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Our war: as it is, as it could be

3 October 2009

Unlike “pundits” on television in the United States, Mexican “talking heads” are generally either intellectuals or academics or both.  Lorenzo Meyer is less known as a journalist and weekly participant on” Primero Plano” (Instituto Politecnico Nacional’s Canal Onze’s version of “Meet The Press”) than as a historian and professor of international relations at the prestigious post-graduate institution, Colegio de Mexico.  He turns out a  weekly newspaper column, Análisis: Agenda ciudadana for the conservative Reforma (which appears as well in 50 newspapers throughout Mexico), he is considered to be on the “left”, given his contention after the 2006 Presidential election that other well-known public intellectuals backed Felipe Calderón not out of conviction, but out of a fear and mistrust of the general populace.

Although he is not a Calderónista, and he cannot — with his heavy writing and work schedule — fully explicate his ideas in a weekly newspaper column,  Nuestra guerra actual y las posibles (my translation) — last week’s Análisis will be (and is) taken seriously in Mexican policy making circles.

In the three years since December 2006, when the Mexican government committed its Army to a war against drug traffickers, the casualty rate in the battle with organized crime have risen to 14,000 (11 September 2009 El Universal).  Perhaps it is time to ask whether it makes sense to continue this war with the same intensity and with the same tactics.

One could argue that the “drug war” should be buried – or reburied – not just because too many have died already, but because there are more urgent needs for our limited resources, and because there are legitimate alternatives available that change the direction of our current collective drive against the drug cartels.

To start with, this war drains the country of the funds needed to fight poverty, and reverse a declining education system.  And, there is a need for other battles … against unemployment, against environmental destruction and for the struggle to turn the growing informal economy into a formal one.
What would be really popular a national crusade against public corruption and insecurity: that is, crime that affects the ordinary citizen … not just drug trafficking.  Still, there is no shortage of wars to fight, but there is a shortage of resources to fight all these wars.

So we set priorities.   But maybe the battle against drug cartels is a conflict that is not entirely or even genuinely our conflict,  or worse — one where no real victory is possible.

The essence:

Successfully waging a real war implies that society is willing to bear extreme strains upon its social and institutional relationships.  Such a war requires the country’s leadership to develop a plan that has clear means and goals, identifies the opponent, explains why the fight is necessary, and what steps are needed to win.

For its part, the society has to be willing to accept a high degree of responsiblity, of personal and collective sacrifice and commit to one of the largest enterprises a community can undertake.

In short, the decision to go to war is one that must be undertaken with the society’s full awareness of the burden and responsibilities

Narcotics traffickers as the great collective enemy:

In principle there is no doubt that Mexico as a country and the world in general would be better off if “The Family”, the Gulf cartel, the Juarez cartel and all the other drug trafficking organizations, were already history.

However, specialists in this field, as well as our own common sense tell us that as long as there  are external sources of demand and, therefore, financing — especially if that source is the most powerful country on the planet — those fighting the Mexican drug trade will continue to suffer from the same disadvantage they face.  For starters, the armed groups opposing the army have their main source of supply and support in another country.

The United States, even with NATO assistance, cannot defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan for the same reason.  It finds shelter and resources in Pakistan.  For Mexico, there is also an external factor that is a major  obstacle in the effort to eliminate organized drug trafficking  — the ability to pressure and force Washington to act is infinitely more limited than Washington’s  to pressure Islamabad.

Under the so-called Merida Initiative the Mexican government received a strong and historical commitment on the part of the U.S. government to really act against demand and against supplying arms and money transfers to Mexican criminal groups.

However, for historical or political reasons the U.S. authorities can not prevent its citizens from acquiring weapons and for some of those citizens to transfer arms to the Mexican cartels.

Examining the budget items, according to a paper by Eric Olson and Robert Donnelly  (“Confronting the Challege of Organized Crime in Mexico and Latin America“, 2009, Mexico Institute Woodrow Wilson Center, Washington DC.), so far, two thirds of the funds  the U.S. government has invested in the fight against drugs has been designed to combat the supply and only one third to confront the very source of evil: demand,

A logical basis:

Felipe Calderón unleased the army to fight the war against drug traffickers as part of a move against several criminal organizations.

As in many other administration actions, one objective– perhaps the most basic – seems to have been to create a situation in which the public would stand on the side of a “strong and determined leader.”

In that sense, the move seems to have born fruit:  according to a Pew Centrer poll, published 27 September, eighty-tree percent of Mexicans support the use of the amry against drug cartels.

However, Olson and Donnelly, as do many other investigators, are cognizant of the fact that “rarely has a victory been possible in this type of war, especially when the demand for illegal products is high.”

The alternative could be, experts say, to use the military simply to selectively limit the influence of organized crime, raising the cost of their business;  concentrating on the less violent and dramatic activities, such as money laundering; rebuilding the institutional framework of the police, prosecutors, courts;  educating  or reeducating potential consumers; and, above all, make activity of the part of Mexican authorities conditional upon U.S. progress in effective arms control, currency controls and a real reduction in demand for drugs in their society.

Possible solutions:

A German researcher, specializing in the economic effects of internal conflicts,  Achim Wennmann, has suggested exploring another possibility:  the Government of Mexico could enter into negotiations with the cartels through formal intermediaries with the clear objective of limiting the areas of activity of the cartels, including agreements not to operate in schools, nor to extend its reach into other violent activities such as kidnapping or human trafficking.

What is needed is an economic incentive for the cartels to limit their activities and the areas under their control, that will enable Mexican society to return to civility.

Certainly, in principle, the idea of negotiating with organized crime is morally repugnant.

However, there is an ethical defense.  War without possible victory is an indefinite extension of slaughter and brutality.

However, it has a defensible ethical side: a war without victory is possible indefinite extension of the slaughter and brutality.

Mexican society, particularly those youths who have a chance of social mobility, are getting used to the idea of seeing violence as a normal and extremely effective way of getting ahead.

A hardened collective consciousness will have a huge cultural cost.  It mortgages the future.

Mexico does not have to pay a bill that should be entirely in the hands of consumers.  They are the ones who ultimately have developed in the mountains of Sinaloa not only to a producer of marijuana and poppies, but a region where totally dehumanized characters are imposing their life style, values and destructive relationships on the rest of society.  Look at Italy for an example of how difficult it is to uproot the Mafia culture.


Negotiations with criminal organizations is not an ideal solution but the alternative is worse.  But, as things stand, the obstacles to achieving a world not as bad as other possibilities, are many.

On the one hand, the “drug war” has paid dividends to Calderon which does not have many alternative sources of political capital.

On the other, Washington will raise objections.  While that government has not been able to reduce the demand within its own society, it has ample resources to pressure Mexico.

Ironically, that same Washington may consider negotiating with evil itself, for example, with some of its own enemies in order to isolate the Taliban hardliners.

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