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A contingency is not a war

6 May 2009

Shannon O’Neil, at LatIntelligence  (Council of Foreign Relations) argues persuasively that the biggest news to come out of Mexico about the “swine flu” epidemic is that the system is working:

Despite the severity of the crisis, there have been no panics or riots. And while far from over, the numbers of deaths in Mexico are beginning to drop, suggesting (at least for now) that the government’s efforts are working. …

Mexico’s reaction reflects the strength – not the weakness – of its government. Despite a few grumbles, citizens have supported the tough measures, even when they affect people’s very livelihoods. This is a testament to Mexico’s elected leaders, and the slowly developing trust in a government of the people actually working for the people. It is also the result of steps taken to strengthen the health care system over the last few decades.

She’s right, of course, but I’m not sure that “working to develop and implement a comprehensive policy” holds true in the “drug war.”  The sanitary contingency (the nice neutral name given the emergency measures) were temporary, there was a specified goal, defined mileposts for measuring progress, and a known end-date.  And, unlike the on-going, ill-defined, amphorous “war” on some narcotics traffickers, there was already broad consensus within Mexico that the “enemy” was a bad guy.

In the sanitary contingency, people were asked to take precautionary measures for a limited time — and for the benefit of everyone.  In the “drug war” some people (soldiers and policemen, mostly) are asked to die to bring down an industry that employs somewhere around 400,000 people… for the perceived benefit of another country.

The Mexican government itself can’t make up it’s mind whether it should be breaking up cartels (which just scatters the traffickers and opens up new business opportunities for other gangsters … who may be less well organized than the present bunch) or pressure the United States to do more to stem the trade at the retail level and to curtail the money and weapons supply.

And, the measures taken by the government — often riding roughshod over civil rights (and getting people killed) are not building confidence in the government.  Quite the opposite.  PAN leaders accuse PRI deputies of being in bed with the gangsters, the PRD and SD accuse the PAN executive of wasting money on military expenditures, and there is little confidence that the continual shifting of police responsiblities to the Army (or consolidating the police into a national force) is really going to curtail the violence.

Former U.S. “Drug Czar” John Waters raised several eyebrows when he said “the drug war cannot fail because it will never end.” That’s true about disease — if controlling disease is said to be a “war” .  There are post-battle issues to be handled — the environmental contamination from feed-lot farming for example, and perhaps some improvment in testing and reporting procedures, but the point is that the “drug war” is two, or more, things — no one of which is being systematically looked at.

While Mexico has pulled back to treating narcotics (and marijuana) use as a social issue, or a health one, and not a criminal matter, there is less support for that measure than one might think. Eighty percent of those polled by El Debate de Sinaloa oppose legalizing or de-criminalizing narcotics use.

On the other hand, simply arresting the many, many, many people who make their livelihood from growing, transporting, processing two rural industries — marijuana and poppy farming — isn’t viable.  Narcocorredos and other pop culture forms suggest the individual gangsters enjoy sympathy and support that H1N1 never will.

Ms. Dr.* O’Neil is exactly right when she says that the public health response proves Mexico is not a “failed state.”  But, when it comes to the narco-“war” it may be engaging in a policy that cannot succeed.

(Sombrero tip to Esther at Xico for first posting on this article)

* I’m glad to make this correction, though it wasn’t requested (I noticed my mistake when I checked how her last name is spelled — one “l” not two).      Shannon O’Neil is one of the smartest people around when it comes to Latin America, and “around” for her includes people like Madelyn Albright and Ernesto Zedillo

3 Comments leave one →
  1. 6 May 2009 2:04 pm

    Hello! I linked to your site through

    Your personal story is quite interesting. Glad to meet you on the Internet.

    Let’s hope this whole swine flu becomes just part of the background noise very soon. We just got back in March 2008 from Nuevo Vallarta, and have been to many destinations in Mexico for decades.

    Warm regards,

    Ellen Kimball
    Portland, OR

  2. 6 May 2009 7:45 pm

    What I wonder is how much debate there is in Calderón’s government over tactics used against organized crime and also whether there is any thought of Mexicans questioning US spending via Plan Merida (or Mexico, whatever). The emphasis re the US seems to be only to try to get the US to Do Something about its horrifying drug habit and to Do Something about guns and money laundering. I know some US money goes to improving the court system, but I wonder if there is any talk of money going to community development instead of giant helicopters, providing employment, etc. I think a case could also be made that there is a link between the narcocommunities and the CAFOs in Mexico. Aside from their other horrors, CAFOs take jobs and don’t return money to the community. Perhaps reforming them (including how they treat the animals which absolutely horrifies me) and then turning them into cooperatives a la the seizure of the petroleum industry in 1939 would help, as would opening up other industries….Ah but there you see my um left wing dreams.

  3. 7 May 2009 5:42 am

    The Drug War is an intellectual challenge. People will continue to seek mind altering experiences. Because of that, a supplier industry will continue to exist. Because of that, the industry will seek new customers and because of that men, women, and children will be enticed into consuming, trafficking, producing, and protecting the drug industry.
    Sometimes I wonder if our drug war money would be better spent on anti-drug culture actions rather than on producer and trafficker interdictions. The anti-smoking crowd has had significant success with their efforts.

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