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Mexico Will Never Win Its War on Drugs — But It's Going to Keep Fighting Anyway

Few countries have as clear an incentive as Mexico to seek alternatives to the hardline drug policies that have brought so much bloodshed, but there are also few signs that the government is interested in trying anything very different.
Imagen por Fernando Castillo/Getty Images

Mexico's President Enrique Peña Nieto told the special session on drug policy of the United Nations General Assembly today that his country has paid a "high price, and an excessive price" for the world getting that policy wrong.

"We understand, as few others can, the limitations and painful implications of the eminently prohibitionist paradigm," Peña Nieto said, referencing the huge numbers killed in Mexico in drug-war related violence over the years. "The war against drugs, that started in the 70s, has not inhibited the production, traffic, or consumption of drugs in the world."


Peña Nieto also used his speech to formally announce that his government will soon be presenting a proposal to legalize the use of marijuana for medical and scientific purposes, as well as back an increase in the number of grams individuals can hold without facing criminal prosecution.

But even as he gave liberalizers in the audience something to celebrate, Peña Nieto also insisted that his country's hardline enforcement strategy against the country's powerful drug cartels has been a success. That strategy has changed little since his predecessor, Felipe Calderón, declared a crackdown on organized crime in 2006. Since then, well over 100,000 Mexicans have been killed — a similar number to the total civilian deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan combined during the same period — and while the homicide rate has dropped somewhat in the last four years, there are signs it may now be rising again.

"During my administration we have sought to address the phenomenon of drugs in an integrated way with a strategy that avoids generating violence," Peña Nieto said. "We have detained the main criminal leaders and violence has been confined to specific regions of the country and, as a result, crime has been reduced."

The Mexican president's double message dovetails with the fact that he very nearly didn't go to the special session at all. He only announced his attendance on Friday afternoon, after the earlier news that he had decided to stay away triggered a barrage of criticism.


The critics pointed out that even the hardline Calderón had hinted toward the end of his presidency that it was time to explore other methods of tackling drug trafficking. It was his government, along with those of Guatemala and Colombia, which requested that the UN special session be brought forward to 2016 from its original date in 2019.

Peña Nieto's last-minute decision to participate in the meeting appears to underline that, while his government may support some tame liberalizing measures and play lip service to the need for a new focus, it is still committed to a strategy widely blamed for fueling the violence and fomenting human rights abuses, at the same time as the flow of drugs continues.

Related: The Mexican Government Isn't Thrilled With a New Report on Torture and Illegal Killings

Over halfway through his six-year term, the president has often talked vaguely about bringing peace to Mexico but, so far, he has only branched out from the established strategy in weak, ineffective, and often superficial ways.

"On drug policy policy, they're talking the talk but they're not really walking the walk," said Alejandro Hope, a leading security expert in Mexico.

Hope pointed toward the government's continued focus on heavy-handed militarized actions aimed at taking down high-level capos and then "bragging" about the captures later — a staple tactic of the Peña Nieto administration, just as it was for Calderón.


Calderón boasted about the Mexican navy killing the once mighty Arturo Beltrán Leyva in a Scarface-style shootout in 2009. Peña Nieto looked similarly smug when his government caught up with Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán — twice.

Hope also said that under Peña Nieto, cooperation with the United States has been as strong as it was during the Calderón administration, though "more discrete and somewhat more centralized." The government has, for example, insisted that there was no US involvement in the last capture of El Chapo in January this year.

Related: Why Chapo's Capture Won't Stop the Flow of Weed, Meth, Cocaine, and Heroin

The so-called "kingpin strategy," meanwhile, has a downside that has been acutely visible since the start. Some of the most severe bouts of violence in Mexico's drug wars have appeared to be directly-linked to the arrests or deaths of high-ranking cartel figures. Such actions tend to trigger attempts by lower-level cartel members to move up in the organization, or incursions by other cartels into territory they believe is weak and leaderless.

The death of Arturo Beltrán Leyva in 2009 triggered a string of internal power struggles that are behind some of today's bloodiest conflicts in the beleaguered southern state of Guerrero. The current government's destruction of the brutal Knights Templar cartel by capturing or killing all the major leaders has done little to cement peace in the group's old bastions either.


President Peña Nieto during a live television transmission speaking proudly about the recapture of El Chapo (Photo by EPA/JOSE MENDEZ)

Several members of Peña Nieto's administration also held important security positions during the Calderón administration.

"You have a lot of people in high-up and middle-tier positions that have been there for a while, they're part of the establishment," Hope said. "The same people come up with the same ideas."

The president's inability — or unwillingness — to attempt new initiatives has been evident, activists say, in his initially non-committal response to the wave of legalization efforts throughout the Americas in recent years.

'On drug policy policy, they're talking the talk but they're not really walking the walk'

Peña Nieto's applauded announcement in New York on Tuesday that his government will back reforms to permit medical marijuana and to raise the threshold for individual possession only followed a landmark decision by the supreme court last November that forced the government to do something. The ruling permitted four individuals to use cannabis any way they please, on the grounds that prohibition was a violation of their constitutional right to do what they want with their bodies.

The government responded by announcing five public forums to debate the merits of marijuana use. Peña Nieto also said that, while he opposed legalization, he was open to being convinced otherwise. His new enthusiasm for some limited decriminalization remains, however, far less audacious than a legalization proposal put before the senate earlier this month. That measure, proposed by a member of a conservative party, has little hope of getting very far without the backing of the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party.


