The Exaggerated Death of Mexico’s Drug War

Image Source: BaptisteGrandGrand – CC BY-SA 4.0

The Washington Post recently featured a headline story in which Mexico’s Foreign Minister, Marcelo Ebrard, announced that “the Merida Initiative is dead”. This is not news for several reasons, but its repercussion in the Mexican media offers an opportunity to reflect on what’s happening with national  security policy.

Ebrard’s statement came just days before a popular referendum that put a single question to voters: “Do you agree or not that pertinent actions should be taken, within the legal and constitutional framework, to begin a process of investigation into political decisions made in years past by political actors, with the aim of guaranteeing justice and the rights of possible victims?”  The convoluted question failed as a political tactic (only a little over 7% of the eligible population voted), but it put the emphasis rightfully on the victims and raised the question of how much Mexico’s security strategy and official actions have to do with the huge rise in violence.

The Post interview is at least the fifth time that someone in the AMLO government has declared the death of the Merida Initiative, which is the name of the U.S. government’s strategy for political and economic support of the drug war in Mexico. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has publicly proclaimed that the bilateral agreement has ended several times since taking over and it was a prominent promise of his campaign.

It’s also not news because in practice, to paraphrase Mark Twain, “the reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated.” If indeed the U.S. strategy against organized crime no longer exists, someone forgot to notify the government. The U.S. embassy in Mexico City revolves around the Initiative–in fact, the Merida initiative plaque pictured here, is the first thing you see when you salk into the offices. Just days before Ebrard’s remarks, five U.S. senators arrived in Mexico City to discuss “reorientation” of binational security policy within the framework of the Merida Initiative. How do you reorient something that’s dead?

According to the press, the Mexican president spoke to the senators of “opening a new chapter” of the Merida Initiative.  This would not be the first time the Initiative oopened a new phase without fundamentally changing the strategy. The Obama-Biden administration also announced a new phase, dubbed Merida 2, by redirecting spending on military equipment to anti-narcotics programs and training for police and judges. However, military spending on the anti-crime initiative did not end and was instead, in a political sleight of hand, transferred to the Defense Department budget as International Narcotics and Law Enforcement in the State Department put on the public face of the drug war.

In 2012, when Enrique Peña Nieto initiated his presidency, he caused momentary consternation  by requiring all U.S. agents operating in the country–a tangled web of DEA, ATF, FBI, CIA and others–to register activities through the Secretary of Government. But Peña Nieto didn’t change strategy either. in 2018, although U.S. Embassy personnel under Trump openly opposed the candidacy of  Andrés Manuel López Obrador and his promise the end the drug war, AMLO did not change the strategy and business as usual continued. To date, the DEA continues with its ‘surveil, search, catch-or-kill’ playbook and U.S. agencies operate intensively in the country.

What would have to change to really kill the Merida Initiative? The program has greatly benefited the U.S. government by increasing its level of direct intervention in Mexican security. It has enriched U.S. defense companies, while contributing to the death and disappearance of hundreds of thousands of Mexicans. 

A true reform would have to go much deeper than a name change or a new chapter. After more than $3 billion, the plan that began as a three-year program in the Bush administration and was extended “indefinitely” by Hillary Clinton has been a disaster. The close alliance between the U.S. and Mexican militaries has clearly supported Mexican politicians and elites who fear social uprising. However, the biggest benefits have been for the neighbor to the north. Plan Mexico, like Plan Colombia, has always really been Plan United States. The plan furthers the Pentagon’s national security strategies, it is a way of protecting U.S. investments and it feeds the intelligence and arms industries. Militarization is a safeguard against organized opposition to land and resource grabs and the inequalities and injustices that are part and parcel of the neoliberal economic model.

The proof is in the results. More than two decades since the implementation of U.S. aid and training under Plan Colombia, Colombia is the most unequal nation in Latin America and holds the world record for assassination of  human rights defenders. Those horrific numbers are now going up in the context of social protest during the national strike. After thirteen years of Plan Mexico, renamed the Merida Initiative (MI), the homicide rate skyrocketed and has not gone down appreciably under AMLO, while femicides have risen. There are at least 350,000 deaths and 84,000 disappeared since the drug war and MI began.

