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U.S. and Mexico Must Increase Cooperation to Confront Drug War, Argues CFR Report

March 29, 2011
Council on Foreign Relations


“Mexico is in the midst of a worsening security crisis,” warns David A. Shirk, director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego, in a new Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) Special Report from the Center for Preventive Action. “Explosive clashes and territorial disputes among powerful drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) have killed more than thirty-five thousand people since President Felipe Calderón took office in December 2006.” Estimates place the profits from the drug industry at $30 billion per year—about 3 to 4 percent of Mexico's GDP.

Shirk stresses that the United States is not immune from the effects of this drug trade. “The February 2011 killing of a U.S. immigration and customs agent signals that U.S. law enforcement officials are now in the crosshairs.” Tensions between Washington and Mexico City flared up in the wake of the recent Wikileaks scandals. Cables criticizing Mexico's handling of the drug cartels resulted in Carlos Pascual, U.S. ambassador, resigning. However, “the United States remains the world's largest consumer of illegal drugs. It is also the world's largest supplier of weapons, which fuel the drug war in a more direct way.”

Shirk notes that “despite the most dismal assessments, the Mexican state has not failed, nor has it confronted a growing insurgent movement.” In addition, “Mexico has made impressive efforts to improve the transparency and credibility of elections, protect the rights of indigenous people, strengthen judicial independence, and even investigate past government abuses.”

In The Drug War in Mexico: Confronting a Shared Threat, Shirk points out that the United States has “much to gain by helping strengthen its southern neighbor and even more to lose if it does not” for the following reasons.

- The weaker the Mexican state, the greater difficulty the United States will have in controlling the nearly two-thousand-mile border. As the dominant wholesale distributors of illegal drugs to U.S. consumers, Mexican traffickers are also the single greatest domestic organized crime threat within the United States.

- Economically, Mexico is an important ally for the United States. It is the third-largest trade partner, the third-largest source of U.S. imports, and the second-largest exporter of U.S. goods and services. Trade with Mexico benefits the U.S. economy, and “the market collapse that would likely accompany a deteriorated security situation could hamper U.S. economic recovery.”

- Mexican stability serves as an anchor for the region. “Given the fragility of some Central American and Caribbean states, expansion of DTO operations and violence into the region would have a gravely destabilizing effect.”

- If the security conditions in Mexico were to worsen, “a humanitarian emergency might lead to an unmanageable flow of people into the United States. It would also adversely affect the many U.S. citizens living in Mexico.”

Shirk recommends a three-pronged approach for U.S. policy that can help Mexico overcome its security crisis.

- Enhance and consolidate the mechanisms for bilateral and multilateral security cooperation in Mexico and Central America.

- Focus on U.S. drug demand, firearms, and money laundering at home, and direct greater assistance for institutional and economic development, such as educational and judicial reform.

- Work toward drug policy adaptation that includes alternative approaches to reducing the harms caused by drugs.

Full text of the report. For more on Latin America, see CFR's newest blog, authored by fellow Shannon K. O'Neil. She explains the blog's purpose is to “make sense of the political, economic, and diplomatic currents in the region, as well as its at times friendly and at times fractious relations with the United States.” Click here for “Latin America's Moment.”

David A. Shirk is the director of the Trans-Border Institute and assistant professor of political science at the University of San Diego. He conducts research on Mexican politics, U.S.-Mexico relations, and law enforcement and security along the U.S.-Mexican border. Shirk received his PhD in political science at the University of California, San Diego, and was a fellow at the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies from 1998 to 1999 and from 2001 to 2003.  In 2009-2010, Shirk was a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington, DC. He is currently the principal investigator for the Justice in Mexico project (, a binational research initiative on criminal justice and the rule of law in Mexico. Recent publications by Shirk include Judicial Reform in Mexico; Drug Violence in Mexico; Justiciabarómetro: Resultados de la encuesta a la policia municipal preventiva de la Zona Metropolitana de Guadalajara; Police and Public Security in Mexico; Contemporary Mexican Politics; Reforming the Administration of Justice in Mexico; Evaluating Accountability and Transparency in Mexico: National, Local, and Comparative Perspectives; and Mexico's New Politics: The PAN and Democratic Change.

Council Special Reports (CSRs) are concise policy briefs that provide timely responses to developing crises or contribute to debates on current policy dilemmas. CSRs are written by individual authors in consultation with an advisory committee. The content of the reports is the sole responsibility of the authors. 

CFR's Center for Preventive Action (CPA) seeks to help prevent, defuse, or resolve deadly conflicts around the world and to expand the body of knowledge on conflict prevention.

The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) is an independent, nonpartisan membership organization, think tank, and publisher dedicated to being a resource for its members, government officials, business executives, journalists, educators and students, civic and religious leaders, and other interested citizens in order to help them better understand the world and the foreign policy choices facing the United States and other countries.

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