In 2006, former Mexican president Felipe Calderón launched a massive crackdown against drug trafficking organizations, in conjunction with the United States. Since then, more than 40,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence. While the United States has supplied funding and labor to increase Mexico's institutional capacity to address drug trafficking, its primary focus has been on cross-border policing and targeting U.S. drug users. Analysts differ on how to address Mexico's growing internal strife, but a growing number agree that the U.S. war on drugs is a failure and necessitates a new approach. Enrique Peña Nieto, who succeeded Calderón as president in December 2012, has announced intentions to shift Mexico's drug war strategy to quell violence against civilians rather than targeting cartel leaders. Meanwhile, gradual moves have been made on the U.S. state level toward legalization and decriminalization of marijuana, one of the primary substances involved in the drug war, raising new questions about overall policy.
Mexico's Drug Trafficking
For decades, drug trafficking organizations used Mexico's entrenched political system to create "a system-wide network of corruption that ensured distribution rights, market access, and even official government protection for drug traffickers in exchange for lucrative bribes," according to a March 2011 CFR report. However, it was not until the late 1980s that Mexican organizations rose to their current prominence, in the wake of the United States' successful dismantling of Colombia's drug cartels. As the Colombian route was disrupted, Mexican gangs shifted from being "mere couriers" for Colombia to wholesalers, explains an August 2012 Congressional Research Service report (PDF).
By the time Calderón took office in 2006 with a pledge to eradicate trafficking organizations, drug violence was already on the rise, says University of San Diego Mexico expert David Shirk. "Moving very aggressively to promote a law and order agenda was a deliberate strategy to cope with this chaotic moment," Shirk says of the Calderón administration.
Mexico is a major supplier of heroin to the U.S. market, and the largest foreign supplier of methamphetamine and marijuana. Mexican production of all three of these drugs has increased since 2005, as has the amount of drugs seized at the southwest border, according to the U.S. Department of Justice (PDF). While assessments vary as to how much of the marijuana originates in Mexico, a 2010 Rand Corporation report (PDF) estimated it at anywhere from 40 to 67 percent. An estimated 95 percent of cocaine now travels through Mexico (PDF) into the United States, up from 77 percent in 2003. Overall, the U.S. State Department found that U.S. drug users send between $19 and $29 billion annually into the coffers of Mexican drug cartels.
Mexico's drug system provides direct or indirect employment for much of its population, says Brookings narcotics expert Vanda Felbab-Brown. She estimates that as much as 40 to 50 percent of the Mexican population works in the "informal, if not illegal, economy." Officials estimate that the drug trade makes up 3 to 4 percent of Mexico's $1.5 trillion annual GDP—totaling as much as $30 billion—and employs at least half a million people.
Mexico's War Effort
From 2006 to 2012, Calderón sent more than 50,000 soldiers onto Mexico's streets, invested billions of dollars on equipment and training, attempted to vastly reform the police and judicial systems, and strengthened Mexico's partnership with the United States (PDF). But a legacy of "political manipulation of law enforcement and judicial branches, which limited professionalization and enabled widespread corruption" has left the government with "only weak tools to counter increasingly aggressive crime networks," writes CFR's Shannon O'Neil in America's Quarterly.
The police are easily bought, in part because in many cities, they earn less than teachers or even burrito vendors. On the website InSight Crime, Patrick Corcoran notes that "an underpaid officer could double or triple his salary by simply agreeing to look the other way." The CFR report notes police agencies "suffer from dangerous and deplorable working conditions, low professional standards, and severely limited resources."
"It is ultimately the great shame of the last decade that we've made all this effort, we've lost all of these lives, and at the end of the day, we've made no real substantive progress in reducing the availability of drugs, and the cost is extraordinary violence." --David Shirk
The Calderón administration attempted to counter police corruption by dramatically increasing the role of the military in the fight against drug cartels. Not only have tens of thousands of military personnel been deployed to supplement, and in many cases replace, local police forces, they have also been heavily recruited to lead civilian law enforcement agencies (PDF).
Mexico's judicial system—with its autocratic judges and lack of transparency—is also highly susceptible to corruption. The Congressional Research Service report noted that even when public officials are arrested for working with a cartel, they are rarely convicted.
Calderón's militarization strategy also resulted in accusations of serious human rights abuses. A November 2011 report by Human Rights Watch found that "rather than strengthening public security in Mexico, Calderón's 'war' has exacerbated a climate of violence, lawlessness, and fear in many parts of the country." The report, which looked at five states, documented more than one hundred and seventy cases of torture, thirty-nine disappearances, and twenty-four extrajudicial killings.
Despite the problems associated with the militarization of Mexican law enforcement, the administration has heralded the successes of its offensive against the cartels. Through bilateral cooperation with the United States, the government killed or captured twenty-five of the top thirty-seven most wanted drug kingpins in Mexico.
Instead of diminishing the cartels' presence, in many instances Calderón's strategy amplified drug-related violence. According to the Mexican government's figures, as of September 2012, a total of 47,515 people have been killed in drug-related violence since Calderón began his military assault on criminal cartels. Since 2006, more than 3,000 Mexican soldiers and police have been killed by the cartels (NPR). Moreover, in 2010, the nature of the violence began to shift. Since January 2010, more than twenty sitting mayors have been killed by cartels (IBT), and many other politicians have since been murdered or have disappeared. Massacres of civilians, beheadings, and mass graves also have become increasingly common (Reuters). The eradication efforts also have led to violent succession battles within the cartels (PDF). Claremont McKenna Mexico expert Roderic Camp notes that in addition to drug-related homicides, there is an increase "in homicides that are the product of one cartel killing members of another cartel." In 2012, Mexico's attorney general said that the crackdown on cartel leaders splintered the organizations, creating between sixty and eighty new cartels (Reuters).
