Exclusive: President Behind Mexico’s War on Drugs Admitted It Was ‘Unwinnable’

Former Mexican President Felipe Calderón made the admission to deputy British Prime Minister Nick Clegg in 2011.
September 23, 2020, 4:20pm
Exclusive: President Behind Mexico’s War on Drugs Admitted It Was ‘Unwinnable’
Forensic personnel work in the exhumation of human remains found in Guerrero state, Mexico in January 2019. Photo: Getty Images / PEDRO PARDO / AFP

At the height of Mexico’s deadly war on drug cartels, its chief architect privately admitted it was “unwinnable” and that legalising drugs was the only way out, VICE News has learned.

That architect is Felipe Calderón, Mexico’s former president. Calderón was unrepentant in his final state of the union address in 2012, proclaiming that Mexico had “started along the path toward a life full of liberty and security.” Calderón has staunchly defended the militarised war on drugs, also saying in 2018 that he had no regrets.

But in private comments to then Deputy British Prime Minister Nick Clegg in 2011 – which have gone unreported until now – he appeared to contradict his outward stance.

“Calderón had made his whole name in Mexican politics as 'I'm going to win the war on drugs',” Clegg, now Facebook’s top PR official and also a representative for the Global Commission for Drug Policy, told VICE News.

“He said to me, 'Do you think there will ever be the regulated sale of drugs in Britain or America? Because I've come to the view' – and I remember he said it with such pathos – 'That we've spent years trying to wage this war on drugs that it is unwinnable. You will never win unless you can squeeze out criminality by moving towards the regulation of drugs'.”

Calderón’s apparent acknowledgement of the futility of the war on drugs – even while he was waging it full throttle – will raise serious questions over the moral legitimacy of the militarised campaign in Mexico, which has given rise to the most violent period in the country's history.

As soon as he took power, he dispatched the military throughout the country to attack cartels – a policy that led to spiralling deaths and seemingly scant benefits with an estimated 275,000 people killed since 2007.

More than 73,000 people remain missing and feared dead since the declaration of the war on drugs, with 39,000 unidentified bodies in the country’s morgues.

In a statement issued this week to VICE News, Calderón did not deny the conversation had taken place but claimed he never said the war on drugs was unwinnable. He said he had long raised the possibility of legalisation as a solution to issues around drug-related violence, but was never convinced of its merits.

Mexico’s current President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) has pulled back on Calderón’s all-out war on the cartels, which had continued under his successor Enrique Peña Nieto. Yet the cartels have only grown in strength, and violent killings have reached record levels. More than 31,000 people were murdered last year.

Despite declarations from AMLO that the war on drugs is over, Mexico’s security forces are continuing to go after drug trafficking bosses.

Clegg, who lobbied for a more liberal UK drug policy while in government, said his conversation with Calderón on the morning of the 29th of March 2011 in Mexico City convinced him that legalising drugs is the only sensible response to growing global demand.

British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Mexican President Felipe Calderon

British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg talks with Mexican President Felipe Calderon before a press conference in Mexico City in March 2011. Photo: Getty Images / Alfredo Estrella / AFP

“[It] made a huge impression on me,” said Clegg. “It really hit me between the eyes. There was someone who had really lived the war on drugs, and was really reduced to a view that this was just never ever ever going to be won.”

However, in the press conference following the pair’s meeting, the former Liberal Democrat MP said he admired Calderón and hailed the “bravery that [he and his] government have shown in fighting against organised crime and drug trafficking.”

Calderón told VICE News that alternatives to prohibition “including regulation or market-driven solutions” should not be discounted as methods to end the violence around the production, distribution, and consumption of drugs.

“Although I have said that we should contemplate alternatives to penal and legal solutions, I haven't proposed legalisation openly because I'm not sure about it,” he said. “It's necessary to act responsibly, which means that there should be studies beforehand, around the social and economic consequences, some of which could be disastrous for societies.”

In 2018, Calderón told VICE News that he first deployed the army in 2006 after a request from a state governor who said he had lost control.

“We got very good results at the beginning,” he said, adding: “Honestly, I think nobody expected that the violence could reach those levels. However, I insist, I'm absolutely clear that violence started because of the fight to control territory between the organised crime groups, between the cartels, not because of the action of the government.”

Questioned about how Mexican military action led the narco gangs to fragment without appearing to impact the overall ability of criminals to traffic drugs, Calderón said in 2018: “Of course there will be some rearrangements or instability or whatever, but the end of the game is exactly when you take over completely or recover completely the control for the citizens.”

He also blamed America’s gun laws: “The US government, Congress, and society honestly did not do anything to stop the flow of money, to stop the flow of weapons. Actually, the paradox is we seize like 106,000 guns and weapons, and 90 percent of them were sold legally in the US.”

In 2009, following Calderon’s own proposals, new laws to decriminalise personal possession of small quantities of some drugs were passed – suggesting he accepted the inevitability of drug use – after previous plans were scrapped due to US opposition.

In 2016, a special session of the United Nations was convened after a joint request in 2012 from Calderón's Mexico, as well as heads of state in Guatemala and Colombia – whose then president Juan Manuel Santos led the efforts – to discuss radically overhauling the UN's prohibitionist approach to drugs. However, the session left reformers disappointed, as no significant changes to the global drug control regime were passed.