Militarizing Mexico: The New War on Drugs

President Richard Nixon invented the phrase “war on drugs” and used it in a political context similar in many ways to today’s. Bogged down in an unwinnable war abroad, with a growing deficit and rising inflation, Nixon declared illegal drugs “public enemy number one” on June 17, 1971.

Nixon took office promising to crack down on crime. Due to the characteristics of the problem and the division of powers that placed crime-fighting largely in the hands of state and local governments, he soon realized the difficulties of showing concrete results through a federal program. So Nixon devised a major, executive-led counternarcotics offensive to increase presidential powers and galvanize support from conservatives for his presidency and re-election.

He then created a series of anti-drug agencies – eventually folded into the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) — that reported directly to the president, with little congressional supervision. With the creation of these federal agencies and the metaphor of “war”, the president transferred responsibility from state and local governments, where the emphasis was on treatment of illegal drug use within the framework of a community or health problem, to federal coordination that addressed treatment but also established special enforcement agencies directly under the presidential mandate.

Although Nixon fell victim to his own arrogance and excesses, his anti-drug legacy established fundamental mechanisms of social control that still pervade U.S. society. The active criminalization of drug use has led to the imprisonment of a huge proportion of the African-American and Latino populations. The focus on decreasing production rather than preventing consumption has been a way to deflect attention from deep internal problems in U.S. society. And the zero-tolerance laws have channelled government funds into fortifying often corrupt and abusive police forces instead of spending on drug treatment and community prevention programs.

And then there’s the legacy that the war on drugs has had overseas.

The Question of Sovereignty

The U.S. model not only served to bolster the presidency. It has also proven useful as a tool for geopolitical control abroad. By elevating drug trafficking to a matter of national security, the war on drugs model has led to U.S. intervention in the politics of both drug-producing and transit nations. It has been used to justify the militarization of whole regions of foreign nations (Colombia), invasions to oust inconvenient foreign leaders (Panama), and now the extension of the U.S. security agenda into a neighboring country (Mexico).

By exporting its “war on drugs,” the United States has pressured other nations to embrace U.S. national security interests as their own. This has been true from the beginning. One of Nixon’s early moves in the war on drugs was Operation Interception. Operation Interception effectively closed the U.S.-Mexico border by calling for full inspections of all vehicles for five days in September of 1969. Customs chief Myles Ambrose called it “shock treatment” for the Mexican government, stating that afterward “the Mexican ministers promised everything.” The binational negotiations were secret and we will never know what “everything” was, but what’s clear is that the virtual blockade was a form of international extortion under the guise of the war on drugs.

Less dramatic but equally interventionist has been the process of “certification.” In this periodic review of the level of cooperation in the war on drugs, the U.S. government evaluates countries like Mexico that are on a list of the major drug-producing and transit nations. This unilateral program conditions aid on whether domestic policies are acceptable to the U.S. Congress, applying criteria that are openly ideological.

The classic case of U.S. involvement in a foreign country through the use of the “war on drugs” model is Plan Colombia. Since 2000 when it started, the United States has sent some $4.3 billion dollars to the Colombian government supposedly to fight the war on drugs. Three-quarters of that money has gone to the military. The results are well known: Colombia remains the primary source of cocaine on the U.S. market, the price has gone down, and the purity has risen. Despite massive fumigations, the surface area planted in coca has not been reduced.

In addition to its absolute failure to restrain drug production, processing, and transit, Plan Colombia has been used to aid the Colombian right wing in its war against guerrilla insurgents. Investigative journalist Frank Smyth wrote that by 2001 Colombia had surpassed El Salvador as the largest counterinsurgency effort of the United States since Vietnam. In August 2002, the U.S. Congress formally broadened the scope of Plan Colombia to authorize the use of military aid in counterinsurgency efforts.

