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 agents.

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 competition.

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."

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