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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One thing we can do is legalize cannabis. We produce much better quality plants here in the US than they can in Mexico. It will add dollars to our economy and cut down on illegal trafficking from Mexico.

Sure, go after cocaine. Go after heroin. Go after all of the hard drugs that bring nothing but death and mental breakdown. But bring cannabis into the realm of acceptable options. It is safer than alcohol or tobacco. It is impossible to smoke yourself to death. It is VERY possible to drink yourself to death. Tobacco kills you slowly over time. Cannabis does not. Ending the war on cannabis also frees up billions of dollars to after drugs that really do pose a problem for our people.

Posted by Benny_Acosta | Report as abusive

I realize it’s a rhetorical question, but of course this drug war’s a war of choice. All wars are somebody’s choice. Question is, who benefits from going to and remaining at war?

In case you haven’t noticed, there aren’t any wars being won anywhere these days. Wars aren’t about winning. They’re all about losing, throwing more money at the [insert name here] problem, fortunes flowing directly into the pockets of the suppliers of war materiel who never met a war they didn’t like, legal or not, as long as it never ends.

Mexico is no different from the Middle East, Chechnya, Thailand or Northern Ireland in this regard. War is making the wrong people richer and the poor people dead. That’s the game of war in a nutshell.

Banning weapons hasn’t helped. Banning drugs hasn’t helped. Banning religion doesn’t help. Lifting bans and promoting education might, because wars – like any chronic drug addiction – only ever propagate in climates of prohibition, ignorance, repression and flash-bang sham enforcement.

Posted by HBC | Report as abusive

I really agree. And prostitution. And why not heroin and Cocaine? The government knows that the problem cannot be solved without getting rid of demand. Expand gambling by creating multiple casinos so that people aren’t forced to drive a long way to gamble. There is a long list of social behavior that the government cannot control, but as tobacco has shown, there is a handy profit to be made once this commerce is removed from the hands of criminals and put where it belongs – in the hands of the government. And oh, yes, let’s not forget a tax on Tea. These Tea people have been getting away with a free ride for too long.

Posted by sandy12345 | Report as abusive

Lets assume that you are right, the Wars on Drugs was the war of choice. But now Mexico has no choice – Mexico State must win and repair her institutes. If State loose the rest of the Mexico will sink into chaos. You have experience with lawless countries. I think you will agree, that for most people – bad state is better than no state at all.

People tend to change their opinion on drugs once they have kids :). Most countries that once had relax drug law like Holland, Germany etc now put more and more restriction because drugs tax society. The bottom line that drug addicts cost society more than they contribute. You sound like England supported during Opium wars with China :).

Posted by sk_usa | Report as abusive

sk_usa: Good point – a bad state is better than no state. But if you start a war you cannot win, you risk ending up a failed state. Pity its citizens!

Posted by BDebusmann | Report as abusive

Since when is the PRI considered a left-wing party?

Posted by Charlie570 | Report as abusive

The drug war is caused by the demand of our people here and the refusal of the religious fundamentalists to allow the people to commit so-called victimless so-called crimes. Yes, legalize marijuana and immediately. Put the cartels out of business. Take the money out of it.

And reduce the deficit by blanket pardoning every convict whose root crime was marijuana related. Our imprisoning these people is not only shameful, it is stupid. Not to mention OUTRAGEOUSLY expensive.

Now opponents will say sure, let’s legalize murder, robbery, fraud (is that illegal here??), some other stupid tea party garbage. Just rhetorical bull.

Want to stop the drug wars? Take the profit out by legalizing. And outlaw financial derivatives! That is far, far more evil and damaging. Let the druggies out of prison and put crooked bankers in.

Posted by txgadfly | Report as abusive

This is a timely article and an all important situation for the United States. Forget the noise coming from Mexican politicians. Let’s not spend too much time evaluating the causes of how and why this country has spiraled into anarchy. Let us begin to get ready for a bad situation that is likely to turn worse and spill into this country. Lets us be weary of our own politicians who will likely try to steer us into thinking that we must use our money to ameliorate Mexican social and political problems. As a naturalized American citizen I can say that the most disconcerting part of this well done article is the current morale of Mexican citizens who seem to have lost all hope. When civic spirit falls to such depths it may signal inevitable collapse.

Posted by usbychoice | Report as abusive

look america likes the drugs that flow north if drugs were legalized what would we do with all the empty prisons and all the unemployed correction officers,attorneys,etc. the war on drugs is also a big welfare program.

Posted by dhommes4 | Report as abusive

sk_usa: I believe you are mistaken about Holland and Germany. Germany recently legalized prescribing heroin to addicts so as to bring the addict into society and take away the black market eliment and Berlin recently increased the personal use amount of cannabis to a level higher than in the Netherlands. The Netherlands has not really moved to restrict drugs anymore than they have in the past. They started forcing coffee shops in Amsterdam to comply with their 500 gram in store limits during the 1990′s so maybe thats what you are refering to (but thats not really a change in law). Two years ago they moved to ban mushrooms after a french girl jumped off a roof, but the law is not being enforced at all (perhaps that is what you were refering to).

