Mexico's Narco-Insurgency and U.S. Counterdrug Policy
Authored by Dr. Hal Brands.
In late 2007, the U.S. and Mexican governments unveiled the Merida Initiative. A 3-year, $1.4 billion counternarcotics assistance program, the Merida Initiative is designed to combat the drug-fueled violence that has ravaged Mexico of late. The initiative aims to strengthen the Mexican police and military, permitting them to take the offensive in the fight against Mexico’s powerful cartels. As currently designed, however, the Merida Initiative is unlikely to have a meaningful, long-term impact in restraining the drug trade and drug-related violence. Focussing largely on security, enforcement, and interdiction issues, it pays comparatively little attention to the deeper structural problems that fuel these destructive phenomena. These problems, ranging from official corruption to U.S. domestic drug consumption, have so far frustrated Mexican attempts to rein in the cartels, and will likely hinder the effectiveness of the Merida Initiative as well. To make U.S. counternarcotics policy fully effective, it will be imperative to forge a more holistic, better-integrated approach to the “war on drugs.”
On June 30, 2008, President George W. Bush signed into law the Merida Initiative, a 3-year, $1.4 billion counterdrug assistance program for Mexico and Central America. The bulk of this money is destined for Mexico, where it will help fund counternarcotics operations against the powerful cartels that have recently turned much of that country into a war zone. Since 2006, Mexico has suffered thousands of drugrelated killings, a dramatic deterioration of public security, and severe psychological and social trauma; the Merida Initiative aims to rectify this situation by giving the Mexican government the tools to take the offensive in its fight against the drug traffickers. The program is likely to be extended in some form when its original mandate expires, and thus presages a longterm U.S. commitment to counternarcotics in Mexico.
The Merida Initiative is representative of the supplyside approach to the narcotics trade that has long characterized U.S. drug control policy. It emphasizes interdiction, enforcement, and security measures, with domestic treatment and prevention programs, source-country economic development projects, and other alternative strategies assuming considerably less importance. This strategy is broadly similar to the approach used in Plan Colombia, the multi-billion dollar U.S. counternarcotics and counterinsurgency commitment to that country, and was recently reaffirmed in the 2008 U.S. National Drug Control Strategy.
Unfortunately, this approach to the drug trade is unlikely to achieve the desired results in Mexico. In focusing largely on security, enforcement, and interdiction, the Merida Initiative pays comparatively little attention to the deeper structural problems that fuel the drug trade and drug-related violence. These problems, ranging from official corruption in Mexico to large-scale drug consumption in the United States, have so far frustrated Mexican attempts to rein in the cartels, and will likely hinder the effectiveness of the Merida Initiative as well.
For the Merida Initiative to be fully successful, the United States must therefore forge a more holistic, better-integrated approach to the drug trade. This strategy should aim not simply at strengthening the forces of order in Mexico, but also at addressing the root issues that the Merida Initiative comparatively slights. It should partner enforcement and interdiction programs with a wide range of measures: anticorruption initiatives, social and economic development, institution-building, and efforts to restrict U.S. domestic demand and illicit arms trafficking into Mexico. Implementing such a strategy will not be easy, but it will be central to improving U.S. counternarcotics policy and ensuring that the Merida Initiative is more than a mere palliative for the problems associated with the Mexican drug trade.
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