Dexter Boniface

Archive for March, 2010|Monthly archive page

Mexico’s War on Drugs

In Mexico, Military, United States Government, Violence on March 30, 2010 at 7:29 pm

This blogpost looks at the causes and consequences of Mexico’s Drug War. I underscore that America’s drug and gun habits (and laws) have an enormous cost in Mexico. I then provide an overview of Mexico’s cartels and their methods, and consider policy alternatives such as militarization and the legalization of drugs.

Mexico’s Drug War: A Problem “Made in the USA”

Mexico has become the main focal point in the regional war on drugs. There are many reasons for this, but the most obvious is the fact that Mexico occupies a strategic geographic position bordering the United States, the world’s largest and most lucrative drug market (one is reminded of Porfirio Diaz’s famous quote: “Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States!”).

American consumers of illegal drugs create massive demand. Marijuana, for example, commands an annual market worth an estimated $113 billion in the U.S. (our largest cash crop!) and is the most significant source of profit for the Mexican drug mafias (an estimated 60% of the cartels’ profits are derived from the marijuana market compared to 28% for cocaine and 1% for meth).

Mexico is the key supplier of illegal drugs to consumers in the United States. It is the largest foreign source of marijuana for the U.S. market, producing an estimated output of 35 million pounds in 2008! Furthermore, some 200 tons of crystal meth enters the U.S. from Mexico each year (after a U.S. law regulating over-the-counter sales of pseudoephedrine curbed domestic meth production, the Mexican cartels rushed to fill the void). And although cocaine originates in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia, 90% of the coke entering the U.S. comes through Mexico.

Guns Without Borders (or How the NRA is Helping to Arm Mexico’s Drug Lords). The drugs flow north and huge profits from the illegal drug trade flow south (an estimated $25 to $40 billion in drug money flows to Mexico annually). And so do the guns. It’s estimated that 90% of the guns in the hands of the country’s drug mafias are purchased in the United States in the thousands of gun stores that line the border. How? Read this fascinating article and learn about four men who bought and smuggled 101 guns from 10 licensed dealers in Houston from June 2006 to June 2007. In addition to seeking help with arms interdiction, Mexican officials have appealed to the U.S. Congress to reinstate a ban on the sale of assault weapons that expired in 2004 but to no avail.

Cartel Geography

Much of the ongoing violence in the country can be understood in terms of rivalries over the country’s strategic drug entry and exit points (as well as the government’s concerted effort to shut them down). Cocaine arrives to Mexico in three strategic locations: over land via Guatemala (20%), by sea along the Gulf of Mexico (30%), and via the Pacific Ocean (50%) where it arrives to coastal states such as Guerrero (home to sunny Acapulco), Michoacan, and Sinaloa. (It’s no accident that the country’s largest drug mafias, the Gulf and Sinaloa cartels, are so named). Cocaine (along with plenty of Mexican-grown pot, meth, and some heroin) then exits the country across key Mexico-U.S. border cities in California, New Mexico and Texas including Tijuana/San Diego, Juarez/El Paso, and Nuevo Laredo/Laredo.

Mexico’s various drug mafias (Tijuana, Juarez, Gulf, Sinaloa, Los Zetas, Beltrán-Leyva, and La Familia) appear to be largely interchangeable, though a few have some distinguishing characteristics. Certainly their leaders all have good nicknames.

The Sinaloa cartel, led by Mexico’s most-wanted criminal, Joaquín El Chapo (“Shorty”) Guzmán, is described by the Economist as “smarter and more sophisticated” than its competition; it has largely eluded the Mexican government’s three-year crackdown (conspiracies abound).

The Beltrán-Leyva Group (once aligned to Sinaloa) survives in spite of the fact that its notorious leader, Arturo Beltrán Leyva (AKA “The Beard”), was killed in Cuernavaca during a shootout with Mexican Marines in late 2009.

