In Mexico, a drug war of choice?

By Bernd Debusmann
May 21, 2010

Here is a short history of Mexico’s drug war, as told to a joint session of the U.S. Congress by President Felipe Calderon on May 20.

In 2004, a U.S. ban on the sale of assault weapons to civilians was lifted. High-powered firearms started flowing south across the 2,000-mile border. Violence increased. “One day criminals in Mexico, having gained access to these weapons, decided to challenge the authorities in my country,” he said.

Calderon did not say what happened on that “one day,” by implication the day the president had no choice but to fight back.

There is another version of history, which goes as follows: Calderon won elections in 2006 with a margin so thin (0.58 percent) that it prompted cries of fraud, persuaded his left-wing opponent Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to declare himself the real winner, and gave Mexico the unusual and embarrassing spectacle, for weeks on end, of two men claiming they were the legitimate president.

So, ten days after eventually being sworn in, Calderon announced that he had ordered the army into his home state of Michoacan to make war on Mexico’s drug cartels.

One of Calderon’s most vocal critics, former foreign minister Jorge Castaneda, loses no opportunity to say this was a war of choice, not prompted by any specific outrage but by a perceived need to legitimize a contested presidency.
Calderon badly misjudged the strength of the criminal mafias, the alternative version goes, and now is stuck with a war he cannot win, not even with U.S. support. The death toll in the wars the cartels are fighting against the state and against each other stands at around 23,000 and is rising by the day.

To staunch the bloodshed, Congress should consider reinstating the assault weapons ban, Calderon told Congress.
“If…you do not regulate the sale of these weapons in the right way, nothing guarantees that criminals here in the United States, with access to the same weapons, will not in turn decide to point them at U.S. authorities and citizens.”

Calderon’s remarks all but guarantee that the National Rifle Association (NRA), one of the most powerful lobbies in the United States, will redouble its efforts to prevent the ban from being reinstated. While the Obama administration is in favour of doing so, the chances of that happening in an American mid-term election year are remote.

The NRA launched a pre-emptive counter-attack weeks before Calderon’s arrival on a two-day state visit, with an essay on its website saying that Mexico’s crisis was being used as a pretext for restrictions on gun ownership. Whatever one might think of America’s lax gun laws, it’s probably safe to assume that Mexican drug criminals by now have enough weapons to keep murdering each other and the forces of law and order for a long time before needing resupplies from the north.


Unless, of course, the Mexican army of criminals is growing very fast, which would be evidence that Calderon’s frontal assault is failing and help explain why a majority of Mexicans, according to opinion polls, think the traffickers are winning.

Nobody knows just how many people are involved in the drug trade — as foot soldiers, runners, lookouts, accountants, money launderers, communications experts and a wide variety of other functions. Cartel recruiters have a deep pool to draw from — Mexican unemployment stands at around 2.5 million and at least 15 million people work in the “informal sector” made up of street vendors and other casual workers.

Add family members of cartel criminals and officials lured by the generous bribes the cartels can offer and the number thrown out by Ismael Zambada, a fugitive leader of the Sinaloa drug cartel, begins to look more than a mere figure of speech.

Zambada, for whose capture the U.S. has offered a $5 million reward, said in a rare interview with the Mexican news magazine Proceso in April that there was no way the cartels could be defeated.

“Millions of people are involved in the narco problem,” he said. “How can they be overcome…this is a lost war.” The interviewer asked, “Why lost?” Zambada: “The narco has roots in society (just) like corruption.”

Another estimate on the strength of the trafficking organizations has come from the Washington Times, a conservative newspaper with good contacts in the military that last year quoted an unnamed senior defense official as saying the Pentagon believed the number of cartel foot soldiers matched that of the Mexican army – about 130,000.

In Washington, policymakers have begun to wonder aloud how vigorously the war against the cartels will be fought once the conservative Calderon, who has been a close U.S. ally, leaves office (Mexican law provides for a single six-year term).

Judging from present polls, the left-wing Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) has a good chance of winning back the presidency in 2012.

