Blog dedicated to reporting on Mexican drug cartels
on the border line between the US and Mexico

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Why Mexico’s War on Drugs is Unwinnable

by Laura Carlsen
In Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, a student peace protester is gunned down by the Federal Police. Pictures of the intestines bursting from his ruptured gut make the rounds on the Internet, shocking even the world’s bloodiest city.

In Matamoros, Tamaulipas, schools close down after officials receive bomb threats. Newspapers timidly report that the threats “could be related to” Gulf Cartel retaliation for the killing of one of their leaders, Tony Tormenta, in a military operation days earlier. President Obama calls President Calderon to congratulate him on taking down the drug lord. Mexican authorities predict a new wave of violence in the state, as the Zetas move in to wrest control from the weakened Gulf Cartel.

Whether measured by increased public safety, reduced supply of illegal drugs on the U.S. market, or the dismantling of drug trafficking organizations, the war on drugs is failing. It has been four years since President Felipe Calderon announced the offensive and sent tens of thousands of soldiers into the streets. The results are a record 37,000 drug-war related homicides so far and thousands of complaints of human rights abuses by police and armed forces. Arrests of drug kingpins and lesser figures have set off violent turf wars, with no discernible effect on illicit flows. The murder of politicians, threats to civilians and disruption of daily life have furthered the downward spiral.

None of this should come as a surprise. Although Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has held up Plan Colombia as a model for Mexico, the drug war didn’t work there either. A full decade and $7 billion dollars after Plan Colombia began, regional drug production remains stable and smaller paramilitary groups have replaced the large cartels as traffickers. Some violent crimes, such as kidnappings, have gone down but corruption has deepened with scores of Congressional representatives under investigation, prosecution or sentencing for ties to paramilitaries.

Militarization with the combined rationale of the war on drugs and counterinsurgency has left Colombia with one of the worst human rights record in the hemisphere. Diplomatic relations have been affected as many neighboring nations view U.S. military presence and involvement in Colombia’s drug war as a threat to regional self-determination.

Despite these results, the Obama administration has announced plans to extend indefinitely the Merida Initiative, designed by the Bush administration to last three years and cost $1.3 billion dollars. The administration has asked requested $282 million for Mexico under the initiative in the 2012 budget.

The problem is, the drug war is not underfunded; it’s unwinnable. As long as a lucrative market exists, the cartels will find a way to serve it. Eliminating operatives, even high-level leaders, merely diversifies and redistributes the business. Cartels have years of experience building flexible structures, with new leaders or rival gangs replacing displaced or weakened ones. At the lower levels, they draw from an inexhaustible pool of young men with few prospects in life, who have adopted the slogan, “Better to die young and rich than old and poor.”

If the war on drugs is unwinnable, does that mean we have to resign ourselves to the unbridled power of the drug cartels?

No. The other tragedy of the war on drugs is that it precludes potentially more effective strategies by posing as the only option. As the U.S. government spends millions of taxpayer dollars to pay U.S. private security and defense firms to “fix” Mexico, it has done little to nothing to address the parts of transnational organized crime that exist within its borders—demand, transport and distribution, corrupt officials, gun-running and money laundering.

Rethinking the drug war is not tantamount to surrender. Here are a few key elements of an alternative strategy:

Follow the money. Instead of shoot-outs in the streets, far more could be done in both countries to attack the financial structures of criminal organizations. Billions of dollars are laundered in mainstream financial institutions and businesses. If we’re serious about weakening organized crime, it’s time to be serious about cracking down on illicit financial flows—even when it affects powerful interests.

Increase funding for drug abuse prevention and treatment. Approaching illegal drug use as a health issue is a win-win strategy. Education teaches young people the costs of addiction and abuse, and treatment and harm reduction programs can improve lives and reduce costs to society, as well as cutting demand for illicit substances.

End prohibition, beginning with marijuana. Without the billions of dollars in revenue that pot provides, drug cartels have fewer resources to recruit youth, buy arms and corrupt politicians.

