Development & Aid, Economy & Trade, Headlines, Health, Latin America & the Caribbean, North America

US-MEXICO: Escalating Drug Violence Rooted in Northern Demand

Matthew Berger

WASHINGTON, Feb 28 2010 (IPS) - As the war over health care continues in Washington and a war of a bloodier nature heats up in Ciudád Juárez and elsewhere in Mexico, top U.S. and Mexican officials are hoping to reduce both pressures on the health system and the ongoing bloodshed.

A three-day conference at the U.S. State Department concluded Thursday with a joint acknowledgement by the two countries of the crucial need to reduce drug demand and intensify prevention and treatment efforts.

“We are building a health system that prepares communities to prevent illicit drug consumption and promotes a healthy society,” said U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

But south of the U.S.-Mexico border, violence related to drug trafficking has ravaged society, and both countries have made it clear that emphasising the demand front of the war on drugs does not necessarily mean deemphasising the campaign against suppliers.

Nor is demand the only aspect on which the U.S. and Mexico will step up their cooperation.

It was reported earlier this week that U.S. drug enforcement officials will begin to work more closely with Mexican troops to combat the northward flow of narcotics and the violence it has bred south of and along the border.

Reports originally said U.S. agents would be embedded in Mexican law enforcement units. At the conference here, though, Mexican and U.S. diplomats said Wednesday that that was not the case and that not only would such a move jeopardise Mexican sovereignty but it would be illegal under the country’s laws.

The U.S. will, however, play a larger, though still indirect, role in ground operations as it will expand its intelligence sharing operations in Mexico and provide technical advice.

The reports on such expanded coordination this week “have not been that clear,” according to Maureen Meyer, associate for Mexico and Central America at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), though “we have seen the intention and statements the past few months looking for ways to expand that intelligence sharing.”

Meyer says the clearest sign of the level of coordination between the U.S. and Mexico in the trafficking war is the establishment of a joint office in Mexico City in which enforcement authorities from both countries will work to address mutual threats and monitor programmes established under the Mérida Initiative, the agreement under which the U.S. and Mexico cooperate on fighting drug trafficking and other trans-national crimes.

She sees this as “part of a broader rethinking that the U.S. is doing” with regard to Mexico trafficking policy.

The necessity of this rethinking is not hard to see.

So far, 2010 has been particularly bloody in the affected regions of Mexico. Trafficking-related violence is estimated to have taken 1,400 lives in the first two months of the year.

In an especially chilling incident, 13 teenagers and two adults were reportedly gunned down at a birthday party in the Juárez neighbourhood of Villas Salvacar Jan. 31 when hitmen for the Juárez cartel ambushed a birthday party instead of the rival gang they had expected to find.

This is only one incident in an escalating turf war in a city flooded with a reported 8,000 troops and police.

But the incident may serve as a wake-up call for policymakers to broaden their rethinking and look for new, less militaristic ways to combat trafficking.

This week’s meeting in Washington on demand reduction continues the Barack Obama administration’s efforts to acknowledge the role of U.S. demand in fuelling drug violence and trafficking in Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America.

This shift in Washington’s tone on drug policy was kick-started last March when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted, “We know very well that the drug traffickers are motivated by the demand for illegal drugs in the United States and that they are armed by the transport of weapons from the United States.”

The “Declaration of Drug Demand Reduction Cooperation” announced at the close of this week’s meeting continues the effort to address that motivation at the source. Whether it can be successful in itself, though, is still an open question.

“It’s important to make more progress than we have made [in demand reduction] and there’s certainly plenty of room for improvement, but I don’t think either government should suffer the illusion that the U.S. is going to see a dramatic reduction in the scale of the market – even with treatment and prevention,” said John Walsh, Senior Associate for Andes and Drug Policy at WOLA.

In the plan laid out Thursday, the U.S. and Mexico would prioritiae such actions as providing more and better addiction treatment, intervention and prevention as well as the broader goal of developing communities that “develop a culture of lawfulness.”

It also underscores cooperation between the neighbouring countries and looks ahead to the National Drug Control Strategy that Obama is expected to unveil later this spring. This strategy would also prioritise demand measures like treatment and prevention, among other aims.

In Mexico, though, the bodies are piling up. Drug-related violence is estimated to have claimed over 17,000 lives since Mexican President Felipe Calderón escalated the anti-drug trafficker fight after taking office in 2006.

Killings tied to the trafficking are a daily occurrence in some places. The website, which tracks the violence, tallies just this week’s body count at 137 as of Thursday evening.

In Juárez alone, there were 2,670 homicides last year, very few of which have led or will lead to a court case. The arrests that do occur are clouded by accusations of human rights abuses by the soldiers detaining them, including accusations of torture, illegal detentions and beatings.

Ahead of U.S. college students’ upcoming spring holidays, the U.S. State Department advised U.S. citizens Monday to avoid travel to the Mexican states of Coahuila, Durango, Michoacán and Chihuahua, of which Juárez is the largest city.

New ways of tackling the issues are emerging, however. At a meeting in Mexico City last week organized by the Colectivo por una Política Integral hacia las Drogas, politicians, academics and activists discussed alternatives to current strategies, focusing largely on harm reduction strategies and moving away from “prohibitionism”.

This came as the United Nations’ International Narcotics Control Board’s annual report, released Wednesday, criticised some Latin American countries for moving to decriminalise certain drugs. Mexico decriminalised possession of small amounts cocaine, heroin and marijuana last year.

Moves like these, says the report “undermine national and international efforts” to combat drug use and trafficking.

In Washington, the Marijuana Policy Project criticised the conference here for not acknowledging what it sees as the “obvious solution” to cartel-related violence – decriminalising marijuana in the U.S.

While actions such as decriminalisation still seem unlikely, the Obama administration does seem to be open to new ideas on how to reduce drug trafficking.

According to WOLA’s Meyer and other reports, the U.S. will move away from a focus on providing hardware and equipment to Mexican troops and police and instead try to strengthen Mexican institutions and governance.

“Cooperation should go beyond the issue of drug trafficking and look at institutional weaknesses that Mexico will have to address regardless,” including corruption and increasing the accountability of officials, said Meyer.

Meanwhile, the president is asking Congress for an additional 310 million dollars to help fund Mexico’s counter-narcotics efforts next year under the 1.4-billion-dollar Mérida Initiative.

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