With the arrival of arms and money for armed forces, the violation of human rights, displacement of entire communities, and assassination of civilians have increased so much as to be alarming even to supporters of Plan Colombia. In the recent authorization of new funds for the plan, the House of Representatives approved a version that reduces military aid, reduces fumigation, and conditions aid to stricter human rights requirements. The total aid to Colombia’s government continues to be huge and largely military. But along with the probable rejection of the Free Trade Agreement with Colombia due to human rights concerns, these restrictions mark a minimal recognition that the drug war model in that nation is simply not working as intended.

From Plan Colombia to Plan Mexico

Current Mexican President Felipe Calderon has taken a page from Nixon’s strategy book, with a few pointers from the Bush administration as well. In launching his own war on drugs, Calderon seeks to expand the powers of a weak presidency and consolidate an image of a strong leader in the context of a deeply polarized society. In March, he presented a list of constitutional reforms that would eliminate the need for a court order for phone taps, detentions, and searches in the case of organized crime. Barbara Zamora, a prominent lawyer and human rights defender, stated that the proposed constitutional reforms “would create a Patriot Law ala mexicana, where constitutional rights and civil liberties are annulled.”

Other measures that form part of the Mexican offensive include military operations that have resulted in daily deaths both from confrontations between the army and the drug traffickers, and battles between drug cartels seeking to re-establish control over territory and leadership. Mandatory drug testing is now taking place in the schools. Scores of drug traffickers have been extradited to the United States. In May, Calderon announced the formation of the Special Corps of Federal Support Forces of the Mexican Army and Air Force, under the direct command of the presidency.

In May, the chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Silvestre Reyes, stated at a binational congressional meeting that Mexico needs more support in its fight against drug trafficking, reportedly saying that it needed a Plan Mexico along the lines of Plan Colombia. Plan Mexico, he said, would imply military and police binational cooperation, and the exchange of information and resources above what’s been slated in the current budget proposal.

Although it adamantly denied calling for a “Plan Mexico,” the Mexican government apparently has requested additional funds from the United States for an anti-narcotics program, and has already entered into a series of joint security programs that imply increased militarization of certain regions and more direct participation of the United States. The U.S. government is now participating directly in Mexico’s security policies on all three levels: in the design of national and local security measures; in training of police, army and intelligence units; and in implementation.

Some of the actions agreed to in a January meeting between the Mexican and U.S. attorneys general include the construction of a bilateral system of identification of smugglers, a sweeping evaluation of the Mexican police, the purchase of eight specialized aircraft for the detection and interception of planes carrying drugs, and the participation of DEA agents in drug eradication efforts. The DEA also announced its expansion into three more border cities — Matamoros, Nuevo Laredo and Nogales. This phase of heightened collaboration has also been linked to the extension of the North American Free Trade Agreement with the Security and Prosperity Agreement of North America.

A Plan Mexico would never be a carbon copy of Plan Colombia given the differences between the two countries, their relationship with the United States and their different roles in the international drug trade. But a quick analysis of Plan Colombia in the Mexican context provides clues to the course of current policies.

Colombianization of Mexico

In Colombia and now in Mexico, the army is on the front line of the counter-narcotics campaign. This increased role of the army in society has provoked a heated debate in Mexico. On the one hand, there is the recognition that state and municipal police forces are so inextricably bound with regional drug traffickers that they cannot be relied on to effectively and safely fight organized crime. On the other hand is the concern that now the army will wind up in the same boat. Moreover, the armed forces are not adequately trained in this type of police and intelligence work. Finally, the use of the armed forces in domestic issues may well be unconstitutional.

Even as this debate continues, the offensive has already begun. Calderon has dispatched 24,000 troops throughout the country as part of his war on drugs. Like Colombia, this level of military presence has led to human rights violations as well as increased violent confrontations with drug traffickers. As arms and money flowed into the Colombian military, the paramilitary forces found themselves on the receiving end. Recent scandals concerning the links between Uribe government officials and paramilitary forces come as no surprise to experts on the country. In Mexico, the use of paramilitaries has been largely confined to the low-intensity war against the insurgent EZLN in Chiapas. Although Mexico is not involved in an internal armed conflict like Colombia’s, it is likely that the current militarization of Mexican society will lead to an increase in the activity of these groups.

