US funding deadly drug war in Mexico

By Allen Hines

In 2006, shortly after coming out on top in a controversial election, Mexican President Felipe Calderón launched an all-out attack on drug trafficking. Calderón had expressed outrage at the impunity of drug cartels. To reassert control, he deployed the national police across the country.

Nearly four years in, this round of the drug war has killed 30,000 Mexicans.

Last year alone, drug violence was blamed for 2,600 deaths in Ciudad Juárez (the border town mirroring El Paso, Texas).The violence in Juárez is so bad that the city’s leading newspaper, in response to the shooting death of a photographer and fearing further cartel retribution for unfavorable articles, published an editorial asking the cartels what is safe to print.

The United States began funding the battle in 2008. Mexicans are dying every day, but there is little evidence the counter-narcotics agreement between the U.S. and Mexico – the Mérida Initiative – is achieving its stated goals.

One of the goals Calderón outlined at the outset of his offensive was to reduce police corruption, particularly as it relates to the drug trade. The police have been involved in drugs since the mid-1970s when the Security Directorate began taking bribes from traffickers. In fact, the head of the Mexican anti-drug office, a former army general, was arrested for his involvement with the Juárez Cartel in 1996.

And police complicity in the drug trade continues with the current campaign. In 2008, four top anti-drug officials were arrested for helping smugglers avoid arrest in return for money. Investigative reporter Bruce Livesey has said that the army today is helping the Sinaloan Cartel fight the Juárez Cartel.

The language of the Mérida Initiative, which critics call Plan México because of its similarities to Plan Colombia, ostensibly supports Calderón’s anti-corruption goal, devoting $70 million for institution building and “professionalizing” the police. The problem, though, is that training in being professional is coming from US contractors. In fact, contractors were caught on film teaching a Mexican police force torture techniques in 2008.

The main thrust of Plan Mexico is militarization. So far, Congress has approved a total of $1.4 billion to go to Mexico for the project. That money will buy 26 armored vans, at least five Bell helicopters, at least three Black Hawk helicopters and up to four maritime patrol aircraft, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office.

The budgetary breakdown in the same report shows that, as of September 2009, $670 million was earmarked for militarization while $35 million was set aside for institution building.

Another $200 million, used in similar ways, is going to Central American and Caribbean countries.

Is it working?

Evaluating Plan Mexico may be premature. Various material factors determine production and distribution of illegal drugs, and politicians traditionally have used large seizures and short-term decreases as proof that policies work.

Some analysts – and some US politicians – argue that the intensity of drug violence in Mexico is positive; it shows that the police forces are putting pressure on the cartels. As a result, the argument goes, the cartels are fighting tooth and nail with the police to keep their operations running.

That car bombs in Ciudad Juárez have targeted civilians and that cartel thugs have massacred patients at drug-treatment centers might put that claim into question. The drug war affects everyone, not just drug runners and police.

Another criterion the government has used to justify the Mérida Initiative is a rise in cocaine prices – a sign that supply dwindled. Between October 2006 and June 2008, the US Drug Enforcement Agency reported a 25 percent increase in the price of a gram of cocaine. The Agency also found drug shortages in 38 US cities in 2007. Since, cocaine availability in most of the cities has gone back to 2005 levels.

The drug trade is hugely profitable, and cartels are capitalist ventures. Like any other business, drug cartels will, however they can, find ways to exploit the market. If that means establishing new transit routes or bases of operations, the profit motive compels them.

By the beginning of the 1980s, the Medellin cartel had established a smuggling route through the Bahamas and on to Miami. When Bahamian officials, after reports of corruption, stopped looking the other way, the cartel changed tactics. New overland smuggling routes opened though Mexico.

Today, the Zetas, a drug gang run by former army commandos, has begun recruiting and setting up camps along the Caribbean coast in Honduras and Guatemala, according to a report by the University of San Diego and the Woodrow Wilson Center. The Sinaloa Cartel is operating along Guatemala’s Pacific coast.

Drug policies based around increased policing and militarization have failed again and again. Without an effective and sensible policy targeted at cutting drug use in the United States, demand remains constant.

Expanding on a a failed counter-narcotics strategy

The Mérida Initiative’s predecessor, Plan Colombia, illustrates the failure of militarized drug policy. Since 2000, the United States has given Colombia $7 billion in military aid, making it the second largest recipient of aid, behind Israel. Like Mérida in Mexico, Plan Colombia focuses on military solutions.

But the money spent on defoliants, combat equipment and training under Plan Colombia has been a waste. Coca cultivation topped 100,000 hectares in 1998. The plan went into effect in 2000, and cultivation remained above that mark through the decade.

The Colombian military is being pushed to get results after 10 years of US funding. Such pressure has incentivized the killing of civilians. Instead of ensuring the safety of civilians, the military has begun shooting alleged guerrillas and lumping non-combatants in with the statistics they put forward to justify funding.

What Plan Colombia has done is set up the potential for the country to serve as a military proxy in the region. Seven billion dollars has bought the United States close friends in Bogotá, friends eager to let the US military operate from six Colombian bases.

In a region closing off to the neoliberal model, troops on the ground in Colombia represent a danger to progressive movements in Latin America. In Mexico, the nascent Merida Initiative poses a serious threat to popular organizations working for Justice just south of the border.