One of the most obvious policy initiatives that the United States could undertake right now is is to seriously up the amount of help being given Mexico to bolster security along the US-Mexican border and to help to reform the Mexican judicial system. We started this process last year with the Merida Initiative, but the latter needs to be expanded and better funded right now. This is what they call a no-brainer.
The drug war in Mexico that has been in the news recently started due to the personal commitment undertaken by Mexican President Felipe Calderόn to eliminate the influence of narco-traffickers after his election in December 2006. The war has been fought in cities like Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez right on the American border, as well as in southern states like Sinaloa and Guerrero. Since the current war began in early 2007, nearly 10,000 people have been killed, 6,286 of them in 2008 alone.
The reason that Mexico has such a big problem with narco-traffickers, aside from the existence of a huge market for drugs to the north, is the weakness of certain basic Mexican institutions, and particularly its judicial system. Mexico like the United States is a federal state, and responsibility for dealing with drug trafficking is split between federal, state, and local jurisdictions. During the years when the dominant PRI was in power, many state governors and local officials came to have cozy relationships with drug lords. Mexican police are infamous for their corruption and the degree to which they have been penetrated by drug gangs. Mexican citizens have very jaundiced views of their own police, whom they tend to regard as part of the problem. Indeed, one of the most dangerous drug gangs was recruited from among an elite anti-drug strike force. Calderόn has brought in the army in places like Ciudad Juarez to replace the local police who are either corrupt or intimidated, but this risks corrupting the military as well.
It is hard to know how much progress has actually been made in this struggle. Part of the reason for the escalation in the number of killings recently is that the early stages of the war succeeded in removing many of the top leadership layers of the drug gangs. There is now an open struggle for power going on, with heavy gang-on-gang violence.
The Mexican government has started a number of reforms and needs to enact more if it is to win this struggle. It has sought to create clear national guidelines for the recruiting and training of local police. The federal government needs much stronger police powers and the ability to deploy something like the US FBI. The court systems are clogged and weak. A number of progressive Mexican states like Nuevo Léon have undertaken judicial reform experiments in recent years; these need to be expanded and further replicated elsewhere in Mexico.
As many observers have noted, the drug problem in Latin American countries like Mexico originates in the United States, with the high level of demand for illegal drugs on the part of American consumers. Over the past several decades, US drug policy has focused almost entirely on the supply rather than the demand side. Many economists looking at the drug problem have noted that supply side interdictions may temporarily raise the costs of illegal drugs in the US, but that markets respond by finding alternative routes and sources of supply. Cocoa eradication in Peru and Bolivia pushed the problem into Colombia; Colombian anti-drug efforts pushed the problem into Central America and Mexico. When the US closed supply routes through the Caribbean, Mexican traffickers picked up the slack, and also found alternative markets in Europe. There has been no serious diminution of either the total quantity of illegal drugs consumed, or their price (indeed, the price of cocaine has been dropping steadily in Europe since the early 1990s).
All of this suggests that without greater demand-side efforts, the United States will never make a serious dent in the drug trafficking problem. Virtually all of the social costs of the “war on drugs” is borne by producing or transshipment countries in Latin America, at the cost of political stability and economic development.1
The most straightforward way to reduce demand, of course, would be legalization under a tightly regulated regime, much the way that alcohol and cigarettes are currently marketed.However, while legalization has been proposed by many people over the years, it has very little chance of being enacted by Congress, and therefore is not for the time being a realistic policy choice. Not only that, much of the world is locked into commitments not to legalized drugs, based on a trio of UN conventions passed with heavy support from the United States.Demand-side interventions like better drug education and treatment will not fundamentally lance the boil, but will bring demand down somewhat.
The reason why the US should undertake a comprehensive effort to improve security and bolster judicial reform in Mexico is therefore not because this will somehow “solve” America’s drug problem. Indeed, Mexico’s current war on drug gangs has already pushed a lot of their activity into smaller countries like Guatemala and El Salvador; a serious plan would have to be regional and not simply focused on Mexico.There are, instead, another set of considerations that would argue in favor of a new initiative:
Democracy and political stability in Mexico are very important to the United States. As a result of the recent drug wars, there has been a lot of loose talk about Mexico becoming a “failed state.” This rhetoric is much overblown, but it is the case that the drug trade is highly corrupting to Mexico’s basic political institutions. It will be impossible to deal with Mexico on immigration or any other problem if its government can’t govern, is pervaded by corruption, or is unable to enforce the law in border areas.
Mexico has a serious, pro-American president who has already invested a huge amount of political capital in the drug war.Felipe Calderόn of the center-right PAN nearly lost to the PRD populist Manuel Lopez Obrador in the last presidential election. Mexico’s poverty makes the populist alternative a continuing attraction for Mexican borders, and the United States needs to bolster the credibility of sensible democrats in its neighborhood. We do not need another Hugo Chávez right on our border.
Improving security against narco-traffickers is actually achievable through public policy. While beefed-up security measures cannot stop the drug trade, it is possible to defeat drug gangs and increase levels of security. The proof of this is Plan Colombia, which the Clinton administration initiated and the Bush administration continued, which has emerged as one of the most successful hemispheric initiatives of recent decades. While the effect of Plan Colombia on Colombian cocaine production may be temporary, the impact on the daily lives of citizens of that country has been enormous. Levels of everyday security in cities like Bogotá and Medellin have improved enormously over the past six years.
Under the Bush administration, the United States has launched the so-called Merida Initiative, which Congress reluctantly funded at a level of $1.4 billion. The Merida Initiative is explicitly patterned on Plan Colombia, but has not been funded at nearly as generous a level. Mexican nationalism has prevented Mexican governments from appearing to be too cooperative with the United States, but in the course of the recent drug war, 150 Mexicans have been deported for trial in the United States. Felipe Calderόn met with Barack Obama on Jan. 12 and proposed a “strategic partnership” with the United States on this issue, which the Obama administration has yet to take up. The 3½ remaining years of Pres. Calderόn’s term represent a big opportunity to move ahead with an expanded Merida Initiative.
An expanded initiative ought to focus not just on hardware and greater police cooperation, but on help to reform Mexico’s judicial system more broadly. The United States has participated in rule-of-law reform efforts in many parts of the world, and could launch similar programs in Mexico. We do not have the answers to fixing Mexico’s judicial system, but its federal structure allows for considerable experimentation.
One difficult issue will be the question of arms supply. As many recent news stories have made clear, Mexican drug gangs are able to buy assault rifles and heavy weapons in the United States, and use them to outgun the local police. Efforts to control this traffic will run afoul of guns rights advocates in the United States, but there may be ways in which we can bolster the ability to monitor the flow of arms across the border.
There are downsides of increased security cooperation with Mexico as well. Perhaps the most important is the danger that it poses to our own judicial system. The amount of money available to Mexican drug gangs is so enormous that greater involvement by US police and courts will ultimately lead to the danger of the corruption of American institutions. But there is no reason why the Mexicans alone should bear the costs and consequences of a problem that originates, after all, in the United States.
1. The drug market’s effect on economic development is complex. In many Latin American countries, illegal drugs constitutes a major source of income and foreign earnings. On the other hand, the illegality of the participants in these markets severely corrupts and corrodes legal and political systems, undermines the quality of democracy, and thereby affects long-term prospects for legitimate economic growth.