And then what? Possibly an end to the extradition to the U.S. of wanted drug lords, considered an affront to national sovereignty under the rule of PRI presidents. Even worse, from a U.S. point of view, would be a return to greater tolerance of moving drugs into the United States as long as the cartels keep the peace at home.


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We’ve been here before. An illegal substance that society wants. Gangs, violence, tommy guns. It all happened until alcohol was legalized again by constitutional amendment. Now it’s happening again. The war on drugs is long since lost. Of course, it’s not a war on drugs. It’s a war on people. It’s time to decriminalize, tax and treat drug abuse as a medical problem (e.g., alcohol and cigarettes). Educate people, let them make the choice and help them out if they make bad choices and get hooked. If they drive stoned or sell to children, punish them (and get serious about punishing drunken driving). Will there be bad effects on society? Yes. Will they be worse than the abysmal drug war? Not even close. I’d rather have a junkie get free heroin than break into my house or resort to prostitution.

All you right-wing alcohol drinkers, look up prohibition on Wikipedia. Think about what you would do if alcohol was made illegal again. Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it. And we have.

Posted by UtahPaul | Report as abusive

Just some observations and/or points. I am a former member of the US Army, have been educated, and live in Reynosa (which is a war zone)

1) Mexico has already lost this war. The cartels are better funded and have soldiers that are better trained with better weapons than the general Mexican police and most of the Army.
2) This country is in fear. In my city I hear Nato rounds almost every day. One night I counted over 30 grenades that went off in a 30 min span.
3) Legalizing drugs would create a criminal state in Mexico. These people have the power and the money. Give them an ounce of legitimacy and you will have Drug lords as governors.
4) This isnt Americas war. But is a war we caused with our addiction.
5) America has got to help, a crippled Mexico that loses this war on drugs puts a prison shackle on the US’s growth.

These are just my opinions. Glad to see coverage. I live in a city where American journalists are under orders not to cross the bridge and report because of fear. The local media doesnt even pretend to touch this. This problem is far worse and far advanced than 80% of america realizes.


Posted by ArmyofNobunaga | Report as abusive

To begin with, America’s “War on Drugs” is one of the most misguided use of resources imaginable. We fight marijuana like it was matter of life and death and the true “life and death” DRUGS are manufactured by the LEGAL DRUG COMPANIES in the United States and are protected by law. Prescription DRUGS, sold in a market protected by law, consistently have PROVEN themselves FAR more dangerous than all of the “illegal” drugs put together. Marijuana and even its totally benign and HIGHLY USEFUL brother HEMP is BANNED for no reason other than the fact that the DRUG companies do not want a effective and free solution to compete with their patented chemical cocktails which are FAR more dangerous. The American people need to pull their collective heads out of the sand and DEMAND that we focus our tax dollars on the true villain in our “war on drugs” – the DRUG companies. Hemp is literally the most useful plant on the planet and we BAN it in the United States due to our IGNORANCE. EDUCATE YOURSELF AMERICA – hemp can be used to make SUPERIOR paper products, textiles, plastics, composites, body care products, construction materials, livestock feed, livestock bedding, nutritional supplements, essential oils, MEDICINES and food. If we promoted the planting of HEMP instead of megatons of inedible corn, America would see a resurgence in commerce and renewable energy beyond belief. Why hemp is BANNED is crystal clear – established competitive industries are the reason – NOT ANY “THREAT” to our society like we are brainwashed to believe…..

Posted by concerned_Amer | Report as abusive

Countries routinely blame their drug problems on the huge USA demand for drugs. Ever wonder why our government doesn’t attack the demand end for drugs? Because drugs are a black thing and our government is scared to death of blacks. So don’t expect anything to happen regarding stemming the demand.