Give communities a role besides “victim”. As Mexican funds and U.S. aid have been diverted to the drug war, social programs in Mexico have been severely cut back. This is exactly backward. Strong communities—ones with jobs, ample educational opportunities and coverage of basic needs and services–are better able to resist the infiltration of organized crime.

The war on drugs strategy lacks benchmarks or any real analysis of the root causes of the violence. Each day it digs itself deeper into a hole. That hole has become a mass grave for thousands of Mexicans, mostly youth.

The Obama administration has announced plans to intensify the drug war in Mexico and extend the model to Central American and Caribbean nations. Congress appears willing to follow suit. This would usher in a new era of military-led relations with our Latin American neighbors and unleash violent conflict in those countries as it has in Mexico.

If that happens, horror stories like the ones from Ciudad Juarez and Matamoros will sadly become the norm rather than the exception.

Laura Carlsen is director of the Americas Program of the Center for International Policy in Mexico City at


  1. This war on drugs must be won there are no other options I live here in mexico so I tend to think as many mexican do (what options do I have) well I am norte americano so I just go home to the u.s. problem is mexicans can not move there without papers so they need to stay like my wife (my option is off the table) the problem with mexico is that no laws are ever inforced, court system is bad and there is no respect for the law I have been stopped by the police many times as I have american plates and the cops know they can get more money from me than the mexicans so i pay I am part of the problem for doing this but you need to remember most of the cops are not clean and may not fact cops at all. You dont mess with these people for 24 years i was a peace officer in the states never once took a penny 7 out of 8 times i paid, the only exception was when one of the cops was drunk I told him I did not understand spanish and he let me go My circle of friends are mexican due mostly to my wife so my vision of mexico is diffrent than other expats who stay in their circle of friends. I find most expats are unawear of everyday life for a mexican. Mexicans are scared and concerned. They are taking action now. The federal police and marines are the only trusted forces, forget state, army and local police(the only time you call the police In chapala mexico is if you want dope delivered to your house (free delivery) dont ask for anything more like could you inforce the law) the mexican marines have the backing of the people and they will show the way. This war will be won. darkest before the dawn right? Look for things to get worse for awhile but in the end mexico will win not the narcos

  2. O K the war on drugs is unwinable, WHAT IS THE ALTERNATIVE? Mexico is a squalid mess, its oun people live in fear,the police,the military, elected officials,all branches of govt abuse their power for self profit,HOW can Mexican ethics be installed?? Maby it can't. Its just bred in the culture,if so then don't complain,YOU REAP WHAT YOU SEW., OR Come up with a plan, its easy to Bitch!!

  3. Millions of acres lie idle in Mexico which could be utalized for agriculture,the fantacy of little farms for every family has helped fuel unimployment and has been a failure(ejidos). If Mexico would allow Gringos to own and operate Ranches,farms,dairys thousands of jobs would be created,capital would flow,everybody wins. Whats up with the protectionist,paranoya.

  4. "This war will be won. darkest before the dawn right? Look for things to get worse for awhile but in the end mexico will win not the narcos"

    Anon 10:07, you are incredibly naive

  5. Create a lucrative market based on destroying the cartels and their lucrative market. Utilize Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and take every last cent that the cartels have--profit from their destruction.

  6. The answer is to end prohibition. Remove the money incentive. It all comes down to money.

  7. Hey 11:17AM, why would you take away an informal economy when your government does not have the capacity to provide an alternative to all that displaced labor?

  8. A very well-written essay. And one osf the comments hit it dead on as well: "Millions of acres lie idle in Mexico which could be utalized for agriculture,the fantacy of little farms for every family has helped fuel unimployment and has been a failure(ejidos). If Mexico would allow Gringos to own and operate Ranches,farms,dairys thousands of jobs would be created,capital would flow,everybody wins. Whats up with the protectionist,paranoya."


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