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Drug War -- Can Mexico Succeed Where Colombia Failed?

New America Media, News Analysis, Louis E.V. Nevaer Posted: Jun 04, 2008

Editor's Note: Mexican President Felipe Caldern believes he can win the war on drugs because he has learned from the failures of Colombia, writes NAM contributor Louis E.V. Nevaer.

MEXICO CITY The familiar complaint that Mexican presidents are reluctant to be full-fledged partners in the war on drugs is no longer heard in Washington these days: Mexican President Felipe Caldern has taken the lead, launching the most ambitious war on the drug cartels operating in Mexico.

Since taking over from Vicente Fox in December 2006, Caldern has sent more than 27,000 soldiers to eight Mexican states; ordered federal officers to take over police departments in border towns and arrest hundreds of corrupt police; mobilized the Mexican army to destroy thousands of acres of marijuana and opium poppy plants; arrested and extradited scores of drug kingpins indicted in the United States; and set up military roadblocks along Mexican highways leading from the border to the interior of the country.

The Mexican people are demanding that their parks, their streets, their schools, their neighborhoods are safe places for their families, where their children can live and grow up in peace, Felipe Caldern told the nations governors a month after taking office, before launching a campaign against the drug cartels.

Mexico is sending a clear message to the U.S., saying, Were doing everything we can, even more than you, Lorenzo Meyer, a historian and social commentator based in Mexico City, told the Los Angeles Times. The U.S. ambassador wont be able to moan about Mexico not fighting crime.

But the question remains whether Mexico will succeed where Colombia has failed: Will Caldern win, or will the nation be plunged into a state of civil violence?

Calderns actions have provoked an unprecedented response from the drug cartels. Mexico is suffering more casualties in the war on drugs than the U.S. military is in Iraq. More than 2,000 Mexicans have been slain in the previous 18 months, with a gruesome escalation since February of this year. Drug-related violence has exploded in the border states of Baja California Norte, Tamaulipas, Sinaloa and Chihuahua.

In 2007 decapitations signaled power struggles among rival drug cartels as Mexicos drug cartels have resorted to beheadings to intimidate enemies. But in recent months, drug cartels have attacked police stations and Mexican soldiers. Hundreds of police officers and federal agents have resigned from their posts, fearing for their lives and the safety of their families as they have seen their colleagues kidnapped, gunned down or decapitated.

Late in May Federal Police Chief Commander Edgar Millan Gmez was assassinated.

At his funeral, Caldern vowed to press forward. Today I reiterate my promise not to retreat in the quest for a Mexico where order prevails, the president said, in memorial services that were broadcast live across the country. We must say, all Mexican men and women, together, enough is enough.

Although Mexicans uniformly have stood behind Calderns quest for reestablishing civilian control throughout the nation, the escalation of violence is making people fearful.

Luis Astorga, a Mexico City-based sociologist and authority on Mexicos drug trade, argues in the Washington Post that the assassination could have a snowball effect, even leading to the risk of ungovernability. The targeted killings of high-ranking members of the Mexican law enforcement community are an indication, he says, of terrible things, a level of weakness in our [law enforcement] institutions -- they cant even protect themselves.

A recent email hoax reporting that Caldern had been wounded in an assassination attempt sent shivers throughout the country.

The challenge for Caldern and Mexico is to avoid the failure of Colombia, where civil society has come undone during a decades-long war on drugs. Until now, Mexico had been more circumspect: the drug cartels tended to operate along the border, thousands of miles from Mexico City, where a quarter of the Mexican people live.

During the PRI era, in order to coexist, the government looked the other way as long as the cartels didnt wreak havoc in the country, Armand Peschard-Sverdrup, director of the Mexico Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told the Rolling Stone. It became somewhat of a safety valve in terms of dealing with organized crime, as a way of mitigating the political instability.

Caldern knows the risk of taking on the cartels but he also knows the lesson of Colombias monumental failure: accommodation leads to a breakdown of civil society. In Inside Colombia: Drugs, Democracy, and War, a study of the failure of the war on drugs in Colombia, journalist Grace Livingstone noted that more trade unionists, journalists and mayors are killed here [in Colombia] than anywhere else...Most notoriously, it has the highest kidnapping rate in the world.... More than 50,000 people have died in political violence since 1980 and the death rate is rising.

Calderns optimism comes from what he has learned from Colombias failure:

* When Washington throws money at a problem it gets worse. Washingtons pouring of half a trillion dollars into Plan Colombia over a quarter century has destabilized that nation and fueled public corruption. Caldern has made it clear that Mexico will not receive U.S. military personnel, and the only assistance authorized, just this spring when the U.S. Congress approved the Merida Initiative, would be limited to $350 million in hardware helicopters, communications equipment, and related law enforcement supplies.

* Colombia lacked a firm, consistent campaign. Where Colombias efforts have been hampered by a succession of presidents from opposing parties since 1980 (Turba, Bentacur, Barco, Gaviria, Samper, Pastrana, Uribe), Mexicos campaign has been led by Fox and now Caldern, both from the same political party, and neither burdened by a perpetual election since Mexico has one six-year presidential term. Caldern is betting that a firm program can break the cartels between now and when he leaves office in 2012.

* Mexico remains a transit, and not a production, country. Colombian peasants grow coca primarily in small family plots and are beholden to drug kingpins who redistribute money in lavish social programs for rural communities neglected by Bogota. In Mexico, however, the drug cartels enjoy almost no support from the public. Caldern is confident that, with the whole of Mexican society on his side in this battle, he can press forward with a single voice and a united nation behind him in ways Colombia has never been able to do. Whether or not he succeeds will shape how Mexicans and Americans live their lives for decades to come.

Related Articles:

Mexico's War on Drugs is a Sham

Mexican Narcoviolence Spills into U.S. Elections

Drug Trafficking Violence Targets Mexican Police

No Country for Good Men: Drugs and Repression on Mexican Border

U.S. Drug Users: Main Cause for Mexicos Bloodbath

Plan Mexico and the Billion-Dollar Drug Deal

The Cockroach Effect: Narco-Violence Spreads in Mexico

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