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Mexico's Narco-Insurgency and U.S. Counterdrug Policy

Authored by Dr. Hal Brands. | May 2009

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(The excerpts below do not include endnotes found in the original document)

Summary

On June 30, 2008, President George W. Bush signed into law the Merida Initiative, a 3-year, $1.4 billion counterdrug assistance program for Mexico and Central America. The bulk of this money is destined for Mexico, where it will help fund counternarcotics operations against the powerful cartels that have recently turned much of that country into a war zone. Since 2006, Mexico has suffered thousands of drug-related killings, a dramatic deterioration of public security, and severe psychological and social trauma; the Merida Initiative aims to rectify this situation by giving the Mexican government the tools to take the offensive in its fight against the drug traffickers. The program is likely to be extended in some form when its original mandate expires, and thus presages a long­term U.S. commitment to counternarcotics in Mexico.

The Merida Initiative is representative of the supply-side approach to the narcotics trade that has long characterized U.S. drug control policy. It emphasizes interdiction, enforcement, and security measures, with domestic treatment and prevention programs, source-country economic development projects, and other alternative strategies assuming considerably less importance. This strategy is broadly similar to the approach used in Plan Colombia, the multi-billion dollar U.S. counternarcotics and counterinsurgency commitment to that country, and was recently reaffirmed in the 2008 U.S. National Drug Control Strategy.

Unfortunately, this approach to the drug trade is unlikely to achieve the desired results in Mexico. In focusing largely on security, enforcement, and interdiction, the Merida Initiative pays comparatively little attention to the deeper structural problems that fuel the drug trade and drug-related violence. These problems, ranging from official corruption in Mexico to large-scale drug consumption in the United States, have so far frustrated Mexican attempts to rein in the cartels, and will likely hinder the effectiveness of the Merida Initiative as well.

For the Merida Initiative to be fully successful, the United States must therefore forge a more holistic, better-integrated approach to the drug trade. This strategy should aim not simply at strengthening the forces of order in Mexico, but also at addressing the root issues that the Merida Initiative comparatively slights. It should partner enforcement and interdiction programs with a wide range of measures: anti­corruption initiatives, social and economic develop­ment, institution-building, and efforts to restrict U.S. domestic demand and illicit arms trafficking into Mexico. Implementing such a strategy will not be easy, but it will be central to improving U.S. counternarcotics policy and ensuring that the Merida Initiative is more than a mere palliative for the problems associated with the Mexican drug trade.

Introduction

In April 2006, individuals linked to one of Mexico's powerful drug cartels left the severed heads of two police officers in front of the municipal building in the southern port city of Acapulco. The two officials were apparently abducted and killed in retaliation for their participation in a shootout with drug traffickers several days earlier. Their bloodied heads were accompanied by a hand-written note reading, "So that you learn some respect," a message meant to make clear that the cartel would brook no interference from the authorities.

Such occurrences have become alarmingly common in Mexico. A remarkably similar episode played out 2 months later in front of the same municipal building, while drug-related murders have become so common in Acapulco that the city is now colloquially known as Narcopulco.2Such events in Acapulco are merely part of a broader trend sweeping the country, where the past several years, especially the period since 2006, have seen the emergence of a multi-sided war over the drug trade. Heavily armed cartels and their enforcers struggle viciously for control of the drug-trafficking routes running north into the United States, and have recently turned their fire against a government desperate to restrain this bloodshed. For now, the cartels seem to be winning this battle; despite the best efforts of Presidents Vicente Fox (2000-06) and Felipe Calderon (2006-present), the drug trade has continued apace and drug-related violence has reached ever-higher levels of intensity. As a result, Mexico has been beset by thousands of drug-related deaths over the past 2 years, growth of narcotics-fueled corruption, drastic deterioration of public security, and marked erosion of government authority in various parts of the country. The effects of this violence are not limited to Mexico; cartel killings have already spilled over into the United States, and the potential destabilization of Mexico's economy and political system presents a host of dangers to U.S. interests.

On June 30, 2008, George W. Bush signed into law the U.S. response to this deteriorating situation. The Merida Initiative (colloquially referred to as "Plan Merida" or "Plan Mexico") is a 3-year, $1.4 billion counternarcotics package destined for Mexico and Central America, with Mexico to receive the vast majority of these funds. The central aim of the Merida Initiative is to use U.S. money, training, and equipment to strengthen Mexico's military and law enforcement agencies, thereby giving them the capacity to take and hold the initiative in the fight against the cartels. The initiative likely presages a long-lasting U.S. commitment to counternarcotics programs in Mexico; U.S. and Mexican officials have referred to the program as constituting a "new paradigm" in bilateral security relations.

