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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The author of this article knows nothing about this subject, and he does not understand anything about Mexico and the War against drugs. And many of you are ignorants too. First, NOTHING, but NOTHING justifies that a bunch of people kills inocent people and/or their adversaries criminals. Americans don’t realize that mexico is fighting a war for the USA! How many people in mexico are involved in drugs? 130 000 people? Even if there were 50 million mexicans doing busines with drugs, We, the honest mexican people will fight them without merci, because drugs is a criminal offence. But how many american citizens are using drugs? 130 000? Not at all. There are millions, yes many millions of americans using drugs, possibly as many as 50 million. And all of them have their hands stained with the blood of innocents that were killed by the drug dealers in mexico and other parts of the world. YOU AMERICANS, you are fully responsible for the crimes commited in Mexico. And you still dare to criticise the noble task of our president Calderon. Damned you who prefer business instead of a human life. Since when your saying ” IN GOD WE TRUST”, was changed to “IN DRUGS WE LIVE”? Shame on you americans, the people number one in drug consume. THat is, you are a bunch of drug addicts.

Posted by max-2010 | Report as abusive


You do have a point about the psychosis. But that only happens to people who are bipolar or have other hormonal imbalances that THC would have an adverse effect on. It’s the same with alcohol. Some people are just not genetically equipped to safely metabolize it. Native American Indians for example cannot process alcohol in their systems without severe effects.

So in truth. Cannabis is VERY safe. Not one single person in all of recorded human history has EVER smoked themselves to death. It is very true that anything can be abused. But it’s a lot easier to abuse alcohol than cannabis.

Also, if safety was the real issue, alcohol and cigarettes would also be illegal. But they are not. So once again, this is an issue of understanding. We must be responsible in our choices. And we must also have the resources we need to help those who have fallen into addiction.

And please don’t compare me to the narcos. I grew up around street drugs. Crack, heroine, ice, tar, cocaine, and the list goes on. I have seen first hand what these things have done to childhood friends. But I’ve never met a stoner who’s life was destroyed by cannabis. They could be considered lazy or unmotivated perhaps. But that’s the worst anyone can say. And that only happens because people don’t use it correctly.

In ancient times drugs had a place in spiritual development. They were used to help people reveal their inner condition, and begin an ascent into greater awareness. But God is no longer an acceptable word these days. And so, the experiences that drugs bring are simply sought for the pleasure they bring without any conscious intention to develop the inner world. They chase the high and end up addicted and powerless to escape without help.

Ending the drug war will allow people the chance to begin understanding the role that psychoactive substances play in the human condition. It’s time for us to grow up.

Posted by Benny_Acosta | Report as abusive

Also, consider the fact that our own “royal family” in the U.S., the Kennedy’s started out as bootleggers. They trafficked the cannabis of their day, which was alcohol.

When that was legalized they were able to legally earn (and pay taxes on) a considerable income from their alcohol operations. They then went on to become the very people who make the laws the rest of us live by. Alcohol manufacturers no longer have to have shootouts with police, or risk drug wars with other producers, killing innocent bystanders, in an effort to claim territory. Alcohol is a regulated, legal, and job creating business.

So really. End the drug war.

Posted by Benny_Acosta | Report as abusive


Posted by chevenez | Report as abusive

It would be an incredible thing if Mexico ended its term limits for presidents, since there could be continuity which would lead to a stronger government. A six year term is a long time, but perhaps not so long in a country beset with authoritarian cartels.

Posted by ogobeone | Report as abusive

Part of the problem is seeing all so-called drugs as one thing, which is how many North Americans have become politically conditioned to regard them seeing as how most so-called controlled substances cannot be come by freely, legally or other than through contagion with criminalized elements of society. Sweeping the problem under the carpet may seem like the biggest risk to take, but overgeneralizing and criminalizing it has done visibly more harm than doing next to nothing about it at all.

