Public support in Mexico for President Felipe Calderon’s aggressive war on drugs is declining rapidly. That’s not surprising. Violence, especially in northern Mexico, has soared since December 2006 when he ordered the military to attack the drug cartels. More than 28,000 people have perished in the resulting turmoil.
Now, members of Mexico’s political elite — even leaders in his own National Action Party — are turning against Calderon’s strategy. The latest defector is former president Vicente Fox, Calderon’s immediate predecessor. Writing on his blog on August 8, Fox called for legalization of drugs. That move stunned both Mexican and U.S. political leaders who had long considered him an adamant drug warrior. Bush administration officials had repeatedly praised Fox’s cooperation with Washington’s anti-drug efforts as significantly better than those of his predecessors. Fox now broke sharply with his previous positions. “We should consider legalizing the production, distribution, and sale of drugs,” he wrote. Then he added a succinct, damning indictment of both Calderon’s drug policies and those of his own administration: “Radical prohibition strategies have never worked.” His reason for abandoning prohibition was based on a realistic assessment of economic realities. People should look at legalization, Fox argued, “as a strategy to strike at and break the economic structure that allows gangs to generate huge profits in their trade, which feeds corruption and increases their areas of power.”
If those comments were not enough to signal Fox’s complete break with his successor, the former president also called for a rapid withdrawal of the military from internal security missions. And in a final barb directed at Calderon, Fox asserted that the rampant violence was damaging the country’s reputation internationally and undermining the government’s legitimacy domestically. He stressed that “the first responsibility of a government is to provide security for the people and their possessions.” But “today, we find that, unfortunately, the Mexican government is not complying with that responsibility.”
The growing debate in Mexico about the drug war has important implications for the United States. Washington has enthusiastically backed Calderon’s confrontational strategy from the outset, most notably with the $1.6 billion Merida Initiative — of which $1.3 billion is allocated to Mexico. But that policy is failing, and there are even fears that Mexico is lurching toward failed state status. Now, Mexico’s own political elite may be poised to repudiate the current strategy. Washington needs to recognize an increasingly evident policy disaster and try a new approach. Vicente Fox is right. Radical prohibitionist policies have never worked.