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A Regional Strategy for Drug Wars in the Americas

SOURCE: AP/Guillermo Arias

Federal police officers take a suspect into custody following a shooting in Tijuana, Mexico, in March 2009. Drug-related violence has been rising steadily on both sides of the border.

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Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Attorney General Eric Holder are in Mexico today on the heels of a March 24, 2009, announcement from the Obama administration of a $700 million border security strategy. The new initiative will focus U.S. law enforcement efforts on working with their Mexican counterparts at the border to reduce illegal flows of weapons and money pouring into Mexico and drugs coming into the United States. The $700 million has been appropriated through the Merida Initiative, a $1.4 billion initiative signed by President George W. Bush in 2008 and expected to last for three years.

The administration’s increased attention to Mexico comes after accounts of increased spillover of the violence in Mexico into U.S. territory, including increased drug-related crime such as home invasions and kidnappings in several cities close to the border. The news is alarming and reason for concern, but the incidence of violence on the U.S. side of the border barely approaches anything near levels south of the border. Last year, approximately 6,000 people died in Mexico due to drug-related violence, more than the total number of casualties in either Iraq or Afghanistan for the same year.

Most media attention to the violence has been sensationalized to give the impression that the Mexican state is on the verge of collapse. This is simply not the case. While the increased violence in Mexico has shaken many communities in the major drug trafficking regions of the country, the eruption in violence has been, to a large degree, in response to Mexican government efforts to clamp down on drug trafficking organizations operating in their territory.

Shortly after taking office in 2006, Mexican President Felipe Calderón dispatched the military to tackle the drug trafficking organizations’ operations head on. Since then, roughly 45,000 soldiers and 5,000 federal police have been deployed to eight Mexican states to strengthen Mexico’s counternarcotic law-enforcement capabilities. In 2007, the Mexican government extradited four senior drug traffickers of the Gulf, Tijuana, and Sinaloa cartels and 11 others wanted for prosecution in the United States. The extradition had the unintended countereffect of unleashing a turf war and power struggle among the major Mexican drug cartels.

Unprecedented levels of violence, including intercartel and intracartel fighting, and cartels fighting the Mexican military, has pushed the United States to finally recognize publicly its role in fueling the violence south of its border with Mexico. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said during a late March visit to Mexico that the United States’ “insatiable” demand for drugs means that it bears “co-responsibility” for helping Mexico fight the drug cartels.

The United States is the world’s single largest consumer of illicit drugs, and 90 percent of the cocaine grown in the Andean region of South America makes its way into the United States across the U.S.-Mexico border. Mexican and U.S. government officials estimate that approximately 90 percent of the weapons used by the cartels to wage their bloody turf wars come from the United States. Furthermore, Mexican government confiscations have revealed an alarming number of military-grade weapons being used by the cartels, such as AK-47 assault rifles, .30 caliber machine guns, AR-15 rifle models, 66 mm light antitank weapons, and 40 mm automatic grenade launchers. It is difficult to see how the U.S. “war on drugs”—first described as such by President Richard Nixon in 1969—has done anything to reduce the power of drug trafficking organizations in the Americas, let alone reduce the demand for drugs in the United States.

The border security strategy announced by President Barack Obama on March 24 is an attempt to begin correcting the failure of the  U.S. counternarcotics strategy. The $700 million will be devoted to increased surveillance and law enforcement capacities on both sides of the border, as well as increased judicial capacity, through technology transfers to and training for Mexican police and judicial agencies.

Focusing on Mexico’s judicial system on the heels of judicial reforms signed into law by President Calderón in June 2008 is an important component of President Obama’s border security strategy. The United States has the most potential to help Mexico overcome its militarized fight against the cartels and strengthen public confidence in its civilian institutions by helping Mexico train law enforcement officials and root out corruption in its local police agencies.

The border security strategy, and even the wider Merida Initiative, is only a first step in making the U.S. counternarcotics strategy more effective in reducing devastating levels of drug-related violence and corruption in Latin America and the Caribbean. Better law enforcement responses to illegal drug flows is only part of the solution. What is also needed is an actual commitment in the United States to reduce domestic demand for drugs. RAND studies released in the mid-1990s found that using drug user treatment to reduce drug consumption in the United States is seven times more cost effective than law enforcement efforts alone, and it could potentially cut consumption by a third.

Until the United States manages to reduce its drug consumption levels, drug trafficking organizations are simply going to find another way to get their drugs to the lucrative U.S. market. Mexico has experienced a surge of drug trafficking activity partly because of the relative success of increased U.S. interdiction efforts in Colombia and the Caribbean. The takeaway lesson is that the Merida Initiative, with its overwhelming focus on Mexico, is not enough. If we fight the drug trafficking organizations out of Mexico or at the very least frustrate their efforts to use the U.S.-Mexico border as their main access point to the United States, they will simply relocate to Central America, a region that is arguably much more vulnerable to the corrupting and corrosive effects of drug trafficking due to its relatively weaker institutions and judicial systems.

While the Merida Initiative and recently unveiled border security strategy are important first steps in dealing with the growing violence and instability reaped by drug trafficking organizations in Mexico, it would be myopic for the Obama administration to stop there. The administration must view Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean in an integrated manner and develop a truly regional strategy for combating drug trafficking that raises allocated funds to Central America and the Caribbean in tandem with efforts in Mexico. Although Vice President Joseph Biden promised $100 million to Central America as part of the Merida Initiative fund increase of fiscal year 2009, splitting that amount between seven countries dilutes the intended beneficial effects.

Concentrating on reducing drug-related violence and other problems almost exclusively in Mexico at the potential expense of Central America is an error that the Obama administration must avoid. Until the administration commits the resources necessary to develop a comprehensive regional strategy, it remains to be seen whether the Obama administration will continue to build on the important first steps taken in March 2009 to tackle the latest challenges presented by drug trafficking in the Americas.

Stephanie Miller is a Research Associate for the Americas Project at the Center for American Progress.

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