Criminalization produces its own set of problems on top of whatever perceived or actual damage use of the drugs themselves may be accused of causing. The most acute problematization results when jingoist “zero tolerance” dogmatists get on board with their readiness to go to war about anything, drugs, whatever… the situation then escalates with potentially devastating social consequences such as may now be seen happening on both sides of the border.

With so much profit at stake up and down the line, greater than any that could be conceived under less intolerant circumstances, more and more ingenious and potentially violent criminal elements prevail. These people may be a lot of things including thoroughly amoral, but they’re not stupid. Like the predators of Wall Street, they know full well how to make money from escalated tension in the marketplace. From their perspective, tension’s rather good. It tends to keep less violent competition out of the action.

Of all recent North American responses to the drug situation, the least enlightened has been “let’s go to war” directly leading to more violence and ever greater profits for the supply cartels. Prohibitionists (presumably unwittingly) are the criminal’s best friend, having guaranteed results which simply could not be more socially damaging or perverse.

Meanwhile, anyone who thinks for a minute that marijuana which is bulky and cheap compared to other so-called narcotics is being exported from (in this case) Mexico other than as a distraction to tie up customs agents while the more profitable stuff sneaks by in the slipstream of marijuana “discovery” is quaintly mistaken. But not as sadly mistaken as those who believe a war, or a wall, is the correct way to fix anything.

Posted by HBC | Report as abusive

ogobeone: Good point, but it won’t happen. The Mexican revolution began in 1910 as a rebellion against a dictator, Porfirio Diaz, who clung to power for 30 years. One of the slogans of the rebels was “effective vote – no re-election” and that has been dogma ever since.

Posted by Komment | Report as abusive

Read the article. Calderon won by less than 1% after a protracted fight. Then he turns around and starts an all-out war on the cartels. Why? For the same reason we see the war here between left and right. Maintain and justify power and position. Take him out, let the cartels do their thing, then Mexico can have some peace. The drugs will more into the U.S. or whereever regardless. So what not in a more peaceful, less violent manner. I do not codone drugs and the drug trade, however,it is a sad part of modern world

Posted by GoodAmerican | Report as abusive

Legalizing all drugs would make the Mexican and American economies flourish. A people that feel least constrained perform the best. That is why ever since US won independence it has been at the forefront of all societies. The most free are the most prosperous. Netherlands, (the most tolerant society) has a 3.6 unemployment rate. There is no reason to believe that if drugs are legal everyone will do it and become junkies. Beer is legal and I enjoy it, but due to my own goals and ambitions, I restrain myself from drinking chronicly. I believe that drug laws should fall under the Rowe v Wade argument, of my body my choice. Drugs are readily available to anyone who seeks them anyway. I would much rather have if my child was experimenting with cocaine or ecstasy it came from a gov’t approved vendor so you know whats in it, then going down some shady ally to meet some shady hoodlum.

Posted by apacheguns | Report as abusive

The drug war did not begin with Calderon .. drug violence and cartels existed before him. The failure of escalation shows exactly how deeply rooted the cartels already were. A failing war perhaps, but to imply Calderon created the entire problem and it would go away if only one appeases the cartels is foolish. A lot of the violence is turf wars between the cartels.

As for legalizing, good idea – but what you really have to do is legalize the sale, not the use. Indeed, put the sale in government stores, cheap. The goal is to put the cartels out of business and nothing is quite so good at erasing private enterprise as cheap undercutting by government. But, what you do NOT do is make the consumption easy. Make folks get a license. Register with their doctor. Have a maximum use per month. Just enough to be happy, not enough to keep criminals rolling in cash. The overdosers will cadge from their buddies, the price in the black market will still be low. So the result is you treat addiction as a disease, and you starve the gangsters of their loot.

Legalizing the use while keeping the supply criminal is insane, exactly the way to make the mafia stronger. Just look at places like Amsterdam, which ended up with an entrenched revenue stream for criminals.

Oh, and yes, get the druggies out of prison. Sure it is a mess, but no point prolonging the pointless misery. For any druggy who had no other record, give them a 1 year suspended sentence and erase their record so long as they stay clean to give them a chance of going back to normal life.

