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CHALLENGES 2007-2008: Mexico Fails Anti-Drug Test

Diego Cevallos

MEXICO CITY, Dec 27 2007 (IPS) - A decade of efforts by Mexico to eliminate, or at least significantly curb, drug trafficking and consumption has led to nothing but failure.

Over the past 10 years, consumption has increased by over 50 percent, at least 11,800 people have been killed since 2000 in drug-related violence, and Mexican drug traffickers have replaced Colombians as the leaders in dealings with the United States, the world’s largest consumer.

“A Drug-Free World, We Can Do It!” was the slogan adopted in 1998 at the 20th Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly, devoted to the global drug problem.

The General Assembly agreed on a 10-year plan which included stepped-up cooperation between governments, a frontal attack on drug traffickers and crop eradication measures.

Actions to reduce demand were also adopted, although most analysts say that punitive measures were promoted more emphatically.

Mexico followed the prescribed methods, and even sent its armed forces into the battle, regarding them as the only forces that could match the firepower of the drug trafficking gangs. It also spent millions of dollars on combating money laundering and guarding border crossings.

Over the past 10 years, more than 90,000 people accused of participating at some point in the drug marketing chain were arrested, including 40 who were identified as high-level drug lords.

However, the U.N. goal of eliminating, or at least mitigating, the world drug problem by 2008 has not been fulfilled in Mexico, nor in most other countries, said drug expert Wellington Medrano.

It is time to rethink the strategy or change the approach, Medrano, a researcher trained at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), told IPS.

He said that alternative strategies have been proposed, and mentioned for example legalising certain drugs, implementing policies designed to mitigate the harm to users, and intensifying education and prevention.

In his view, the U.N. should be asked for greater tolerance, so that countries can search for and try out their own solutions. The 1998 U.N. General Assembly determined that the commitments assumed at that time would be evaluated, and if necessary redefined, in 2008.

The Beckley Foundation Drug Policy Programme, a non-governmental research group that analyses the effectiveness, direction and content of drug policies at national and international level, claims that the policy agreed by the U.N. 10 years ago has clearly failed.

Governments should communicate the fact that drug use cannot be eradicated, but that action can be taken “to minimise harm” if the morally loaded aim of eliminating the demon drug is laid aside, a report by the group says.

The administration of Mexican President Felipe Calderón, which took office in December 2006, has promised to continue the crackdown on drug mafias, with the military spearheading the offensive. In Calderón’s view, traffickers only want to “enslave our young people with drugs.”

Calderón’s predecessor, Vicente Fox (2000-2006), said much the same in his time, and also used the armed forces to fight the drug trade. Soldiers have been involved in this conflict since the late 1980s, but Calderón has increased their participation to an unprecedented level.

Using the army for what is basically police work has already resulted in a wave of human rights violations, according to reports from the state National Human Rights Commission (CNDH).

However, the U.S. government, which strongly supported the 1998 U.N. agreements, approves of the strategy of putting soldiers in the front line of the war on drugs and has congratulated the Mexican government on its firm action.

Since 2000, Washington has financed Plan Colombia, an anti-drug and counter-insurgency programme agreed with Bogotá.

In early November this year, the Merida Initiative, negotiated in near total secrecy by Mexico and the U.S., stirred up a great deal of controversy. Although it was presented as an anti-drug assistance plan, it also provides for migration controls and anti-terrorist action.

On Dec. 21, Calderón said that the armed forces are the country’s strongest weapon against drug traffickers “and the protective shield that our citizens need in order to live in peace.”

“The war on drugs can neither be won nor lost,” it’s simply an interminable battle, Jorge Chabat, an expert at the Centre for Economics Teaching and Research (CIDE), told IPS.

Luis Astorga, a sociologist at UNAM’s Social Research Institute, said that putting the military on the front line of the country’s anti-drug policy is neither a Colombian nor a Mexican invention, but a U.S. one, and that Washington favours a punitive approach over a preventive one and will not hear of a strategy change.

“It must be understood that this is not President Calderón’s drug policy. It’s the drug policy that is predominant worldwide. All the members of the United Nations are doing the same thing,” Astorga said in an interview with the newspaper Reforma.

The evidence indicates that Mexico is an example of the failure of U.S. and U.N.-sponsored anti-drug policies, said Medrano.

“A Drug-Free World, We Can Do It!” is an empty slogan which is out of touch with reality, he said.

According to the latest official studies, 3.5 million Mexicans out of a total population of 104 million have tried drugs at least once in their lives, and of those, half a million take drugs on a regular basis and 280,000 are severely addicted.

As consumption has risen, so has the power of local traffickers, who have displaced the Colombian cartels as the most powerful in Latin America. Although several Mexican drug lords have been arrested in recent years, and in 2007 the government seized record quantities of drugs and cash from the mafias, business is still brisk.

Turf wars and reactions to government actions have made violence among drug traffickers spiral sharply upwards. During the six-year Fox administration, 9,000 drug-related killings occurred. By comparison, 2,800 people were killed in the last year alone, under Calderón.

On average, an estimated 275 tons of cocaine enter the United States every year, and only 36 tons are intercepted in Mexico, which is the main entry point for drugs into the U.S. market.

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