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Blurred Borders in the “War on Drugs”

By Robert Valencia

Earlier in March, President Barack Obama and Mexican President Felipe Calderón Hinojosa met at the White House, where they discussed an array of issues ranging from immigration to Mexico’s leadership at the U.N. Cancun Conference to the turmoil in Libya. In addition, President Obama pledged to deepen U.S. cooperation in fighting the drug cartels “that threaten both our peoples,” and praised Mexicans’ “extraordinary courage in the fight for their country.” It’s a fight that has killed more than 30,000 Mexicans since 2006.

Obama framed the drug war as a shared burden, describing how U.S. authorities screen all southbound rail cargo in order to seize guns headed for Mexico. These efforts are part of the Merida Initiative, a 2008 security agreement between the United States, Mexico, and several countries of Central America to confront the threat of Mexican drug cartels. The multimillion dollar initiative addresses training, equipment, and intelligence improvement. But Obama also addressed the “demand side” of the problem, which stems primarily from the United States. “As part of our own drug control strategy,” he said, “we are focused on reducing the demand for drugs through education, prevention, and treatment.”

Even though Obama’s renewed commitment seemed to finally support Mexico’s war on drugs, there have been several obstacles along the way. Most recently, the U.S ambassador to Mexico, Carlos Pascual, resigned after cables released by WikiLeaks revealed that he questioned Mexico’s ability to combat drug gangs. And last year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton compared Mexico’s current predicament to that of Colombia, a country that long battled the Medellin and Cali cartels in the 1980s and early 1990s. The comparison offended President Calderon, who considered it inaccurate, particularly when Mexico’s murder rate is significantly lower than Colombia’s was in the 1980s. Although some Mexican cities, like Ciudad Victoria, have seen a surge in the use of bombs to threaten law enforcement officers, Mexico has not seen the widespread use of explosives, nor does it have an active guerrilla insurgency like Colombia.

This of course does not mean the problem has dwindled; rather, it has been exacerbated by gang activity across North and Central America. In Mexico, the power of gangs has been amplified by their willingness to directly challenge and threaten local authorities. Case in point: Marisol Valles, a young woman who volunteered to be at the helm of the police department of Prádexis G. Guerrero, a small town in the vicinity of yet another violent Mexican city, Ciudad Juárez. After the former police chief was beheaded, Valles replaced him. After a series of assassinations and kidnappings in the vicinity, Valles stopped showing up for work, was dismissed from her job, and is now requesting asylum in the United States.

Yet the war on drugs doesn’t only involve Mexico and the United States. Central America is also faced with gang violence, climbing murder rates, increasing drug consumption, and widespread kidnapping networks. President Obama pledged a new plan to fight organized crime during his visit to El Salvador on March 22. But Central American presidents have grown weary of empty promises to the region. Recently, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported that of the earmarked $1.6 billion for the Merida Initiative, only $258 million was assigned to Central America, and just $20 million of that was actually spent by last April. What’s more, a major cocaine processing lab was recently found in Honduras, which indicates that Central American countries not only serve as a passageway for drug smuggling to the United States but also as a production center. Growing drug and gang activities led the United States to include five of the seven countries in Central America on a list of 20 major illicit drug-transiting or major illicit drug-producing countries.

Even though U.S. media outlets repeatedly make the mistake of calling this issue the “Mexican War on Drugs,” the aforementioned cases clearly demonstrate that the conflict has reached a pan-regional level. Confronting this problem will take more than pointing fingers at one another or obscuring reality with far-fetched comparisons or terminology. First, the administration must ensure the Merida Initiative’s budget is fully and equally used by the Mexican and Central American authorities, provided that they also implement anti-corruption measures within their law enforcement agencies. Meanwhile, the United States should impose tighter controls over the illegal influx of guns into Mexico, The United States also needs to address the drug consumption of its citizens by focusing more on treatment and prevention. Only through policy choices like these can the Obama administration prove that its promised  political and security commitment will involve actions as well as words.

Robert Valencia is a research fellow of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user andrecarol

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