Posted by NowYouKnow | Report as abusive

Listen to the residents of Mexico – our saturated, gluttonous, addicted society is going to be our ruin…many lives have been lost due to greed! I cannot believe the parent who lets his son smoke pot?! Wow, we can never legalize drugs – wake up from your dope haze or move to the Netherlands…the USA cannot afford your habit.
How about the northern half of the USA become a socialist drugged (alcohol, pot, etc.) country and the south remains a capitalist sober country? You know which one will thrive and prosper? Yes.

Posted by TexanGirl | Report as abusive

“Wow, we can never legalize drugs – ….” You guys just REFUSE to see the truth – PRESCRIPTION DRUGS are THE problem, not Marijuana – a totally harmless (and I challenge you to prove otherwise) natural drug for which our brain actually has specific receptors for THC). The brain does NOT have receptors for the thousands of poisonous, LEGAL DRUGS that we get forced down our throats every time we visit the “doctor”. EDUCATE YOURSELF regarding the very simple subject of health. LIFE COMES FROM LIFE – eat a diet consisting of a MINIMUM of 51% raw fruits and vegetables and DRINK PURIFIED ALKALINE WATER as your ONLY beverage and you will NEVER need the DOCTOR OR his DRUGS…

Posted by concerned_Amer | Report as abusive

Wow, where do I begin?!?!?
First of all, I noticed most war mongers who call themselves American are nearly illiterate or never paid attention in English class. So I tend to disregard their ignorant comments. Unfortunately, they have loud voices to which politicians tend to listen. Get educated before blasting people from other countries. And to the comment that drugs are a black issue? Grow up and get a clue. White people use as much of the stuff as anyone else (cocaine, heroine, xtc, LSD, shrooms).
I am a child of dual nationality and I lived in the U.S. for 20 years. Just between us, Mexican society ABHORS drug use, seeing it as low class and useless. I adopted my habits stateside. I now live elsewhere and can continue to smoke with little fear of incarceration, which has prolonged my stay in this beautiful country. I love America, but have a serious problem with those who feel inclined to control the behavior of others whom they find offensive. Personally, I find SUVs, fat people and nosy neighbors to be particularly offensive, yet I feel no inclination to put fat people in jail. Land of the free, what a joke, I never felt free in the U.S., only scrutinized by a materialistic and destructive minority with a god complex. I am a man of faith, a constructive part of the international community with a thriving international business selling (legitimate) goods from various countries to various other countries.
That said, I believe the war on drugs has caused widespread destruction on a global scale. I Agree with the Roe v. Wade argument, why is only a woman’s body her own? My wife lies in the “never let anyone use” camp, but she is more verbally abusive with our children than I ever dreamed of being. I believe those who wish to wage war should do so, not in proxy, but personally. Pick-up a gun a go fight, maybe some of you will earn a distaste for the violence you so easily espouse. I also agree that the derivatives dealers should spend time incarcerated with violent offenders and drug users be treated and allowed to be productive parts of society. Greed has destroyed more than any drug can.
To the Chinaman who mentioned the opium trade between England and China, that was opium and England was using addiction to dominate yet another country. Not relevant to today’s circumstances. And yes, your country also brainwashed you (or do you REALLY believe Taiwan is a legitimate part of China?).
Someone near the top of the comments asked for an easy solution. Here it is (not politically easy with ignorant self-righteous ecologically destructive mega-consumers though):
1) Legalize and treat ALL drugs.
Once we get people out in the open, we can deal with abuse, addiction, side effects and the psychological problems which led to the initial desire to withdraw from society.
2) Tax the products and use the resources for education, treatment and drug PREVENTION.
3) Reallocate valuable resources to battle truly dangerous things like dirty bombs and corruption.
With reduced drug income cartels are reduced. Yes, mafias will continue to exist and we can focus on extortion, destruction, intimidation and piracy with the reallocated resources (billions of dollars would be freed for better uses).
4) Instead of forcing other countries to accept our dogma and purchase more weapons from the military-industrial complex, we could help the citizens of those countries produce more constructive products. Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Afghanistan and Indochina would be most appreciative and maybe there would be a reduction in global anti-americanism. We shove our “morality” down their throat and are perplexed that they don’t like it. What is the difference between that and Sharia Law which is consuming ever larger parts of the world to the chagrin of millions of freedom seeking peoples.
We must move away from conflict procurement to conflict resolution. The polarity in the American Congress is symptomatic of the entrenched and immutable perspectives which are what is TRULY tearing our world apart.
Understanding and compassion are lacking. Evidently, it is easier to focus our rage on Mexicans than it is on Bush’s puppet masters that have done America harm for too many decades.
By the way, Rumsfeld’s Halliburton manufactured the cap that was supposed to initially cap BP’s gulf well. It cracked and broke which is why the gulf is now black. It seems Bush’s masters are still trying to destroy America the Beautiful. The war on drugs was just one lynchpin in their attempt to dominate America (anyone remember LBJ?). It’s time to take America back from the haters.

