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Mexico’s Mounting Drug Trade

Prepared by: Stephanie Hanson
Updated: October 6, 2006


President Bush’s signing of legislation to construct 700 miles of double-layered fencing on the U.S.-Mexico border highlights U.S. efforts to establish “operational control” of its porous southern frontier (WashPost). But critics say it joins a list of short-sighted U.S. policies toward its southern neighbor. Mexican officials are lodging a protest against the fence, which emerges at a time of steadily aggravating relations over another issue—a spike of grisly drug-related violence on the Mexican side of the border. U.S. and Mexican law enforcement agents are increasingly butting heads on how to wage the growing cross-border war on drugs (Dallas Morning News).

Until recently, the United States had praised Mexican President Vicente Fox’s antidrug efforts. He has overseen the formation of an elite and corruption-free police body known as the Federal Agency of Investigation (AFI), the arrest or killing of fifteen top cartel members, and the seizure of record amounts of narcotics (Business Week). But as drug-related violence worsens, and with Fox due to transfer power to President-Elect Felipe Calderon at the beginning of December, the United States has become increasingly critical of Mexico’s counternarcotics efforts. This has provoked anger from Mexican officials, who blame their drug trafficking problems partially on the United States’ high demand for drugs (ABC).

U.S.-Mexican relations over drug policy, much like migration, have long been acrimonious. Mexico bristled at the U.S. policy of yearly “certification” (PDF) an assessment of whether it was cooperating fully with U.S. counternarcotics efforts that was suspended in 2001. This mutual distrust has carried over into intelligence-sharing, writes Mexican diplomat Luis Herrara-Lasso in a Wilson Center working paper. U.S. agencies require their Mexican counterparts to give information without reciprocating, out of suspicion that corrupt Mexican officials accept bribes to leak intelligence to the drug cartels. And Mexico’s sense that the United States is meddling in its affairs isn’t confined to intelligence-gathering: In May, the United States pressured Fox to revoke (NYT) a newly passed Mexican law that would have decriminalized the possession of small amounts of drugs.  

Meanwhile, U.S. assistance to the Mexican “war on drugs” pales in comparison to the funding it has given to the Andean Counterdrug Initiative—some $5.4 billion since 2000, with the bulk of that money going to Colombia. In comparison, Mexico received roughly $31.2 million for antidrug efforts from the United States last year. Aside from information-sharing through a border partnership that is focused on trade and immigration issues (PDF), U.S. counternarcotics efforts in Mexico primarily entail training and technical assistance to Mexican law enforcement. Yet Mexico is the transit point for 70 percent to 90 percent of the cocaine entering the United States, the top foreign source of marijuana, a major supplier of heroin, and the primary foreign source of methamphetamine, the production of which has increased significantly in the past several years, according to the State Department’s 2006 International Narcotics Strategy Report.

Some experts argue that the United States’ high demand for illegal drugs—60 percent of the world’s total—stimulates organized crime in Mexico. Others, such as Laurie Freeman of the Washington Office on Latin America, say Fox’s tough drug policy, adopted in part to pacify the United States, led to the current savage turf wars by destabilizing the cartels (PDF). This CFR Special Report on U.S.-Mexican relations recommends deepened U.S.-Mexico cooperation on law enforcement, additional U.S. support for judicial reform and police training, and increased tolerance from Mexican law enforcement for joint intelligence operations with the United States.

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