Another concern that has arisen fro the Colombian experience is that the “war on drugs” has a disturbing tendency to morph into a “war on terrorism” that increases U.S. military reach into foreign lands. Recall the expansion of Plan Colombia’s anti-narcotics model into counter-terrorism activities. Since the U.S. government’s definition of “terrorism” is both broad and ambiguous, this tendency has led to mission creep and the use of U.S. military aid to attack internal dissidence. For Mexico, the equation of immigration with terrorist threats to promote the U.S. strategy of militarizing the northern border provides a case study in how U.S. counter-terrorism programs lead to militarization, loss of national sovereignty, and violations of human rights. The new drug war provides a dangerous stepping stone in that process.

There are important differences between Mexico and Colombia–Mexico is not at war, nor does it face the loss of state control over portions of national territory. But another factor that distinguishes Mexico from Colombia could actually increase the risks of a U.S.-style drug war on its territory. That is the close relationship between Mexico and the United States — the geographical proximity, the history of intervention, and the economic dependency that has resulted from 13 years of NAFTA. This factor could make a Plan Mexico an even greater threat to national sovereignty and peace than its Colombian cousin.

The Best Solution?

Mexico has gradually changed from a drug transit and marginally producing state to a major market for illicit drugs. This transformation is having far-reaching effects on the fabric of daily life. Drug cartels are no longer just fighting over trade routes but also over exclusive rights to regional markets. There are more addicts. The use of methamphetamine, a cheap and readily available drug that is produced in the country, has been rising.

A shot in the arm in the form of a huge package of U.S. military aid for a war on drugs will not stop this transformation. Before putting the army in the streets — with all the legal, political, and practical risks that entails — the dramatic increase in drug use should be treated as a health epidemic and addressed at once through education, options for young people, and rehabilitation.

Although it includes construction of treatment centers, Calderon’s war on drugs focuses on supply and enforcement. The main result so far has been to unleash violence in most regions of the country. In March the number of police executed had risen 50% compared to last year. The more than a thousand drug-related deaths so far this year put the country on a path to surpass last year´s 2,000. The death, arrest, or extradition of ringleaders has set off battles for succession and renewed turf wars. Meanwhile, the price and availability of illegal drugs has not dropped on U.S. or Mexican markets.

Mexico should rethink its “war on drugs” approach. The practical results of this model erode democracy and have little to do with the control drug use and trafficking. First of all, the broadening of presidential powers often comes at the expense of the balance of powers. In Mexico, barely emerging from decades of presidential authoritarianism, the strengthening of executive power without effective counterbalances or transparency, subtracts powers from other levels of government and restricts citizen rights.

Second, the model of confronting the trafficking, sale and consumption of drugs with military means increases violence and weakens democratic institutions. In countries where these institutions are weak it can delay or reverse a transition to democracy. This militarization invariably extends into repression of political opposition, blurring the lines between the campaigns against drugs, terrorism, and dissidents.

Finally, the war on drugs model poses a clear threat to national sovereignty. Plan Colombia has led to a national economy dependent on outside military aid. Mexico, with a growing network of U.S. anti-narcotics and customs agents and training units in the country, faces a similar dependency.

Ironically, the one part of Nixon’s drug policy that actually worked – the expansion of treatment services — is the part that has been the least emulated. Both the United States and Mexico should look closely at any additional appropriations that place the emphasis on a military solution to their shared drug problem. The “war on drugs” has proved to be not only a failure but a serious threat to democracy.

FPIF columnist Laura Carlsen is director of the Americas Program of the Center for International Policy. The Americas Program is online at http://americas.irc-online.org/.