Mexico’s drug war: No sign of ‘light at the end of the tunnel’
Mexico is struggling to contain a drugs war that has claimed more than 50,000 lives in less than six years. Msnbc.com’s F. Brinley Bruton spoke to NBC News contributor Jorge Castañeda, who is a former Mexican foreign minister and a New York University professor, about the problems he sees with the ongoing efforts to stamp out the illicit trade and possible ways out of the violence.
Q: An estimated 50,000 people have been killed in Mexico since 2006, the country is one of the most dangerous in which to be a journalist, and kidnapping and extortion are rife. Is Mexico teetering over into chaos.
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A: It is not true, but it’s less inaccurate that it was three or four years ago. It’s not teetering on the verge of chaos because violence remains concentrated in a few places. But those places have been changing over the past five years. The violence and killings move from one state or one region to another depending on where the army is, where the national police is, what the economic circumstances are in in a given region.
Another factor is that violence now seems to be stabilizing at very high levels. It has pretty much leveled off at about 1,000 drug-linked executions a month –- about 12,000 per year. All very high levels, but it is no longer growing.
The problem is that this has been going on for almost six years. It is much more difficult to claim now that this is a temporary problem that will soon be resolved once the cartels are destroyed or weakened or thrown out or whatever.
At six years on, it is beginning to look more difficult to see any kind of light at the end of the tunnel.
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The victims, 43 men and six women, had their heads, hands and feet cut off and are believed to have been killed by members of Los Zetas, an extremely violent drug cartel. NBC’s Mark Potter reports.
Q: What is the alternative to the war on drugs?
A: I’m against the war. I thought it was a mistake from the very beginning. That said, I can see how many well-intentioned people would for one year, for two years, for three years believe that with a little more time the violence would begin to decline, supply routes of drugs from Mexico to the United States would begin to shut down, the kingpins would be caught and all of this would sort of go away.
None of these things have happened.
A few kingpins have been caught, but many others, the biggest ones, have not. There is no indication that there has been any decrease in overall drug consumption in the U.S. The Americans point to some decline in powder cocaine but an increase in marijuana, methamphetamines, etc. Those come from Mexico also.
If you put it all together, you see very meager results given the exorbitant costs for Mexico.
Q: What are the costs to Mexico of fighting this war?
A: I mean 50,000 dead, about 50 billion in expenditures … kidnappings, extortions, etc. Plus the terrible deterioration of Mexico’s image in the world, and for a country that thrives on tourism, that’s a big problem. And the human-rights violations that have increased exponentially over the past six years.
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Q: So what are the realistic solutions? Deal with the cartels? Legalization? More military involvement? Just live with it?
A: I think it’s a combination of all of those. More military involvement — we don’t have, we just don’t have the troops, we don’t have the money, we don’t have the equipment. We don’t have any of the things that are necessary to significantly increase the military involvement.
Q: A lot of American troops are coming back from Afghanistan …
A: Yes, well, they could be sent to Mexico, or they could be sent to the U.S. and the United States could do this job from its side of the border. The point being that … there is a reasonable case to be made for dramatically increasing the size of the national police force, from 25,000 to 30,000 now to 100,000 or 150,000. That would be the minimum that would be necessary given that … there is a great consensus in Mexico that municipal and state police are useless.
Q: Indeed, Mexican states have had to fire their entire police forces.
A: Exactly, just redo the whole thing. So there’s a good case to be made for increasing the number of national police troops to 100,000 or 150,000. The National Action Party (known by its Spanish acronym PAN) candidate for president has said 150,000 troops. That makes sense, but that takes time, and that costs a lot of money. Now you still are not ever going to ever have enough police to really patrol the whole country. So then the question is, since you’re going to have scarce resources, where do you want to concentrate those scarce resources and on what do you want to concentrate them?
And that is where the real disagreement exists between the government and people like myself. The government has basically concentrated all its resources these past five-and-a-half years on fighting drug trafficking. I think those resources should be concentrated on fighting the effects of violence and crime that hurt people –- kidnapping, extortion, holdups, automobile thefts, etc. –- and basically not concentrated on drug trafficking
You don’t have to make a deal with the cartels, you don’t sit down and talk with them, you don’t shake hands with them. You just concentrate your resources on what matters to you; you don’t concentrate them on what matters to the U.S.
Q: But in terms of lobbying, isn’t legalization a bit of a radioactive subject in the United States? Politicians hardly mention it in public.
A: Yes and no. Just this past weekend a state legislature in Connecticut approved medical marijuana, which for all practical purposes is legalization. This is the 17th state, together with the District of Columbia, and it is moving forward on the ballot in two states for full legalization in November.
So politicians don’t touch it, but there’s a real movement in American society, which is being reflected in medical marijuana, which is being reflected in a decline in incarceration rates, which is being reflected in more money being spent on prevention and less on punitive policies now in Obama’s budgets. You have a lot of changes that are going on, (but) people don’t want to talk about them. But there’s nothing wrong with hypocrisy. Honesty is overrated in these matters.
Q: “Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States” has been a popular saying in Mexico. Do you think most people feel that way?
A: Perhaps it summed up what many Mexicans believed until the 1980s and ‘90s. But I think that from 1982 onwards it became clear that were it not for recurrent American bailouts and were it not for closer economic ties with the U.S., whether it was tourism or immigration then NAFTA, then investment … that all of this is an opportunity, it is not a misfortune.
Now most Mexicans believe that by being close to the United States geographically and close economically, socially, etc., is not a misfortune but rather an opportunity.
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Q: On the subject of the war on drugs, what can Mexico legitimately ask of the U.S.?
A: It can ask what President Felipe Calderon has been asking and what every president has been asking for the past 40 years, which is, stop consuming so many drugs and repeal the Second Amendment — stop allowing people to buy guns in the United States and then export them to Mexico.
The usefulness and effectiveness of asking those two things is very much open to question in my mind. I don’t see what we gain by whining about this when we know it’s not going to happen. It is very similar to how the Americans whine, “Why don’t the Mexicans get their house in order, stop sending all these people to the U.S.?”
It’s not going to happen. All the whining in the world is not going to stop Mexicans from going to the U.S. They’ve been doing it for over a century. And all the Mexican whining in the world is not going to stop Americans from smoking pot.
Q: Do you feel optimistic about the future of Mexico?
A: I’m very optimistic. I think if Mexico gets three or four things straight over the next year or two, it can finally take off and become a middle class, poor-rich country within 10-15 years.
And I think it will. We have to put this war behind us. It just can’t go on. We have to change some fundamental policies, mainly on the ant-trust fron. We have to find a way to distribute the fruits of growth better, but in a rational, modern, effective way. And we have to improve the educational system rather dramatically and soon.
But these are not impossible to do.