In other words, let’s do some sane, obvious fixing of a very badly broken system.

Posted by ExLoony | Report as abusive

Oh, and while we are at it, send government agents in to buy the poppy crop in Afghanistan and the coca crops in Bolivia, Peru, Colombia. It is easy to offer the farmers more than the terrorists and criminals – especially after you collapse the price of the end product in the USA. Then figure out other crops they could grow, and teach them.

Posted by ExLoony | Report as abusive

Drug usage whether involving narcotics, alcohol, tobacco, aspirin…it makes little difference
what sort or whether one chooses to take them or doesn’t insofar as the question is really completely exterior to, is completely outside justice proper
if one restricts the meaning of justice to its limited narrow definition as simply the means by which to publicly settle private disputes. That is, implicit in and necessary to any act of justice is the existence
of two disputants. There are no such disputants in the case of drug usage, and so the question arises as to how and why what really amounts to an application of discipline has came to insinuate itself into the system of justice. How did discipline manage to colonize justice ? I believe the explanation traces back to the French Revolution and the consolidation that followed under Napoleon. Napoleon was really the first to conceive of an entirely new relationship between citizens and the state, to put forth the view that citizens
of the nation state were subjects of, resources the state could draw on as it deemed necessary. This particularly concerned Napoleon
in his expansion of war which he managed to spread
across the whole of the Continent. And so all the young men of France were to be drafted and trained as soldiers; married men would be required to work
in munitions factories; women would have to staff hospitals and make equipment ; children reprocess lint for new material. With the arrival of Napoleon, the population is viewed as the possession of, as a resource of the state to be made use of in waging war. Commensurate with this view is right of the state to discipline its population at various levels and stages; in the schools, in military service, in factory work, in hospitals, and finally in prisons. The entire
society is organized under a disciplinary apparatus designed to produce docility. This is really a fundamental transformation of the preceding idea of the nation as had been conceived of just a few years previous by the constitutional framers of the United States. Such figures as Jefferson and Madison saw the nation as a very limited, very restricted power whose sole duty was to safeguard citizens seeking life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. By the time of Napoleon however this idea is completely inverted. Citizens are now subjects of the state whom the state may discipline as it sees fit. And yet this French transformation of the American conception of a nation, spread to and was taken up by most nation states and of course ultimately the United States which became and remains the leading proponent of the nation so conceived.

And so we arrive at the present moment and the
phenomenon of drug criminalization, something which is the purest act of discipline of a population by a state one might imagine, and yet which by now has become a practice so deeply embedded, so deeply ingrained as to now be something no longer even questioned, so completely accepted as normal and necessary , that both state and citizenry alike tend to badly misunderstood such an exclusively disciplinary practice as constitutive of the exercise of justice, to which it bears no relation.

Posted by philo2000 | Report as abusive

to > compsci: Cannabis only causes psychosis in those already prone to psychosis. I have many, many friends that have smoked for 40+ years who are highly productive and successful members of society who now in retirement give time to helping those less fortunate. I also have a son who is prone to psychosis and cannabis calms him, not makes him worse. Obviously you have some experience with someone who has been affected and has been told that the ‘evil weed’ caused it. But I feel pretty sure it did not. I am sorry for your suffering.

Decriminalization of drugs is the only way to stop the black market drug trade and the human suffering that being an addict causes. Treating addicts with dignity and with real help rather than sending them to the streets to seek out a ‘dealer’ and then into our prison system would help all of society.

