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A Cooperative Effort to Combat Drug Trafficking in Mexico

By Aaron Oosterhart

It has been all over the news media in recent months, and in many press briefings and speeches be various government officials, and the United States has a large stake in it as well as a certain level of responsibility for it. The Mexican Drug War, a violent and costly (both fiscally and in human lives lost or destroyed) conflict between the Mexican drug cartels and the Mexican government which has been an earnest conflict since Mexican President Felipe Calderón sent several thousand Mexican military troops into the Mexican state of Michoacán, in an effort to stem the violence, in late 2006. Since then, violence perpetrated by the cartel’s has escalated, and both civilian and federal troop casualties have mounted, pushing the Mexican government to seek assistance from the United States, the primary consumer of the Mexican cartel’s goods.

At the urging of the US State Department, Congress passed legislation in mid-2008 to provide Mexico with $400 million and Central American countries with $65 million in 2008 for the Mérida Initiative as well as equivalent amounts each year through 2011. The Mérida Initiative is a cooperative security effort between the United States, the government of Mexico and the countries of Central America, with an aim to combat the ever increasing threat of drug trafficking, cross-border crime and money laundering. This assistance includes training of Mexican federal troops by United States DEA and Military personal, as well as weapons and equipment to outfit said troops, intelligence sharing, financial aid in restructuring the Mexican Judicial system in an effort to combat the high levels of corruption within the Mexican Government and military. The initiative was announced on 22 October 2007 and signed into law on June 30, 2008. In seeking partnership from the United States, Mexican officials pointed out that trafficking of drugs is largely the responsibility of the US as most of the financing for the Mexican cartels comes from American drug consumers. U.S. law enforcement officials estimate that billions of dollars year flow from the United States to the Mexican traffickers a year, and that is in hard currency alone. (Potter) Other government agencies, including the Government Accountability Office and the National Drug Intelligence Center, have estimated that Mexico's cartels earn billions of dollars in illegal drug proceeds from the United States. (Ford)

Recently, United States President Obama, and Secretary of State Clinton made separate official trips to meet with Mexican officials including Mexican President Calderón, and Mexican Foreign Secretary Espinosa to discuss the US role in, and continued support of the Mexican government’s fight against the cartels. In response to several questions from the press during a press briefing in Mexico City with Secretary Espinosa, Secretary Clinton had this to say:

I also want to speak to the issue of security.

Now, our relationship is much bigger than any issue, including this one. Yet the criminals and kingpins spreading violence are trying to corrode the foundations of law, order, friendship, and trust between us and that support our continent. They will fail. With bold leadership from President Calderon, we are working together to provide the people of our nations with the security they deserve. Under the Merida Initiative, a program conceived by Mexico and embraced by the United States, we have now committed hundreds of millions of dollars to training and equipping Mexican law enforcement, and strengthening Mexico’s judicial system and democratic institutions…

We have made a commitment to assist the Government of Mexico in its struggle against the drug traffickers, and we have accepted that this is a co-responsibility. We know very well that the drug traffickers are motivated by the demand for illegal drugs in the United States, that they are armed by the transport of weapons from the United States to Mexico; and therefore, we see this as a responsibility to assist the Mexican Government and the Mexican people in defeating an enemy that is committing violence and disruption that is very harmful and which is something that all people of conscience should attempt to defeat. (U.S Department of State)

These statements and others show the level to which the United States has committed resources to such a massive conflict. With billions of dollars in U.S. federal aid flowing toward the Mexican Government, Judicial system, Military and its Federal Police as well as to internal and cooperative border security programs aimed at modernizing, and hopefully securing, the U.S./Mexico border. Combined with the potential plan to implement stronger Narcotics and Firearms legislation, the Obama administration is looking to bolster its southern neighbor politically, and in time clean up its own dirty laundry by cutting off the ability of the Mexican cartels’ ability to function and gain income.

In opposition to the Merida Initiative —which some have dubbed “Plan Mexico” after a similar strategy from 1998 called Plan Columbia— some in the united states have argued for greater attention toward what have been termed “Demand Reduction” programs; programs that directly focus on treatment of addicts and “large scale users” of narcotics, as well as prevention and deterrent education programs. A study performed at the behest of the Clinton Administration in 1994 showed that if military and enforcement spending stayed unchanged, and “Demand Reduction” program spending was doubled, usage of narcotics, and therefore return on investment would increase 7 fold, versus a .5 percent return if enforcement spending were doubled and “Demand Reduction” spend remained the same. (C. Peter Rydell) This report as well as other research and anecdotal evidence has lead some in Washington to criticize the Merida Initiative as flawed, and likely only to fuel greater violence in Mexico that could cause that nation to crumble. Yet Washington still persists in its largely “carry a big stick” method, the study was ignored, and in the intervening years, the United States has seen a Marked jump in the amount of Narcotics abuse.

In framing of the United States Position, it seems as though Washington is putting positions before its interests, and looking only to force the cartels into the sea, with little consideration given to other possible approaches. Is the US on the right path, putting its all into this head-to-head style confrontation alongside Mexico’s government against the powerful and violent cartels? Has the Washington blindly stepped into an impossible fray without fully investigating other options that —while not an outright victory— would reduce the power of the cartels and prolific levels of drug use within its borders? Time will tell, hopefully for the better of all involved.

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