Now, after three years of this “drug war,” press reports have appeared in the U.S. citing the mounting criticism over human-rights abuses as well as the disenchantment among Mexican political insiders with the government’s tactics. But the dominant storyline—in print and on television—has been to depict the more sensational aspects of the drug violence, focusing on body counts and decapitations and ignoring a number of relevant questions that would have framed the story much differently.
For instance, did Calderon launch an internal war to legitimize his presidency? While Calderon was elected in 2006 with the support of the international community, and the church, the elite, and the business class within Mexico, he faced civil unrest in the southern state of Oaxaca and mounting economic problems. A solid half of the Mexican population qualifies as poor, and in the presidential race, a large number of those poor voters supported Calderon’s opponent, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.
When Calderon appeared in battle gear with the military in a spectacular January 2007 photo op, it indicated to Mexican political commentators that the president was attempting to bolster his weak position and shift the discourse from complex social issues to security. “The images and the way in which the press treats this topic creates an alliance with the most conservative class elite,” says Froylan Enciso, a Mexican historian and former journalist. “When all the coverage is around criminals, then you have an enemy and the Mexican government can have its war.”
What does victory in this “war” look like, and is it attainable? Is the objective to dismantle the cartels, reduce their size, end the violence, or disrupt drug shipments? Over the last three years, all four have been mentioned by the Mexican and U.S. governments as the goal.
Whatever the goal, is a military offensive the best strategy? In the 1970s, the U.S. funded a succession of drug interdiction programs in the coastal state of Sinaloa, where marijuana cultivation was (and remains) robust. The result: hundreds were arrested and tortured, and the traffickers morphed into today’s cartels. But the strongest reason to question a military-based strategy is the story of the U.S.’s effort to stamp out the cocaine industry in Colombia. Between 2000 and 2008, the U.S. poured some $6 billion into that “drug war.” Yet, according to a report last year by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, coca production increased by 15 percent over the first six years of this decade.
While American press reports have consistently suggested that Calderon’s deployment of the military is evidence of his commitment to the drug fight, Jorge Castaneda, a former Mexican foreign minister, noted in a piece in the May 2007 Newsweek International that the secretary of defense in the administration of Calderon’s predecessor, Vicente Fox, had refused to send his troops on the drug mission. “The Mexican military is not trained, equipped or enthusiastic about such chores,” Castaneda wrote.
Finally, are Mexico’s public institutions, many of which are notoriously weak and corrupt, prepared for a massive crackdown on drug traffickers? In 2008, for instance, after nearly two years of the “drug war,” Mexico approved a judicial reform package to address the country’s 30 percent conviction rate for alleged narco-traffickers and nearly 5 percent conviction rate in cases of murder and kidnapping.