Posted by world_citizen | Report as abusive

Some very interesting comments. The U.S is awash in drugs. 2/3 of the people take prescription drugs every day. 10% take 5 or more every day. The only difference is they are legal prescription drugs. Many of them have the same addictive risk as Mexican Heroin. And once you are hooked you will do anything to get your next fix. In California a user of narcotics is given probation and after completion of some rehab sessions can have their records deleted. If you screw up you go to prison. In other countries certain opiates are available over the counter. Seems like that would offer a partial solution for addicts.

The most popular assault rifle in the world is the AK-47. These are manufactured in half a dozen countries but not the United States. Oh, by the way it is fully automatic and those are absolutely illegal in the U.S. The idea that the U.S. is the only source of weapons to Mexico is simply propaganda.

It seems bizarre that fighting a war on drugs while the drug companies are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to get you to take drugs. And they market directly to consumers: ask your doctor about xxxx. It is hard to know how much addiction is physical. Even after “kicking” addicts crave the drug. So as long a huge profits can be made from the opiate trade drug dealers will fight to the death to maintain their income.

It seems pretty simple. Partially legalize certain opiates. Without massive profits from desperate addicts the drug trade will fade. Without the profits the dealers will have no incentives to fight to the death to preserve their territory.

Posted by kings4a | Report as abusive

I still can’t believe this discussion is still going on, I’m sad to say I’m an American(only because there are too many idiots). The criminalization of marijuana is and has always been about money. Hemp seed oil can and does SUSTAINABLY power vehicles unlike corn ethanol. The fiber makes a cheaper, stronger, more durable, and more salt-resistant rope than nylon(made from oil). With technological advances it can be worked almost to the softness of cotton which is notorious for robbing the ground on which it grows of a laundry list of nutrients requiring the use of heavy fertilization. DRUG companies(we’ll lump alcohol and tobacco companies in here) certainly don’t want marijuana legal, that would cut into their drug sales. Religions don’t want the status quo changed, they seem to only get sheeple to buy into that, as opposed to free thinkers. The majority of black market flow over the Mexican-USA border is cannabis, and the government makes too much in taxing the citizens, I mean imposing fines and locking away. Not to mention all the departments/bureaus/associations that want to keep their budget high to fight this unwinnable “war.” Open your damn eyes. For full disclosure, I do currently and will always smoke cannabis, pigs be damned. BAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAH sheeple.

Posted by talkingpoint | Report as abusive

Hey look some of those sheeple posted above me!

I don’t even have to retort to y’all, your ignorance is all to blatant.

Posted by talkingpoint | Report as abusive

I agree with some comments here that say that there are some drugs who are as addictive as cannabis and which are marketed as “medicines” and sold to us by doctors. It’s all about earning money, a lot of money from us all. Legalizing drugs like cannabis and marijuana is not as profitable as forbidding it. It’s hard to say who would lose more money if cannabis would be legalized, the cartels or those who provide funds and weapons for this drug war:  /Corporations/Who-would-lose-the-most-m oney-if-cannabis-was-not-deemed-illegal- for-most-423672.htm
What is sure is that the money spent into this drugs war could be invested in better purposes.

Posted by markwild | Report as abusive