The Committee to Protect Journalists cites Mexico as the eighth-deadliest country for reporters. Traditional media outlets have come to fear reprisals for reporting drug-related crimes, which has led to an increased use of blogs and social media outlets, although these, too, have been increasingly targeted by the cartels (AS/COA).
And while violence has decreased in some areas, a report by the University of San Diego's Trans-Border Institute found that in other states, it dramatically increased (PDF), showing that, "at best, troop deployments appeared to merely displace the violence." The violence is also spilling into other parts of Central America (FP). In 2011, 60 percent of cocaine traffic into the United States traveled through Mexico via Central America, up from 1 percent in 2007, which is considered a significant contributor to the region's high murder rates. Regions such as Guadalajara and Veracruz, once thought safe, are being affected by the violence as well (NYT).
In a 2009 speech, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton acknowledged the U.S. role in fueling Mexico's drug violence, and said the United States had a responsibility to help address it. In February 2011, the New York Times reported that the United States began sending unarmed drones to collect intelligence on traffickers. In August, the Times reported that the United States had expanded its role in cross-border raids, sending CIA operatives and retired military personnel to a Mexican military base, while training federal agents to assist in wiretaps, interrogations, and running informants. The United States has also ramped up security on its own side of the border, spending approximately $3 billion annually on patrolling the border.
In 2008, the United States instituted the Merida Initiative, which designated nearly $1.4 billion in U.S. funds for Mexico, Central America, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. The bulk of the money went to Mexico, with a mandate to "break the power of organized crime, strengthen the U.S. southern border, improve Mexican institutional capacity, and reduce the demand for drugs," according CFR's O'Neil (PDF). In March 2010, this partnership was renewed with Beyond Merida, which expanded the program to also target judicial and political corruption.
The United States supplies 90 percent of the weapons that are confiscated in Mexico (PDF), according to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. The arms component has become increasingly relevant, due to a controversial ATF gun-trafficking sting known as "Fast and Furious." In 2009, 2,000 U.S. weapons were sold to people known to be involved with the drug cartels, but some 1,400 weapons were lost, many of which later turned up at crime scenes, including at the site of a shooting of a U.S. border patrol agent in December 2010 (LAT).
Decriminalization--or not arresting people for simply possessing drugs—is one of the most argued-for policy options. In November 2012, two U.S. states notably passed measures to legalize the recreational use of marijuana (CNN), signaling growing popular support for decriminalization. However, these state laws remain in conflict with U.S. federal law, and the issue has yet to arise in the legal system. In 2009, a commission of Latin American experts, including three former presidents from the region, concluded that the drug war required a paradigm shift (PDF) to focus on decriminalization and health services. A 2011 report by the Global Commission on Drug Policy advocated treatment services instead of arresting users, noting successful decriminalization programs in Portugal and Australia that did not lead to increased drug use in either country.
While acknowledging that decriminalization would result in fewer U.S. incarcerations, Mark Kleiman questions this strategy in Foreign Affairs, arguing that it would put more drugs into the hands of users and increase the size of Mexico's export market. Instead, he advocates focusing U.S. enforcement efforts on the most violent dealers and dealing organizations, while simultaneously working to reduce the drug demand of criminally active heavy users. Frequent drug testing and swift but mild probation and parole for these users has seen remarkable success in programs like Hawaii's HOPE program (PDF), which has reduced both drug use and days incarcerated.
A major piece of the U.S. and Mexican strategy against cartels has been to target so-called "high-value" individuals or low-level, highly visible "foot soldiers." But Brookings' Brown advocates aggressively targeting the middle layer, which is intrinsic to the operational capacity and not as easily replaceable. Their ouster also does not result in the same number of people violently vying for leadership roles. She and other experts support a more hierarchical approach to targeting traffickers, prioritizing those that are most violent, rather than "lashing out in an indiscriminant manner whenever any intelligence comes in."
Brown does not believe that violence will continue at the levels seen in recent years, stressing that the situation in Mexico is not indicative of "how drug markets behave," but she remains unsure what will drive the violence down.
Mexico's new president, Enrique Peña Nieto, who was inaugurated in December 2012, has said (TIME) that he is "personally against legalization" and intends to continue Mexico's fight against drug trafficking. Upon taking office, he offered a strategy shift away from his predecessor's policy, pledging to "focus more on reducing violence and less on catching cartel leaders and blocking drugs from reaching the United States." An FPIF article notes that this could mean a reduction in the violence associated with "power vacuums" left by killed or captured kingpins.
Regardless of the various proposals, many experts are not optimistic about the situation improving in the short term. "It is ultimately the great shame of the last decade that we've made all this effort, we've lost all of these lives, and at the end of the day, we've made no real substantive progress in reducing the availability of drugs, and the cost is extraordinary violence," says Shirk.
This Congressional Research Service report (PDF) details the source and scope of rising violence in Mexico's drug war.
In this CFR report, David Shirk of the University of San Diego assesses the prospects for U.S. support to strengthen state institutions in Mexico to enhance its fight in the drug war.
Mark Kleiman outlines smarter policies for both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border in this 2011 Foreign Affairs piece.
Brianna Lee and Janhavi Purohit contributed to this report.