Related: Medical Marijuana, Decriminalization, and Opium: 2016 Looks Big for Drugs in Mexico

Perhaps the only area where the federal government is considering pushing the boundaries is related to a dramatic growth in heroin production in Mexico as it supplies the consumption boom ripping through much of the United States.

An internal government report leaked to the news magazine Proceso earlier this month discusses creating a legal market for opium poppies used in the production of morphine-based medication. It is still, however, just a leaked report with no official backing. President Peña Nieto said nothing about it to the UN National Assembly on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the government's biggest claim to be changing something fundamental about the way the drug wars are fought in Mexico lies in the proposal to replace the country's 1,800 municipal police forces with a single force for each of Mexico's 32 states — a system called mando único, or single command.

The announcement of the single command initiative came three months after the September 2014 disappearance of 43 student teachers in the southwestern state of Guerrero, a crime allegedly committed by municipal police officers in league with a local drug cartel. Though the law itself remains stuck in legislative purgatory, it has been implemented in several states.

Related: Mexico's Efforts to Tackle Police Corruption Keep Failing

The plan is far from new. It was close to former president Calderón's heart, but blocked by Peña Nieto's party. According to Guillermo Valdés, the chief of Mexico's intelligence agency under Calderón, that original plan paid much more attention to the need to "clean out" policing of all kinds, rather than simply blaming the problems on the municipal level.


"What is incredible is now we are four years (into his presidency), and we still do not have any clear reform about what he is going to do to improve the municipal police," Valdés told VICE News.

'The same people come up with the same ideas'

Valdés pointed out that Peña Nieto embraced the idea of the mando único in response to the outrage triggered by the disappearance of the 43 students. But the government's insistence on blaming that particular horror, and by extension most of the country's security crisis, on corrupt municipal forces took a major blow this week when the national human rights commission revealed new evidence pointing to the direct involvement of federal police agents as well.

A protester wearing an Enrique Peña Nieto mask at the one year anniversary protest of the disappearance of the 43 student teachers. (Photo by Nathaniel Janowitz/VICE News)

Global organized crime expert Edgardo Buscaglia dismisses the government's commitment to debate legalization, as well as the new police reform, as a mere "distraction."

"Basically, what Peña Nieto has done is provide a better show, much better window dressing," Buscaglia told VICE News. "But the same amount of political sewage keeps going unfortunately."

Buscaglia pointed to two other forms of government "window dressing."

Peña Nieto has stressed his government's commitment to fully implement a 2008 judicial reform that is moving the country's paper-based and largely closed-door trials to a more open model of oral hearings similar to the system in the United States. But, so far, the new system has yet to hand down notably better rulings — even in cases of human rights abuse.


Related: New Evidence Points to Federal Police Role in the Disappearance of 43 Mexican Students

The analyst also recalled Peña Nieto's pledges to put unprecedented focus on crime prevention programs, but he claims the funds have been largely syphoned off to different state and municipal leaders. Meanwhile, there is little to suggest the initiative is doing much to stop young vulnerable people getting sucked into the cartels.

Meanwhile, the biggest problem of them all — political corruption — is being left unattended, Buscaglia insists.

"They are not addressing the core of organized crime because the core is politics and its links with political campaign financing," Buscaglia said, stressing that the same legal enterprises that are funding campaigns are often in league with cartels.

'Basically what Peña Nieto has done is provide a better show, much better window dressing…But the same amount of political sewage keeps going.'

According to Buscaglia, in order to address this issue, Peña Nieto needs to create economic investigative units at the state level that coordinate with the federal intelligence unit. They must focus not just on finances, but on legal businesses that are working in tandem with illegal businesses, such as bus companies that may also be moving drugs.

"You need to clean up the state, the rules of the game have to change, and basically Peña Nieto has not shown in any way that he and his administration is willing to move in that direction," he said. "When it comes to going after the core of the organized crime businesses — human trafficking, drugs, arms trafficking, counterfeiting — the administration has not done anything new since Calderón."


Related: Mexico's President Has Dug Himself Into a Hole — And It's Going to Be Hard to Climb Back Out

Mexican crime analyst Raúl Benítez doubted that UNGASS would have any impact on the government's prioritizing of a strategy based on force. He particularly bemoaned the lack of more efforts to go after money laundering.

"There's very few investigations at all. The government of Peña Nieto doesn't want to investigate because a lot of PRI politicians are very involved in Narcocorruption. It would surely affect his party a lot," Benítez said. "We're going to see them fight organized crime in the streets, but there's no attempt to catch the real financiers behind drugs."

Hope, the security analyst, also highlighted that Mexico's president has little to gain in changing tack at this stage of the game — whatever direction the prevailing wind blows at the UN meeting — because he never wanted to make the fight against drugs a focal point of his presidency.

The Peña Nieto government spent much of its first two years in office trying to get the media not to talk about drugs and security, until it became impossible to keep the issue out of the news.

"I don't think the administration sees much upside in shifting policies, because (the drug war) is not their issue," said Hope. "Even if they were to now try to own this issue, they would come off as passive Johnny-come-latelys."

Related: Here's What to Expect at the Big Drug Meeting This Week at the UN

Follow Nathaniel Janowitz on Twitter: @ngjanowitz