La Familia: Dealing Drugs for Jesus

By far the strangest of Mexico’s drug mafias is the Narco-EvangelistMasters of Meth” known as “The Family.” Led by Nazario Moreno (AKA El Más Loco, or “The Craziest One”), La Familia hails from the Pacific coast state of Michoacán. While they are infamous for committing savage acts of violence (they once tossed five decapitated heads onto a dance floor in the city of Uruapan and are blamed for a grenade attack on innocent civilians in the state capital, Morelia), internally they adhere to a quasi-Christian code of ethics including abstention from drugs, support for the poor, and traditional family values.

In what the Wall Street Journal describes as a “vertically integrated” industry, La Familia’s presence extends deep into the United States where they control retail networks across the country. Recently, in a major counter-narcotics sweep, La Familia members were arrested in 38 U.S. cities including Atlanta and Chicago.

Sex, Drugs and Narcocorrido

Mexican cartels behave essentially like other international drug mafias, employing a mixture of brutality, corruption and a certain amount of business savvy. Much of the cartels’ violence is directed at one another (and, to a lesser extent, the Mexican military and police) as rival drug gangs compete for control of strategic trafficking arteries. Violence is also used to commit other crimes, especially extortion and kidnapping, both of which are targeted at Mexico’s business community (it’s estimated that the violence in Mexico saps 3% of the country’s GDP annually).

Corruption is also an integral aspect of the cartels’ operations. With the vast profits of the drug trade at their disposal, Mexico’s drug mafias are adept at buying off all likes of government officials. The story of Luis F. Alarid, an American Iraqi war veteran and U.S. customs inspector, is highly instructive. While most customs inspectors can expect to earn about $70,000 a year, Alarid pocketed $200,000 in a few months by waving in vehicles that should have raised suspicion. In Mexico, police officers and members of the justice system can often be bought for much less. Time Magazine describes how La Familia paid off a variety of public servants in Michoacán with payments of $20,000 a month, wild parties, and “truck loads of prostitutes.”

Of course, the cartels are also master smugglers. When outright bribery fails, traffickers have been able to evade border security by building sophisticated drug tunnels under the Mexico-U.S. border. They can also try sneaking it through in a van:

Fighting the Drug War: Five Alternatives

#1: Militarization (Status Quo). Mexico’s current (U.S.-backed) approach to the war on drugs can best be described as militarization. In light of the weaknesses of Mexico’s local and state police, President Felipe Calderon has relied heavily on the military in his war against drug smuggling–some 5o,000 troops have been dispatched to drug hot spots across Mexico. The premise of the militarization strategy is fairly straightforward: establish the rule of law by destroying the drug cartels. Although the Mexican military has had some successes with this approach (taking out Arturo Beltrán Leyva for one), critics question whether or not the drug war can really be won on the supply side alone as long as the demand for drugs remains high. As Andres Oppenheimer remarked, “Drug cartels don’t die; they just move.” Or in the words of one drug kingpin, Ismael Zambada, “As for the bosses, locked up, dead or extradited, their replacements are already standing by.” The militarization approach also entails fairly high costs in terms of lives lost and raw expenditure (as well as political risks for Mexico’s well respected military).

#2: Institutionalization (Status Quo Revised). The status quo may be shifting somewhat. Mexico and the United States recently unveiled a new security cooperation agreement that places greater emphasis on institution-building and community development. Still, some analysts are skeptical that Mexico’s U.S.-backed militarization strategy will change much.

#3: Strategic Truce (Status Quo Ante?). An alternative approach and what many regard as the status quo ante in Mexico (particularly under the PRI) would be to mitigate the violence of the drug trade by reaching a strategic truce with the cartels-essentially turning a blind eye to the drug trade in exchange for peace. Although such an approach appears tantamount to surrender, former Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda points out that, “This is less scandalous than it may appear. It would be similar to the approach the Obama administration is taking with poppy growers and heroin producers in Afghanistan.” Castaneda also made this point in a recent interview on CNN’s Amanpour.