Anyhow, I think we should legalize cannabis and adopt a harm reduction approach for all the other drugs. Obviously it would be irresponsible to have a day when anyone can walk into a 7-11 and buy heroin, but we could prescribe it to addicts as a form of opiate maintenance like we do with methadone now. This the addict won’t have to steal to support his habbit (since free market heroin is SUPER cheap), his dealer will be trying to get him to quit instead of buying more, and hopefully it will starve out the blackmarket providers of heroin since they won’t have any repeat customers (especially since they will never be able to compete with super cheap 100% pure heroin provided by a doctor). One city in England adopted this approach and found within a year street heroin availability dropped 75% and crime itself dropped another 66%

Posted by ecweiss6041 | Report as abusive

Mexico is the twelfth largest economy in the world with a very corrupt government pocketing money from the Cartels for their own greed, there is no excuse for the U.S. to give them one peso to fight their drug problem. It has been estimated that Mexico’s economy receives about $40 billion dollars a year from the drug Cartel sales and brought back into Mexico. Right, the Mexican government never did a thing about their Cartel problem for years until the Cartels started killing innocent civilians with no remorse I am a retiree living in the state of Nayarit, Mexico. This week the Governor stated he did not have any faith in the states public police force and instructed the state residents to contact the Army or Navy to report any conflict. We have had 65 incidents here since the first of the year and residents say there are more but is not being reported by the news in fear of the government. The situation is out of control and is wide spread all over Mexico, not just the border states I can assure you. We anxiously await everyday for the next incident to take place, one of our friends with two children packed it up and returned to the U.S. She said it is just to dangerous to try and stay here. The locals due believe the cartels are in full control. It seems the police only arrive 20 to 40 minutes after a shooting just to pick up the bodies in fear of getting into a shoot out with the Cartel and they never seem to be able to catch anyone that is involved. There is a great deal more death and conflict than the U.S. news is aware of. Since Calderon took office in 2006 approximately 81 news reporters in Mexico have been killed by the Cartels for reporting the killings here in Mexico. They have killed priests and padres for preaching to their congregations condemning the Cartels for their misdeeds and murders. It seems that the laid back tranquil days of living in Mexico is no more.

Posted by jaraus1966 | Report as abusive

It’s amazing how the media magnified the importance of this problem and how many people are influenced by stereotypes and racism in his vision of a crime in Mexico. If you do not know the situation first hand, I think it is unwise to issue opinions.

What war?

Mexicans live and work normally in the north of our country. The crimes and murders usually occur on the outskirts of the city and do not affect the population. I have never seen or heard of anyone affected by these criminals. I do not see a war, but the gradual establishment of the rule of law, after years of cowardice and apathy on the part of our past presidents. I strongly resent the fact that they do see Mexicans as if they were frightened by “the narcos.”

Is President Calderon stuck?

Calderón is the best president Mexico has had in decades. He knows what he is doing. His purpose has never been to completely abolish the crime. His plan is to prevent the expansion of power of these criminals before the problem gets out of control, as well as combating drug distribution among children and young people in Mexico. I do not understand people who say we should stop this fight against crime. If we do this, we will obtain hundreds of thousands of addicts and the infiltration of our institutions.

Posted by Arenas | Report as abusive

I totally agree with Benny_Acosta further down in the comments. See(sorry Reuters, you don’t have the story): canada/10134872.stm Further proof of wasted time and resources. Democracy and the laws are supposed to be in line with public opinion. The laws will catch up some time. Hopefully

Posted by Russian_Comrade | Report as abusive

If you think legalizing weed would make a noticeable difference alone, you are smoking. The mafia will easily switch to poppy growing and coke trafficking, and the money will keep coming. Legalizing all drugs would make a difference, but it will never happen. Not under liberal Dems, nor under conservative GOP. Republicans would never allow that because its against their moral (given a choice, they’d enshrine all of their so-called moral in law, and narcotics are to them right there with abortions and prayers). Dems wouldn’t do it because drug abuse much more affects their core constituencies (both poor minorities and affluent liberals) than the population at large (among GOP voters you more often find alcohol abuse than narcotics).
Absent legalizing all drugs, the only way is closing the border shut. Not some symbolic fence, but something like Berlin wall, complete with coils of razor wire, robotic machine guns, mine fields, and constant patrolling, both air and land. That, with enforcement of immigration laws even stronger than the recent AZ law stipulates, may diminish the flow of drugs north and the counter-flow of cash and guns. Not totally eliminate because nothing is full proof, but at least making it much more difficult and expensive, so that it would cut into the narcos’ profits.