The Merida Initiative may represent a new paradigm in U.S.-Mexican affairs, but it also symbolizes an old paradigm in U.S. counternarcotics policy. In its emphasis on interdiction and enforcement initiatives, the Merida Initiative is the latest incarnation of a longstanding, supply-side approach to the drug trade. This paradigm focuses mainly on strengthening international interdiction capacities and indigenous security forces in order to increase the pressure on major foreign traffickers, with domestic treatment and prevention initiatives, source-country economic development programs, and other alternative strategies assuming considerably less importance. This strategy has been manifest most recently in Plan Colombia, the multi-billion dollar U.S. counternarcotics and counterinsurgency commitment to that country, and was reaffirmed in the Bush administration's 2008 National Drug Control Strategy.

This approach is politically popular, as shown by the bipartisan support that the Merida Initiative has thus far received. But is it an effective method of dealing with the inter-American drug trade, and will it work in Mexico? Given the present design and characteristics of the Merida Initiative, the outlook is not auspicious.

This monograph argues that the Merida Initiative -- and, by extension, U.S. counternarcotics strategy as a whole -- suffers from a basic lack of balance. The Merida Initiative's emphasis on internal security, enforcement, and interdiction is understandable given the current level of chaos and crime in Mexico, and may indeed help redress certain of the operational deficiencies that have hampered Mexican police and military responses to these problems. Yet the initiative pays comparatively little attention to the deeper-rooted factors underlying these devastating phenomena: official corruption, widespread poverty and inequality, weak governance, high demand for illegal narcotics in the United States, and the flow of illicit arms across the U.S. border into Mexico. So far, President Calderon's failure to resolve these issues has hindered his aggressive efforts to rein in the narcotics trade, and in view of the current thrust of the Merida Initiative, there is little reason to think that this program is better suited for such a task. Accordingly, while the initiative will probably produce increases in arrests, seizures, and other traditional markers of success in the fight against illegal narcotics, it seems unlikely that, over the long term, it will serve as anything more than a palliative for the problems associated with the Mexican drug trade.

The evident shortcomings of the Merida Initiative point to the need for an overhaul of U.S. counterdrug strategy. The United States must seize the opportunity presented by the current crisis in Mexico to forge a more holistic approach to counternarcotics. This strategy should aim not simply at strengthening the forces of order in Mexico, but also at addressing the root issues that the Merida Initiative comparatively slights. This means partnering enforcement and interdiction programs with a wide range of measures, carried out in a sustained and intensive manner and designed to attack the drug trade from all angles. These measures should include anti-corruption initiatives, economic and social development, institution building, and efforts to restrict U.S. domestic demand and lessen illicit arms trafficking into Mexico. Implementing such a strategy will be expensive and politically difficult, no doubt, but it will also be essential to making U.S. counternarcotics policy more effective and ensuring that the Merida Initiative and its successors do not evince the same shortcomings that have long plagued America's "war on drugs."

Conclusion

As the apparent intractability of the gun issue demonstrates, crafting a comprehensive counter-narcotics strategy will be no easy undertaking. Doing so will require going past the politically popular aspects of counternarcotics, such as interdiction, and zeroing in on more contested issues like guns and demand. In financial terms, funding at the necessary levels all of the programs discussed above will involve expenditures considerably beyond those already approved for Plan Merida. Moreover, creating such a program will entail a determined effort by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy to ensure that counternarcotics receives sustained executive-level attention and that the myriad agencies involved -- ranging from the ATF to USAID -- achieve the coordination necessary to preclude one aspect of this strategy from countering the efforts of the others. Finally, it bears repeating that the inter-hemispheric drug trade is so entrenched that even a "perfect" counternarcotics strategy will produce meaningful progress only over the long term.

The costs of action are therefore high, but the price of inaction would be exponentially greater. The effects of drug use in the United States and the potential for the economic and political destabilization of Mexico make counternarcotics an immensely significant national security issue. Addressing this problem effectively will require substantial economic resources and political capital, but, given the stakes, the investment is a necessary one. American policymakers must seize on the current crisis to achieve a balanced counternarcotics policy, one that not only strengthens Mexico's forces of order but also addresses the underlying issues that have long nourished the drug trade and made it so violent. If they do so, the United States may finally begin to make sustainable progress in curbing narcotics smuggling and its devastating effects. It they do not, the Merida Initiative will simply go down as one more failed offensive in the long campaign against drugs.