#4: Decriminalization. Surprisingly, a number of Latin American countries (including Argentina, Colombia and Mexico) have recently decriminalized the possession  (though not the production and distribution) of small amounts of drugs. This is a fairly modest and common sense policy designed to keep the police chasing  hardened criminals rather than extorting petty drug users. However, it is difficult to see how decriminalization would alter the broader dynamics of Mexico’s Drug War in any significant way.

#5: Legalization. You don’t have to be a Harvard economist to understand the rationalization for drug legalization, though maybe it helps. In a lucid editorial for CNN, Jeffrey Miron, an economist and author of Drug War Crimes, explains how the violence and corruption associated with Mexico’s drug trade is a direct result of prohibition (specifically, drug prohibition in the United States). As he summarizes, “Violence results from policies that create black markets, not from the characteristics of the good or activity in question.” The case for the legalization of marijuana, arguably the least harmful illegal drug and the main source of revenue for the Mexican cartels (ironic considering how easy it is to produce), is perhaps the most compelling of all. Legalization could also, calculates professor Miron, save us $77 billion (and stop the redistribution of income to criminals):

To be sure, the United States is the critical actor in the legalization debate. Legalizing drugs in Mexico alone would not end the powerful incentives the violent drug cartels have to smuggle drugs into the United States, their primary market. Although U.S. policy-makers are loathe to contemplate drug legalization, even a modest policy shift like the legalization of medical marijuana (already a reality in fourteen states) could dramatically alter the marijuana marketplace and usefully undercut Mexico’s violent drug cartels. As a Washington Post article neatly summarizes, “competition from thousands of mom-and-pop marijuana farmers in the United States threatens the bottom line for powerful Mexican drug organizations in a way that decades of arrests and seizures have not.” Maybe President Obama, who pledged the federal government would not arrest medical marijuana users and suppliers who follow state laws, deserves that Peace Prize after all.

Who’s Afraid of Mexico?

In Mexico, Violence on March 15, 2010 at 11:47 pm

Mexico’s violent drug war is again making headlines. The coordinated and brutal murder of two Americans (a pregnant Mexican-American consular employee, Lesley A. Enriquez and her husband, Arthur H. Redelfs) and a Mexican married to another U.S. consular employee in Ciudad Juarez prompted outrage from the White House. In the same weekend, 24 more people were killed in drug-related violence in Western Mexico. How dangerous is Mexico and Latin America more generally?

How Violent is Latin America?

The answer is: rather extremely violent and dangerous. However, it also depends. Latin America is a diverse region. Some countries and cities are extremely violent and others are perfectly safe. For example, an analysis of one commonly used measure of violence — the homicide rate per 100,000 people — reveals dramatic variations from country to country.*

Canada (1.6) has the lowest homicide rate in the hemisphere, comparable to Western Europe (1.4). Peru (3.8) is not far behind. Several other countries – Argentina (5.7), Chile (8.5), Costa Rica (7.6), Cuba (6.2) and Uruguay (5.5) – have homicide rates that are comparable to that of the United States (5.6).

Mexico (11), Panama (11.6), Nicaragua (13.2), Bolivia (14.9), Paraguay (16), Ecuador (17.9) and the Dominican Republic (18.1) – are notably more violent than the United States but still more pacific than, say, Russia (19.9).

A final set of countries exhibit fairly extreme levels of violence – Haiti (21.6), Brazil (26.6), Guatemala (36.4), Honduras (39.2), Venezuela (40), Colombia (50.4), and Jamaica (51.6). El Salvador (59) has one of the highest reported homicide rates in the world, edging out South Africa (47.5) and Lesotho (50.7).

*Data sources: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Homicide Statistics (the rates reported here are the country averages for all sources for the years 2003-2008). The data for Russia, South Africa and Lesotho are from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), Human Development Report 2007/2008 (2007), Table 27. The map is from UNODC (2004).