Posted by An0nym0us | Report as abusive

Two events dshould occur concurrently if change is to be hoped for; 1. The USA should legalize small amounts of user possessed drugs, including all types, just as Mexico
has already. 2. This should reduce the street price, as it has for pot in CA already making the risk reward ratio for smuggling no longer attractive. Then the Mexican Gov’t can offer an amnesty to the cartelistas for 60 days in return for investing ALL of their illgotten gains into Mexican FideBonus, treasury bonds, guaranteeing an interest rate comparible to the prevailing one. This could fund a huge public sector initiative in affordable housing, healthcare and education, all designed to enhance the competitiveness of a Mexican value added component to the global marketplace. The re$ources are there, they just need to be directed towards la bienestar de La Republica.

Posted by SyLentz | Report as abusive

The war is a result of economic pressures, placed on the cartels, by the Mexican government. Total eradication of drugs is not possible presently. I would suggest the Mexican government join with Sinaloa cartel to eradicate competitors. Mr. Guzman would then be given exclusive power, with provision violence be terminated immediately and halted in the future.

Posted by zabol | Report as abusive

@Benny_Acosta: “One thing we can do is legalize cannabis… Sure, go after cocaine. Go after heroin. Go after all of the hard drugs that bring nothing but death and mental breakdown. But bring cannabis into the realm of acceptable options. It is safer than alcohol or tobacco.”
- I’ve seen the effects of cannabis. It causes psychosis. It is rather like alcohol in its effects – people take it to make themselves feel “better”/ indifferent to their sorrows. But in fact it leads them deeper into depression. It destroys lives.

This suggestion that cannabis is harmless? It’s a LIE, being promoted by the narcos. I’ve seen it dozens of times – people whose lives have been destroyed by cannabis (whose psychosis is FAR worse than anyone who has taken only alcohol and tobacco); and they don’t even seem to understand it – they always seem to blame their troubles on somebody else.

And this is not to mention the fact that the narcos are deliberately cultivating stronger forms of cannabis, in order to more effectively trap people into addiction.


Posted by compsci | Report as abusive

The largest prison population on the PLANET is an indication of how effective prohibition is. Mostly tied to drugs being illegal and severely punished. Then we have the cartels and gangs. And the AK47′s. Not to mention the drug money in our *OWN* political system.

I can tolerate prohibitionists as long as they no longer run this country! They, on the other hand, can hardly tolerate anything. They spend too much time having conversations with burning bushes. They simply do not care what they do to their fellow citizens “for their own good”. Repeal prohibition again.

Posted by txgadfly | Report as abusive

Legalize and tax it to take the money out, it will destroy the cartels. Really? Just what 9-5 working stiff jobs do you think these cartels transition to? They are accustomed high income and zero civility, please I am all ears.

The mexican government spends how much effort trying to stop guns and money coming into the Mexico. They don’t have to fight drugs, they have to fight guns and money. Oh wait legalize guns and tax free money…….

Oh I wish the answer was simple, I really do. But it isn’t. Mexico didn’t get to this situation overnight, it is indeed full of corruption, the transtion “back” to civil society will indeed be painful. In the beginning it will be more painful than just “going along.”

The war isn’t on drugs, it is criminals and corruption (which is criminal so perhaps is just criminals)

It seems to me it is two pronged effort.
First, dramatically lower expected value of being a criminal. Raise the price of being a criminal – EFFECTIVE jail time, just not relocating the crime boss. (this means cleaning up corruption). If this is a war, then the assymetrical aspect needs to be largely, NOT completely mitigated, declare the criminals “internal enemy combatants” and treat them as such. GO TO WAR! and take few prisoners.

Second, cut off the supply of foot soldiers. Raise the expected value of civil society with children. Teach, lead children with civility, raise our expectation of them, their parents, their “village” etc.

This is not a war on drugs, it is a war on criminals and chaos.

Posted by humble | Report as abusive

A good article and even better commentary. My congrat’s to all.

One small point, I recall reading a on a story published about Hillary Clinton’s declaration a year or more ago that “90% of the guns are coming from the US”. This has been reiterated by the President, others in the Administration, as well as the news media to promote their anti-gun agenda. What is, in fact true, is that 95% of the traceable guns (i.e. guns with serial numbers required for sale in the US) are traced to the US. No surprise there!

What this statement neatly avoids saying is that the majority of guns coming into Mexico come from sources other than the US. According to, at best only 36% of guns come from the US. So nearly 2/3 of the guns come from other sources. But once again, this argument is merely misdirection and misses the point.

The violence in Mexico is widely acknowledged to stem from systemic greed and corruption on the part of the few, who in turn take advantage of a large population of uneducated and impoverished people by providing them with money from drugs to work in Mexico’s drug industry in varying capacities. The real linchpins of change, here, are holding these South of the Border governments accountable, while providing incentives for them to improve the educational and economic opportunities for their own citizens, such that they have an option for a better life besides working for the Cartels or traveling North to find work in the US as illegals.

Unfortunately, I don’t believe we have any chance of achieving these foreign policy goals until we take control of OUR OWN country back from ALL the crooked politicians on both sides of the aisle in Congress.

I’m sure that America will find a way to retake control of itself, just as I’m equally certain that the current power elite won’t go quietly. Should be interesting to watch.

Posted by jjenco | Report as abusive