When Mexico’s new president Felipe Calderón launched a military-led offensive against the country’s powerful drug cartels in December 2006, his strategy enjoyed widespread domestic support. But his confrontational approach has not gone as planned. At least forty-four thousand — and according to at least one estimate, perhaps as many as fifty-two thousand — people have perished in the upsurge of violence over the past five years. That unpleasant reality has gradually caused major segments of Mexico’s population and, perhaps even more important, key Mexican political leaders to become disenchanted with the drug war.
There were signs of growing discontent as far back as late 2008. Rubén Aguilar, the president’s former director of communications, stunned his one-time boss and other members of the governing National Action Party (PAN) when he proposed opening negotiations with the cartels, essentially allowing them to conduct their business in exchange for a commitment to halt the kidnappings, torture and gruesome murders. Aguilar was even willing to go so far as to consider wholesale legalization of drugs. “We are not going to eliminate narco-trafficking,” he stated in an interview with a Mexican newspaper, but “we can diminish the violence with which it seeks to enhance its operating spaces.” At a minimum, he predicted, negotiations would likely lead to less destructive “rules of the game” among the competing cartels.
Other advocates of change began to speak out as well. “The people of Mexico are losing hope, and it is urgent that Congress, the political parties and the president reconsider this strategy,” said Senator Ramón Galindo, a Calderón supporter, several months after Aguilar’s interview. Galindo may have a special vantage point to be alarmed, since he is a former mayor of Ciudad Juárez, which has become the epicenter of drug-related carnage since Calderón took office. The legislature in Chihuahua, the state in which Ciudad Juárez is located, conducted a debate in July 2009 about whether Calderón’s strategy was “a total failure.”
The administration and most of its political allies struck back hard at the early critics and summarily rejected suggestions about trying to reach an accommodation with the cartels to reduce the violence. One prominent deputy in Mexico’s Congress dismissed Aguilar’s proposal for negotiations as “crazy.” Another stated: “You cannot cut deals with crooks, least of all with [powerful] criminal organizations.” Calderón himself denounced the suggestion. “My government,” he thundered, “does not negotiate nor will it ever negotiate with criminal organizations.” Instead he pledged “not only to confront them but defeat them with all the force of the state.”
But matters have gotten worse for the beleaguered president since the initial flurry of proposals for accommodation or “appeasement” of the drug cartels. Not only has the already alarming pace of casualties risen further in 2010 and 2011, but the violence also has spread beyond the usual theaters — the cities along the border with the United States — into previously peaceful areas. That development has deepened the feelings of frustration and worry among both rank-and-file Mexicans and members of the country’s elite.
The most prominent defection from the pro-drug war camp has been Calderón’s predecessor, Vicente Fox. Speaking at an anticrime conference in August 2011, Fox stated that he wanted to “start a public debate” on two related ideas: first that the Mexican government should “call on the violent groups for a truce,” and second, that the government should “evaluate the advisability of an amnesty law.”
That statement amplified criticism that the former president had expressed about Calderón’s strategy since August 2010 when Fox posted an essay on his personal blog calling for the legalization of drugs. If those comments were not enough to signal Fox’s complete break with the policies of his successor, he also called for a prompt withdrawal of the military from internal-security missions. And in a final barb directed at Calderón, 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.”
When he read that blog post, Calderón could be forgiven if he responded “et tu, Brute?” And the president’s feelings about his predecessor undoubtedly did not improve the following year when Fox suggested that the government consider a truce with the cartels and in October again openly called for drug legalization at a policy forum in Washington sponsored by the vehemently anti-drug war Cato Institute.
But Fox seems to better reflect the trend in public and even elite opinion than does Calderón. Several developments indicate that Fox is hardly the only member of Mexico’s political elite who wants a drastic policy change regarding the drug war. A 2010 report by the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, the roster of which included more than a dozen former political leaders, diplomats and other dignitaries, strongly criticized the war on drugs. Three leaders of that commission, including former Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo, subsequently published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. They stated their thesis categorically. “The war on drugs has failed,” adding that “Prohibitionist policies based on eradication, interdiction and criminalization of consumption simply haven’t worked. Violence and the organized crime associated with the narcotics trade remain critical problems in our countries.”
Zedillo’s byline on that op-ed piece — and his signature on an even more prestigious report published in June 2011 by the Global Commission on Drug Policy — is one more indication that disenchantment with the drug war is growing within Mexico’s political elite. The PRD, the third major party in Mexico’s triangular political competition, has called for drug legalization. Leading presidential candidate Santiago Creel recently stated that he would withdraw the army from the fight against the drug cartels if he became president.
Ironically, as disenchantment with Calderón’s war on drugs grows in Mexico, U.S. government support for that approach seems to intensify. Not only has the Obama administration continued to fund the multi-billion-dollar Mérida Initiative, first adopted in 2007, but U.S. intelligence agencies have provided information to Mexican security forces for raids against high-profile cartel leaders. Recently, there are indications of a trend toward far more direct measures. The administration has allowed Mexican police and military commandos to use U.S. territory as staging areas for raids on cartel targets back inside Mexico. The most graphic example of widening U.S. support for Calderón’s strategy was the confirmation in March 2011 that U.S. Predator and Global Hawk drones were flying over Mexican territory in an effort to locate suspected drug traffickers and track their movements. What especially upset critics in Mexico’s legislature and much of the news media was that those drones had been operating for at least two years, without anyone outside the Calderón administration being informed.
Brad Barker, president of HALO Corporation, a private security firm that was involved in the drone program, may have inadvertently revealed just how extensive Washington’s involvement inside Mexico has become. Noting that his firm and others were tracking both vehicles and people, Barker stated: “There’s been a huge spike in agents down there.”
That is a risky strategy. Given the renowned nationalist sensitivities of the Mexican people, such heavy-handed support for a hard-line strategy against the cartels could cause major problems in bilateral relations. That is even more likely if Washington’s policy preferences and public opinion in Mexico are moving in opposite directions regarding the wisdom of waging a vigorous drug war. U.S. leaders need to be far more cognizant of the trend in attitudes in Mexico. Calderón’s presidency comes to an end next autumn, and Washington could easily find itself out on a limb, backing a policy that no longer enjoys the support of either the Mexican people or the country’s new leadership team.