The U.S.-Backed Drug War in Mexico Has Never Been Deadlier

The Trump administration is continuing to help the Mexican government wage a war on drugs despite a recent report that more than 33,000 Mexicans were killed in 2018, a new record.

According to Mexico’s Secretariat of Security and Citizen Protection, there were 33,341 homicides in Mexico in 2018. The number of deaths broke the record from the previous year, when 28,866 Mexicans were killed.

Much of the violence is the result of the country’s long-running drug war. Since the Mexican government began deploying its military forces around the country in December 2006 to confront drug cartels, more than 100,000 Mexicans have died in drug-related violence.

Former U.S. official Roger Noriega has described the war as “a decade-long bloodbath.”

The U.S. government has been fueling the war with the Mérida Initiative, a multi-billion dollar program of assistance that has provided Mexican security forces with aircraft, training, and equipment.

“We will continue to be relentless against the criminals and narco-traffickers.” former U.S. President Barack Obama pledged in 2016.

Over the past two years, the fate of the Mérida Initiative has increasingly been called into question, however, as major political changes in the United States and Mexico have disrupted the bilateral relationship. The election of Donald Trump in 2016 has left many U.S. officials wondering whether they can preserve their partnership with the Mexican government.

Last year, former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Roberta Jacobson repeatedly warned that Trump’s demeaning rhetoric about Mexicans significantly undermined U.S. standing in Mexico. It has become “increasingly difficult” for U.S. diplomats to “lecture” and “cajole” Mexican officials, she said.

Another major change, the election of leftist politician Andrés Manuel López Obrador as Mexico’s new president, has added to the concerns in Washington. During his victory speech, López Obrador promised to take a new approach with the drug war. “The failed strategy of combating insecurity and violence will change,” López Obrador said.

Still, little has actually changed in how the U.S. and Mexican governments have been waging the war. Last year, Congress appropriated another $139 million for the Mérida Initiative, a slight increase from the previous year. The Department of Defense added another $63.3 million in counternarcotics assistance for the Mexican military.

“The Mérida Initiative continues to be the United States’ primary vehicle to meet shared U.S.-Mexico security priorities,” State Department official Richard Glenn told Congress.

So far, López Obrador has not made any major moves to curtail the program. Although the new Mexican president declared on January 30 that the drug war is over, he has kept Mexican military forces deployed throughout the country. He recently announced that he is sending federal troops into Tijuana, where violence has been surging.

In one of the clearest signs of his intentions, López Obrador has been trying to create a new National Guard of 60,000 troops to confront the nation’s drug cartels.

Human rights organizations, which have been highly critical of the war, are opposed to the plan. They report that similar attempts in the past have failed to improve security in Mexico.

López Obrador “is making a colossal mistake that could undercut any serious hope of ending the atrocities that have caused so much suffering in Mexico in recent years,” said José Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director at Human Rights Watch.

In the meantime, both the Trump administration and the U.S. mass media continue to largely ignore the role played by the United States in the drug war. They blame the country’s drug cartels for the growing violence and rarely have anything to say about the Mérida Initiative.

Violence in Mexico “is a big contributor to the Humanitarian Crisis taking place on our Southern Border,” Trump recently tweeted. Much of it is “caused by DRUGS.”

As usual, Trump keeps pointing to his proposed border wall as a solution. “Wall is being built!” he tweeted. What goes unmentioned is the fact that the Mérida Initiative continues to fuel the violence while Trump’s harsh migration policies prevent many of the war’s victims from being able to seek refuge in the United States.

Edward Hunt writes about war and empire. He has a PhD in American Studies from the College of William & Mary.