In recent weeks, hundreds of thousands of Mexicans have taken to the streets in peaceful marches in scores of cities calling for an end to President Felipe Calderón’s war on drugs.
The protests reflect growing dissatisfaction among the public with Calderón’s drug war that has exacerbated rather than curtailed narco-violence.
This sentiment has been echoed by journalists as well. Jorge Ramos, the lead news anchor for Univision, has gone on record as saying, “Calderón’s strategy [against the drug cartels], which has cost more than 34,000 lives in the last four years, has been an utter failure.”
A failure to stem the violence has catapulted public safety to the top of the list of voters’ concerns ahead of next year’s elections in Mexico, trumping even the economy.Calderón will be termed out, but there is mounting pressure for would-be presidential hopefuls to declare that, if elected, they would call off the war on drugs.
But as 2012 nears, does Mexico have a choice?
It does not.
Is Calderón’s drug war working?
It’s one thing to criticize the war on drugs and another to offer a viable solution. To his credit, Calderón has recognized errors in his campaign against the drug cartels, and, of even more significance, he has, time and again, invited anyone anywhere to offer a viable alternative.
This modesty has been acknowledged by critics. Writing in Milenio newspaper, Hector Aguilar conceded that, “there is nobody proposing an alternative to Calderón's strategy."
By contrast, there are many who compare Mexico’s current campaign with that of Colombia’s more than a decade ago, and are optimistic. Mexican and U.S. officials, for instance, argue that Calderón’s policies are proving effective, as measured in drugs seized, money confiscated, drug lords arrested or slain and the constant disruption to the cartels’ organizations that has forced them to set up operations in the United States, Central America and as far away as Malaysia and West Africa.
This is how Katherine Corcoran of the Associated Press summed up the situation last month: “Mexican drug cartels now operate virtually uninhibited in their Central American backyard. U.S.-supported crackdowns in Mexico and Colombia have only pushed traffickers into a region where corruption is rampant, borders lack even minimal immigration control and local gangs provide a ready-made infrastructure for organized crime.” The price of this “success” has been, as Ramos points out with anguish -- violence.
But as Mexicans begin to think about next year’s elections, there is the sobering reality that no matter who is elected president, the war on drugs may be tweaked, but it won’t be abandoned.
Mexico pivotal to global drug trade
Why? Because in an increasingly interdependent world, Mexico has obligations to the international community to participate fully in stopping the global drug trade.
More importantly, Mexico has the United States as a neighbor – which is both the world’s largest consumer of illegal drugs, and a militaristic nation that, with impunity, takes actions against nations it deems a national security threat.
Quite simply, regardless of the sentiments of poets and journalists – and everyday citizens who march peacefully through the streets of Mexican cities – the government has no choice in the matter.
There are two fundamental reasons why Mexico’s next president will stay the course.
Foremost is the matter of national sovereignty. It is unthinkable for Mexico to establish a quid pro quo, where the military’s campaign stops and the cartels cease their violence. The idea of having the Mexican state co-exist with nebulous geographic regions under the control of organized criminal syndicates is not in the cards. The last time Mexico relinquished jurisdiction over its geography, it emboldened foreign settlers to establish a breakaway republic – the Republic of Texas.
In more practical terms, should Mexico’s next president want to reach an agreement in which there were no more kidnappings, in return for the army returning to their barracks, with whom would he negotiate? Most of the “most wanted” drug lords are dead, have been arrested, sent to the United States for trial, or have fled Mexico and set up shop in other countries.
Secondly, what would happen if in 2012, Mexico decided to turn a blind eye and allow cartels to operate with impunity in the northern states, in exchange for an end to kidnappings, shootouts and violence?
U.S. won’t stand for rogue state
The United States wouldn’t stand for a rogue state to coexist alongside Mexico’s legitimate government. The United States launches cruise missiles into the Sudan, occupies Iraq, and initiates war in Afghanistan. In addition, since 2001 financial laws have changed around the world – in a desperate bid to stop the flow of narco-dollars into the global banking system. All one has to do is recall that last March, Wachovia, now part of Wells Fargo, settled the biggest action brought under the U.S. Bank Secrecy Act and "deferred prosecution" by paying federal authorities $110 million in forfeitures. The DEA and IRS accused Wachovia of laundering billions of dollars for Mexican drug cartels.
If federal officials are this relentless in prosecuting American corporations linked with drug traffickers, think of the retaliatory actions that the U.S. government would pursue should it conclude that Mexico represents a “national security threat.” In other words, if Mexico’s next president abandons Calderón’s drug war, as Ramos suggests, then Mexico could easily be declared a “rogue state” that threatens the “national security interests” of the United States, always a precursor to economic and military actions.
In the best-case scenario, Mexico would then be subjected to financial havoc as American authorities move to seize bank accounts used by the drug cartels to launder their money, paralyzing Mexico’s financial system. In a worst-case scenario, Mexico may itself be occupied militarily by the United States.
No one in Mexico likes waking up to horrible news about violence, slayings and the relentless viciousness that’s going on every day. Then again, I suspect everyone in the United States is tired of waking up and hearing about Guantanamo detainees, car bombs in Iraq and the never-ending pursuit of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.
Indeed, critics like Ramos are naïvely offering an absurd alternative: That Mexico pursue a policy that will surrender its sovereignty to rogue criminal organizations, force the United States to declare it a rogue nation that threatens its national security interests, subject Mexico to economic sanctions and the possibility of being occupied (once more) by the United States. In the same way that Barack Obama has found it impossible to close down Guantanamo, so will Mexico’s next president find it impossible to end the war on drugs.