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March 2, 2009
U.S.-Mexican drug violence is deadlier than Afghanistan war

Watch Laura Ling’s documentary, “Narco War Next Door.”

Drug violence in Mexico killed more than 6,000 people in 2008, and has killed 1,000 so far this year and spilled over the border into the U.S.

Despite growing fears on both sides of the border that the cartels are out of control, Mexican President Felipe Calderon rejected the notion that Mexico is a “failed state.”

Last week, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder discussed the results of “Operation Xcellerator,” an anti-drug initiative targeting Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel. The U.S. has arrested 750 people in connection with Mexican drug cartels over the past two years.

Andrew Bast has reported from four continents for several magazines and newspapers and writes at “World Politics Review” about the state of the drug war and what can be done.

Under the Influence: Demand and the Mexican Drug War

The war looks eerily familiar: beheadings, assassinations of police and public officials, terrorized businesspeople, extorted schoolteachers, and in five years more than 230 American civilians dead in the crossfire. All this could easily describe the battle in Afghanistan or Pakistan, but the reality is closer to home, where an increasingly gruesome and threatening war is threatening to boil over the United States’ southern border with Mexico.

Summing up decades of policy, three former Latin American heads of state last week declared, “The war on drugs has failed.” Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, César Gaviria of Colombia and Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico, working together on the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, argued, “Prohibitionist policies based on eradication, interdiction and criminalization of consumption simply haven’t worked. . . . Today, we are further than ever from the goal of eradicating drugs.”

Considering the money and resources committed to the War on Drugs over the years, the claim is mind-boggling. Pinning down exact figures is difficult, but some experts estimate that nearly $1 trillion has been spent in total. In 2009, $14 billion more has been budgeted to programs spanning 12 agencies of the U.s. federal government, from the Small Business Administration and Veterans Affairs to State, Interior and the Department of Defense. Every one of them, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, is an “important partner.” Some experts say that the actual money spent this year will be twice as much.

Last week, a coordinated sweep cracked down on cartels operating in Canada, Mexico and across the United States, demonstrating that this is still the same old war. Without a doubt the 755 arrests yanked offenders off the streets. But the strategy of stemming supply has, over the long run, proven shortsighted.

More money and guns abroad will prove ineffective in increasing U.S. influence over cartels and drug supply routes flowing into the country. Instead, American influence over the scourge of international narco-trafficking will be best leveraged domestically: Quelling what is rapidly becoming an imposing foreign policy issue depends on increasing treatment at home rather than waging a bigger battle abroad.

Arresting traffickers and aiding the Mexican government to combat the cartels focuses on the supply side of the problem. Accordingly, Congress passed the Merida Initiative last June, providing a half-billion dollars in aid annually to Mexico as a partner in trying to shut down the supply chain. As the cartels grow more capable, as well as more brazen, it seems that taking them down is a logical first step. But a few harsh realities suggest that stepping up the offensive will do little, if anything, to actually cut the flow of narcotics into American cities.

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Photo courtesy of Flickr user dream2life under a Creative Commons license.

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1 comment


How conveniently we forget the hundreds of thousands of non-combatants killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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