforcement institutions, combat corruption and assist in the implementation of reforms to Mexico’s judicial institutions.

Likewise, structural economic changes that help Mexicans maintain their livelihoods through licit activities are urgent. Deregulation policies and free trade agreements have given a hand to abusive processes for the appropriation and privatisation of communal lands and territories causing massive displacement and unemployment, which provoke social unrest that is unduly met by the government with military-dominant forces. Also, massive economic and social dislocation serves the narcoeconomy.

On the part of the United States, although President Obama has expressed support for the Merida Initiative, he has also stated that more attention needs to be given in the US to issues of domestic drug consumption and several members of Congress are also interested in beginning a debate on US drug policy. Likewise, there are initiatives in Congress that, if passed, would address some deficiencies in US gun laws and enhance enforcement efforts for illicit gun sales. As the new administration and Congress move forward we will be able to see whether future US-Mexico anti-drug co-operation may be shifting in the right direction.

Moreover, the undemocratic and corporate - led Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America (SPP) should be stopped because it excludes Congressional oversight, lacks any consultation with civil society, leads to further deregulation that benefits only corporations and has increased militarisation and violation of civil liberties.