The Surprisingly Safety of (parts of) Mexico

The nature and scope of violent crime in Mexico is certainly shocking. As Bloomberg.com bluntly summarizes, “News reports in Mexico are filled with stories about police turning up dead by the dozen, discoveries of decapitated bodies, and firefights with drug gangs using assault rifles.” Since President Felipe Calderon launched an offensive against drug cartels in December 2006 it is estimated that drug-related violence has claimed as many as 23,000 lives. Ciudad Juarez, a northern border city of approximately 1.5 million people, had more than 2,500 murders in 2009 alone (476 in September). With a horrifying homicide rate of 173 per 100,000, it is one of the deadliest cities in the world.

Nevertheless, the escalating violence in certain parts of Mexico conceals the surprising fact that the country’s homicide rate has actually declined over the past twelve years. As an interactive map by the Los Angeles Times illustrates, drug-war-related deaths are largely concentrated in the Northern border states of Baja California (home to Tijuana) and Chihuahua (home to Ciudad Juarez), the Pacific coast states of Sinaloa, Guerrero and Michoacan and adjacent states such as Durango and Mexico state. Furthermore, the vast majority of the dead are criminals.

Many popular tourist destinations like Cancun and the Yucatan peninsula, Oaxaca, Puerto Vallarta (Nayarit) and Cabo San Lucas (Baja California Sur) are largely untouched, a fact highlighted by an LA Times feature on “Mexico’s family-friendly hot spots” (see also their feature on American exapts (“refugees”) in Mexico, “One man’s war zone is another’s paradise“). Mexico City, often derided for its excessive pollution and crime, has a homicide rate on par with Los Angeles (and less than a third of that for the American capital, Washington, D.C.); pollution levels have also declined to semi-endurable levels. As a recent Miami Herald article summarizes, “The annual murder rate for the estimated 500,000 American citizens in Mexico at any one time has risen – but still remains lower than in some U.S. cities: about 15 per 100,000. Baltimore’s 2009 homicide rate was 37 per 100,000 residents.”

Global Danger Zones: Central and South America

Tragically, the gruesome violence in Mexico pails in comparison to that of much of Central and South America. As the UN map above makes clear, the level of violence in these regions is rivaled only by that of the southernmost countries of Sub-Saharan Africa. Trends are particularly worrying in Central America, where the countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras have increasingly been ravaged by violent gangs (maras) and organized crime. The tiny country of El Salvador (population seven million) registered 4,365 murders in 2009 (up from 3,179 in 2008), a homicide rate exceeding 60 per 100,000. With a population of 7.7 million, Honduras recorded 6,236 murders in 2010 (and more than 20,000 over the last five years), making it perhaps the most violent country in the world. Violence levels are also shockingly high in many parts of South America. In Brazil, some 11,000 people were shot dead by the police since 2003, which is to say nothing of the even greater casualties inflicted by the country’s violent criminals.

Drug violence has killed nearly 14,000 people nationwide since the government launched a crackdown on cartels in 2006.

Does the OAS Have a Future?

In Inter-American Relations, Organization of American States, United States Government on March 9, 2010 at 3:17 pm

On February 23rd, 2010, Latin American leaders concluded a two-day Unity Summit in Playa del Carmen, Mexico and announced the creation of a new (yet-to-be-named) regional bloc that will include every country in Latin America and the Caribbean but exclude the United States and Canada. Could this new institution supplant the Organization of American States (OAS) and herald the demise of the U.S.-led inter-American system? Probably not, I argue below.

The View from Latin America

Latin Americans have long criticized the OAS for being a U.S.-dominated institution and sought mechanisms to counter-balance the influence of the United States in shaping the regional agenda. Over the last decade the search for such mechanisms has only intensified. There are a number of reasons for this new multilateralism in Latin America, including the declining influence (and attention) of the United States in the region; long-standing dissatisfaction with American policies; the  rise of extra-regional trade and investment partners such as the European Union, China and India; and the new spirit of independence among Latin American leaders, particularly those on the left.