Posted by MargaD | Report as abusive

‘drug criminalization’ has essentially criminalized “citizens seeking life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (albeit, not in the form of making money and buying up indian land). the so called, ‘drug war’, is just more usbs for creeping authoritarianism and police brutality (i.e., the state disciplining its subject-citizens as it sees fit).

now, we allow corporation-persons to commit all sorts of financial and ecological crimes with no one held responsible (in most cases). we allow all sorts of political fraud with no one held responsible (in most cases). the bush iraq war and calderon’s drug war (as made clear in the opinion piece) are two cases in point. but, when a subject-citizen seeks ‘escape’ in a little plastic bag, he is deemed to have committed a ‘crime against the state’ no less than an outright act of ‘terrorism’!

while speaking of terrorism, it is interesting to note the relationship between the NRA and the drug cartels: essentially, the NRA does the lobbying for more guns for the cartels and the cartels don’t even need to pay the NRA for their services! the NRA is just, naturally, in the pockets of the cartels as the NRA believes it’s ‘the right’ of ANYONE (even terrorists) to have all of the weapons they need to comprise a militia. but there’s a very short semantic hop from armed militia to drug cartel as the cartels are defenders of certain freedoms and ‘free enterprise’ for hundreds of thousands of people in this hemisphere alone. you can’t be more american than in the defense of freedom and ‘free enterprise’ can you?

anyway, in the end, we can clearly see that ‘drug criminalization’ has turned our logic to mush and our way of life to pure idiocy. consider a twisted analogy (with some foundation in contemporary neurology): drugs is our brain…’drug criminalization’ is our brain on drugs! my only question, now, is: are we doped up enough to let ‘drug criminalization’ destroy our societies? in the case of mexico, we can clearly see the answer is: ‘just say yes!’

Posted by jborrow | Report as abusive

If Mexico has a problem with something being transported illegally across it’s borders, perhaps is should patrol its borders better instead of telling its neighbor what to do.

Posted by drewbie | Report as abusive

Enough already.
• Decriminalize.
• Legalize.
• Blame the USA for firearms directly and/or indirectly entering Mexico.
• The Mexican government can’t win the war against the cartels.
• America’s propensity to consume nose candy and weed is the problem.

And on and on and on.

Mexico’s biggest problem is corruption. Somebody is looking the other way.

Corruption is stalling and ultimately preventing the Mexican government from winning their “War” against the Mexican dope cartels.

Firearms and mass quantities of dope are moving in and out of Mexico along the corruption route. Someone is greasing the skids.

Corruption, more than a lack of capability or will, is the key component that weakens the government, and its ability to be covert.

Somebody is looking the other way.

Since the cartels are so deadly, a very unpopular approach to combating the cartels may be the necessary next step.

If they are not doing so already the Mexican government has to go covert, deep covert.

Remember, this problem is described as a “War” and this means that the Mexican government has o adjust its force posture in order to prevail.

Its going to get ugly, so buckle your seat belts.

Target cartel leadership for assassination. Yes, this sounds extreme, however, if the cartels are as deadly as advertised, and apparently they do not hesitate to kill their opponents, a higher price has to be paid to remedy the problem.

Posted by rror | Report as abusive

This article raises a situation of immediate concern because the storm has finally reached our border. I have read the article’s many comments about legalization of drugs and the few Mexican nationals laying blame on the north that reveals their innocent frustration. But a few comments do shine on the reality of the moment and of the potential disaster looming ahead. Mexico is a country with a larger than life history that dates back further than most in the Americas. If one were to rank a country’s greatness by the blood shed by its citizens then Mexico indeed would be at par with the greatest countries of the world. Mexico’s struggle for liberty is marked by the longest and cruelest civil wars in the history of the world. For this reason alone the current situation there is one of great concern to the rest of the Americas. The groups that currently threaten Mexican security may at the moment be considered simple criminal cartels but could likely transition to something much worse. They are creatures of consequence of Mexico’s instability and the inability of its government to provide basic needs for its citizens. They could eventually usurp total control from the Mexican people and then through factional wars lay waste to what left of the land. We may be witnessing the development of criminal organizations into parallel governments, sustained through illicit trade, that will carry political messages pretending to be proper counterparts to legal governments much like what we have witnessed in Colombia in decades past. We need to be proactive and concentrate our political will here and now even more so that around the world in a far distant desert.

