Adios to Failed Strategies
by Denise Dresser
Proceso, Mexico City, Mexico, January 28, 2001
World Press Review, April 2001
In Traffic, an intense, high-impact movie from Steven Soderbergh,
there's a scene that captures the current status of the war against
drug trafficking. A recently named U.S. drug czar is traveling
in a government plane after having visited the Tijuana-San Ysidro
border. He has seen for himself just how porous the border crossing
is. He confronts his advisers (who don't include any experts in
the treatment of drug addiction). He demands new ideas. The answer
is silence. But 'Traffic suggests an answer: The war against drugs
is a mistaken war in the wrong place, at the wrong time, against
the wrong enemy.
Mexico's President Vicente Fox declares that drug trafficking
has scored a couple of goals, but that the game isn't over yet.
The current reality, however, contradicts the president's optimism.
Seventy percent of the cocaine consumed in the United States crosses
Mexico's national territory; 3()0,()()() Mexicans earn a living
growing or transporting or guarding illegal drugs. Drug trafficking
generates annual incomes of between $10 billion and $3() billion.
The various drug cartels and drug lords channel more than $50()
million into buying influence and paying off henchmen. It doesn't
matter how much the United States spends on interception, or how
much Mexico spends on eradication. The demand is there, the supply
is there, and the border between the two countries ties the consumers
and producers together like an umbilical cord.
In Soderbergh's masterpiece, the new drug czar lands on the
border and sees the futility. The endless line of cars and trucks,
the dogs sniffing for illegal substances, the detected shipment-and
the thousands that go undetected. In the movie, a captured drug
trafficker points to what everyone knows but refuses to accept:
The North American Free Trade Agreement has opened the floodgates
to trade, but also to cocaine. Economic liberalization has contributed
to the "narcotization" of the border.
And how does the United States react? In a contradictory and
confusing manner. It promotes economic activity across the border
and, at the same time, intensifies interception activities. It
tears down trade barriers and builds up concrete walls. It promotes
free-market forces and fights against them when cocaine is the
product. It attacks the supply and ignores the demand. It requires
its neighbor to put its house in order when its own house is a
chaos of incurable addicts, overcrowded prisons, and besieged
For its part, Mexico pays the costs of the war, provides the
combatants, suffers the hardships, and rarely receives medals
for its battles. As Traffic reveals on the screen, war spoils
more than it saves. The General Salazar character says he's working
to eliminate the Tijuana cartel, but in reality he works for its
Current and prospective personnel of the Mexican attorney
general's office are subjected to psychological and polygraph
tests. Their bank accounts and their urine are studied, and 40
percent of those put to the test lose their jobs. [Former Attorney
General] Jorge Madrazo imported police instructors from France
and Israel. He sent his agents to study at the FBI training center.
And what happened? An Interior Ministry internal report reveals
that in 1995 there were more than 900 criminal gangs operating
in Mexico. And 50 percent comprised agents and former agents of
the attorney general's office-whose training helped them do a
better job of assaulting.
Mexico's hands are tied. There is little a Mexican president
can do when the United States has an anti-drug policy that it
refuses to reform publicly or rethink privately. The United States
thinks the problem with Mexico is its lack of will. It thinks
that if Mexico would work at removing the heads of the cartels,
their organizations would disappear. But this point of view is
completely naive. Every time a drug trafficker is eliminated,
another one takes his place.
Not too many months ago, Fox and his group thought a simple
change of the party in power would be the panacea. The then-candidate
argued that it would be impossible for any PRI (Institutional
Revolutionary Party) president to resolve the problem of drug
trafficking, because the government itself was an accomplice and
consort. At one point, Fox announced he would come to power to
clean up and put the house in order. Well, he's there, and he
hasn't won the battle...nor will he. Nor should he even try. The
country has a lot to lose and little to gain in a head-on war
against drug trafficking. Better a modus vivendi than endless
violence. Better to fight against corruption than to devastate
the country by trying to do away with the drug cartels. Doing
anything else would be suicidal, naive, and ineffective.
It's not a matter of closing one's eyes, looking the other
way, or continuing with the complicity established by the PRI.
But it is a matter of designing a strategy that is better for
Mexico than for the United States. Mexico has been trying to fulfill
quotas and receive certifications for too long. The problem is
a bilateral one, but the certification has always been unilateral.
Perhaps it's time to change the rules of the game and inaugurate
a Mexican certification process.
Mexico under the PRI always sat down to negotiate the issue
of drug trafficking with the United States from a position of
weakness. The United States needs assistance from Mexico, and
Mexico should use this dependence in its favor. It could argue
that it will continue to do the dirty work, but wants to receive
proper compensation. If the United States is seeking help in neutralizing
drug trafficking, it should pay for it: with more visas [for Mexicans],
better treatment of migrant workers, investment funds for development.
Mexico provides a useful service, and according to the laws of
the world market, that service has a value. It's time to send
the United States the bill.
Meanwhile, our neighbor to the north has a full-time job to
do. It's up to the United States to wage the war against drugs
with the same determination that it demands of Mexico. It's up
to President George W. Bush to design a domestic strategy that
addresses the demand. It's up to the DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency)
to catch the narcos with the same effort as the Mexican attorney
general's office. It's up to U.S. society to deal with the addictions
of its adolescents. It's up to Washington to understand that the
real enemy is not Mexico, not the flow of drugs, but human weakness:
compulsion, evasion, the search for instant gratification. In
response to the insatiable U.S. appetite for drugs, it's worth
remembering the words of Albert Camus: "We used to wonder
where war lived, what it was that made it so vile. And now we
realize that we know where it lives, that it is inside ourselves."