The drug war model developed in the United States in the seventies is based on the hyper-criminalization of all phases of drug trafficking – production, transit, sale and consumption– and of the people who participate in them. This establishes a black market that works to artificially inflate prices of prohibited substances, to the benefit of traffickers and their accomplices in government and private sector. The enormous illicit financial flows that the scheme generates serve as payout not only to druglords, but also to financial markets. and all kinds of illegal activities such as bribery, illegal government operations and even illegal interventions in other countries.

The model is also based on a pseudo-moral discourse that dehumanizes traffickers, sellers and consumers to justify violating their human rights and even their death. It slams the door on humane solutions such as regulation, treatment, rehabilitation in cases of problematic use and crop reconversion.

The first step to a real change, then, is to decriminalize drugs and associated activities. Mexico’s recently passed Federal Law for the Regulation of Cannabis represents progress, but must go through several more phases to fully implement it. In the United States, marijuana regulation has advanced rapidly, but so far Biden–an enthusiastic drug warrior as a congressman and in Mexico and Central America as a vice president–has not taken up the banner of federal legalization of marijuana. 

The second step is to guarantee humane treatment for those involved in the underground drug market, which must be eliminated as soon as possible through legalization. Undisputably, there are cold-blooded assassins  among them, who must be separated from society so that they cannot continue to kill and disappear people, but in large part the most marginalized Mexican sectors participate–peasant farmers without other sources of income, young people who can’t get jobs or education and resort to selling drugs on the streetcorner or work as lookouts, “mules” who carry small amounts of drugs for cartels because they face dire need, including many women desperate to feed their children who now languish in prisons, and consumers with addictions that need attention. These groups have different needs that must be analyzed one by one to develop solutions based on diagnoses. Some of the AMLO administration’s social programs aimed at them can be helpful in the longer term, if they go beyond cash transfers and if they are adapted to the lived realities of these people.

The third step in transforming a highly militarized strategy into an effective peace strategy is, of course, demilitarization. Militarization is an essential part of the drug war model. Although U.S. law prohibits the deployment of the armed forces in public security tasks, under Nixon and Reagan the war on drugs initiated the militarization of the police, not so much as a measure of drug control as of social control.  This continued unabated under Democratic presidents. In Mexico, given rampant corruption in the police forces, a weak justice system, and the inability of the Mexican prison system (and economy) to absorb a substantial increase in prisoners, instead of jail, we’ve seen extrajudicial executions and de factopermission for criminal groups to kill each other.

The deployment of the armed forces that began under Felipe Calderón as the central axis of the war has continued to date. Now with López Obrador’s announcement of his intent to formally incorporate the National Guard into the Army, any pretext of a mixed civil-military force has been abandoned, along with the simulation of civilian command. The possibility becomes remote that the government will comply with its commitment to withdraw the armed forces from public security tasks in 2024, as stipulated in the reform that created it, or with the recommendation of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to “Establish in domestic law a clear distinction between the functions of national defense, in charge of the armed forces, and citizen security, in charge of the police forces”. It seems that citizens are left without civil protection, since the National Police was dismantled to create the National Guard and the state and municipal police are highly corrupted and routinely violate human rights, despite the millions of useless dollars spent under the Merida Initiative, supposedly to improve them.

It is way past time to end the Merida Initiative, and the entire strategy and infrastructure of the war on drugs. On July 21, the AMLO adminstration presented the latest statisitics showing a very slight, 3.5%, decrease in intentional homicides in the first semester compared to last year, but increases in certain states.  Femicides continued to rise on the national level, as they have throughout this government. A feminist analysis draws a clear link between the militarized model and violence against women: the use of a patriarchal institution, run by the logic of brute force, organized under strict male hierarchies and acting with the aim of anhiliation of the enemy, will never solve complex social problems. Violence begets more violence.

We do not yet know when —or if— social support programs could begin to decrease violence, but as long as they are dominated by security strategies of war, the answer is most likely ‘never’. On August 1, the Mexican people who went to the polls voted to support victims’ demands for truth and justice. It’s important to recall, that after finding the disappeared, the principle demand of victims and their families, is non-repetition.

One can only hope that the Mexican government will finally initiate a real change in security strategy. But if this announcement, like previous ones, is merely a way of marking rhetorical distance from the U.S. government without charting a completely different and sovereign path, we´ll be back where we started–with uncontrolled violence in many parts of the country. In a either case, a key component of successful change mst come from an involved and organized citizenry.

Laura Carlsen is the director of the Americas Program in Mexico City and advisor to Just Associates (JASS) .