Posted by usbychoice | Report as abusive

Talk about the US-supplied weapons! The Mexican soldier in the photo is holding a US M-249 SAW (squad automatic weapon) machine-gun, belt-fed, 5.56 mm, with the collapsible stock. Why doesn’t he have a state-of-the-art optical sight on it? What’s wrong with our military-industrial complex, losing a sale like that?

Posted by chrisrushlau | Report as abusive

Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

For the pro-drug morons commenting, I suggest they learn the history of CHINA, how the world’s strongest civilization for fifteen of the last twenty centuries was destroyed with DRUGS. America is not exempt from the fate that befell Chinese Civilization.

Long live, Lin Zexu! (For the pro-drug morons who don’t know who he is, look it up in Wikipedia)

Posted by roberto2002 | Report as abusive

Yes, we do a lot of drugs in the US, which is a nice indication of how ineffective the laws are. But the one thing that all the high-consumption-rate countries have in common is a population with more discretionary income. We have to live with the fact that a lot of people like to get high, and will do so if they have some spare money. It’s the price of economic success. Is this a bad thing? Humans have lived with drugs in society for thousands of years. And somehow through all this time, our societies did not completely collapse. A few decades of prohibition are a drop in the pan compared to our full history with these substances.

This is not a Mexican problem alone. This is OUR problem. The USA promoted the policies that went into the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs (the treaty to which we have bound ourselves and the policies of which are implemented in the Controlled Substance Act). The drug trafficking to the USA is currently in Mexico because the US government cracked down on trafficking in the Caribbean. We created this problem. It is our responsibility to put a stop to it, not tell them they have to deal with it and act like they created it.

If we ended prohibition tomorrow, would you all go out and buy all those drugs and start taking them? I didn’t think so. So why do people think everyone else will and cause our society to collapse from high addiction rates. This is fear based and has no basis in reality. Even the alcoholic monkeys at the beach resorts on the island of St. Kitts (google it) have the same rates of addiction, and that’s without a government protecting them from themselves. Coutries that have relaxed drug laws have actually seen consumption go down. See the Cato Institue report on Portugal’s handling of the situation to see what I’m talking about.

We need to get smarter in how talk about drug usage. There is a lot of nuance lost in our zeal to demonize the user. We seem to recognize that there is a whole range of users of alcohol, from casual drinkers with a holiday meal to daily binging alcoholics. The current polical environment has us demonizing all users. People talk about drug users as being a drain on society and not contributing any value. Just as with alcohol users, drug users fall within a wide spectrum of usage, from casual to true addicts. A very small fraction of users (like 1%) are actually physically addicted to the substances that they consume. That certainly doesn’t warrant spending billions of dollars annually brutalizing our people and militarizing our police. It costs $30K+ to lock up a user. It costs $5K to put them through treatment. More importanly though, is it is simply a question of human rights. It is barbaric to lock up someone for consuming, or even being in posession of a substance that they will put in their own body. If you think comsuming drugs is immoral, how can you possibly justify locking up another human being simply because you disagree with what they put in their own body? In the US, we have 5% of the world population. And yet, we have 25% of the world’s prisoners. Blacks make up 14% of of our drug users and yet, they make up 74% of those incarcerated for the behavior. What is going on here?

We also need to get smarter in how we talk about the drugs themselves. Just like prescription drugs, they have a range of effects, some desirable and some not. Even cocaine and heroin aren’t purely evil as some would make them out to be. According to the CDC, deaths from all illicit drug use in 2006 resulted in 17,000 deaths. However 32,000 deaths are attributed to “adverse reaction of prescription drugs.” 7,600 people died from non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (like aspirin). Those are big numbers but legal drugs have nothing on alcohol and tobacco which killed 85,000 and 435,000 respectively. If the problems caused by illegal drugs are so small in comparison to the problems caused by the officially condoned drugs, why do we wage war on our own people, and cause other countries like Mexico to do the same to stop the sale and use of drugs?

It is an ineffective and grossly inhumane policy. Drug abuse is bad. The drug war is worse.

Posted by semillabuena | Report as abusive