Policy Analysis No. 688

Undermining Mexico’s Dangerous Drug Cartels

Since President Felipe Calderón launched a military-led offensive against Mexico’s powerful drug cartels in December 2006, some 42,000 people have perished. The situation is so bad that the Mexican government’s authority in several portions of the country, especially along the border with the United States, is shaky, and the growing turbulence creates concerns that Mexico is in danger of becoming a failed state. Although such fears are excessive at this point, even that dire scenario can no longer be ruled out.

U.S. political leaders and the American people also worry that Mexico’s corruption and violence is seeping across the border into the United States. That danger is still fairly limited, but the trend is ominous. Both the number and severity of incidents along the border are rising.

Experts propose several strategies for dealing with Mexico’s drug violence. One suggestion is to apply the model used earlier to defeat the Colombian drug cartels. But the victory in Colombia is not as complete as proponents contend, and the situation in Mexico is far less favorable to using that strategy. Another suggested approach is to try to restore Mexico’s status quo ante, in which the government largely looked the other way while drug traffickers sent their product to the United States. But too much has changed politically in Mexico for that approach, which would be only a temporary Band-Aid solution in any case.

The only lasting, effective strategy is to defund the Mexican drug cartels. Reducing their billions of dollars in revenue requires the United States, as the principal consumer market for illegal drugs, to abandon its failed prohibition policy. That move would eliminate the lucrative black-market premium and greatly reduce the financial resources the cartels have available to bribe officials or hire enforcers to kill competitors and law enforcement personnel and intimidate the Mexican people. A refusal to abandon prohibition means that Mexico’s agony will likely worsen and pose a significant security problem for the United States.

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Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, is the author of eight books and more than 500 articles and policy studies on international issues. His latest book, The Fire Next Door: Mexico’s Drug Violence and the Danger to America, is forthcoming in 2012.