Latin America’s vision for an “OAS without Empire” was well captured by Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa in an interview on CNN en Español (see below). While stressing that the goal of the new institution was not to replace the OAS, Correa  emphasized the need for Latin Americans to have their own institutions responding to their own interests. Even Mexico’s conservative President and staunch North American ally Felipe Calderón suggested the new bloc could counter (though not supplant) the OAS. For example, a Latin American forum excluding the United States and Canada would likely issue very different statements on contentious policy issues such as climate change, the Cuban embargo, the Falkland/Malvinas islands conflict, and the U.S.-led war(s) on drugs and terror. Still others, notably Mexico’s polemical former foreign minister Jorge Castañeda, expressed concern that the forum could have undesirable consequences if it alienates the United States from Latin America.

The View from Washington

Latin America’s seeming break from the OAS comes at a time when many in Washington are questioning the utility of the OAS as well.  A U.S. Senate report commissioned by Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was highly critical of the OAS and its Secretary General José Miguel Insulza. In a recent editorial, the Washington Post similarly lashed out at the OAS’s failure to consistently defend democracy in the region, sharply criticized Insulza, and urged Congress to “consider whether the United States should continue to provide the bulk of the funding for the OAS when it fails to live by its own charter.” Liz Harper, a contributing blogger for Americas Quarterly, faulted the OAS on similar grounds and suggested that it undergo a John Bolton-inspired downsizing of its bureaucracy. More sympathetic voices have suggested the need for institutional reforms, such as the creation of a UN-style Security Council or a Commission on Democracy, to make the OAS more effective at responding to regional crises. Striking a more optimistic tone, Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue has been one of the few to suggest that, “Obama would be wise to elevate the importance of the OAS.” Senators John Kerry and Robert Menendez recently introduced legislation to improve the embattled institution.

Conclusion: Does the OAS Have a Future?

Although enthusiasm for the OAS appears to be waning in both Latin America and Washington, the organization is unlikely to be supplanted anytime soon. The reason is three-fold.

First, in spite of recent criticism, the OAS retains distinctive normative and institutional strengths in important issue areas such as the promotion of democracy, election monitoring and human rights. Indeed, although many Latin American leaders have argued that the OAS should have taken a more aggressive approach in protesting the coup in Honduran last year and excluded Honduran President Porfirio Lobo from attending the summit, they showed no such qualms about welcoming the region’s least democratic leader, Cuban President Raúl Castro. The simple fact is that the regional democracy promotion agenda will be substantially weakened without the participation of the United States and Canada.

Second, Latin America’s push for a new “OAS without Empire” confronts obstacles of its own that are just as formidable, if not more so, as those confronting the OAS. For example, the internal divisions that have stymied the OAS were similarly on display in Playa del Carmen when Presidents Chávez and Uribe traded insults over bilateral relations. Moreover, as Andres Oppenheimer points out, Latin American leaders have a fairly limited vision for their new institution. It doesn’t even have a name yet, let alone stable financing or an institutional headquarters.

Third, and most importantly, the OAS can easily co-exist with (and benefit from) other multilateral institutions in the region. Indeed, the United States has thus far welcomed the creation of the new institution. If Latin American leaders can create a forum to solve their own problems, this is all the better for the United States and the agenda-heavy OAS. For instance, it was recently announced that Presidents Calderón, Lula and Leonel Fernández of the Dominican Republic would form a “group of friends” to mediate between Colombia and Venezuela. This initiative should be welcomed regardless of its institutional origin. The OAS could use a little competition.

Further Reading

DePalma, Anthony. “U.S. House of Representatives Goes “Animal House” on the OAS,” Americas Quaterly Blog 20 July 2011.

How Important is the Organization of American States?” interview with Harriet Babbitt, Roger Noriega, and John Maisto, Latin America Advisor, August 9, 2011.

Oppenheimer, Andres. “OAS is a basket case – but a needed one,” Miami Herald 25 July 2011.

Richardson, Bill. “U.S. should not retreat from the hemisphere,” Miami Herald 28 July 2011.

Rogin, Josh. “House panel votes to defund the OAS,” Foreign Policy: The Cable 20 July 2011.

The United States and Latin America: Collateral damage,” Economist 2 Aug. 2011.