Three years ago this month, Mexican President Felipe Calderon donned military fatigues and declared a full-scale war on drugs, ordering the Army into Mexico’s streets, highways and villages. Back then, Calderon received broad support, both domestically and from abroad, for what was viewed as a brave, overdue and necessary decision. Tangible results were predicted.
Moreover, former US president George W. Bush’s administration quickly promised support — the so-called Merida Initiative, signed in February 2007 — and public-opinion polls showed that Calderon had, in one fell swoop, left behind the travails of his close and questionable election victory, gaining the trust of the Mexican people. Today, however, things look very different.
At a recent debate with, among others, Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek and CNN, and Asa Hutchison, the former head of the US Drug Enforcement Agency, the main question was whether the US was to blame for Mexico’s drug war. I pointed out that neither the US nor Mexico was to blame — Calderon was. Just like Bush’s invasion of Iraq, Mexico’s drug war was a war of choice. It was a war that Calderon should not have declared, that cannot be won, and it is doing enormous damage to Mexico.
Today, a growing number of Mexicans share this view. As the war drags on, positive results are nowhere to be seen, while violence in the country is escalating. On Dec. 9, for example, according to the daily newspaper Reforma, 40 people died in firefights between police and army forces and the drug cartels. More than 6,500 fatalities will have occurred this year alone, topping last year’s total, which was double that in 2007.
I believe that Calderon declared this war because he felt the need to legitimize himself before Mexico’s people, given the doubts surrounding his victory in the 2006 presidential election — doubts that his supporters, like me, never shared. I believe the war cannot be won because it fails to comply with the tenets of the Powell Doctrine, elaborated 18 years ago by Colin Powell, then-chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, in relation to the first Gulf War.
Powell said four conditions must be satisfied for a military operation to succeed. One was deployment of overwhelming force, which the Mexican military lacks. Another was a definable victory target (a term first used by Richard Nixon in the late 1960s), which one never has in a war on drugs. The third condition was an exit strategy at the outset, which Calderon lacks because he can neither withdraw in defeat in his own country, nor withdraw and declare victory. Calderon still enjoys the support of the public — Powell’s fourth condition — but he is beginning to lose it.
Over the past three years, more than 15,000 Mexicans have died in the war on drugs. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the UN Human Rights Council Universal Peer Review have all documented, with more or less evidence and precision, a proliferation of abuses and an absence of accountability. Of the more than 220,000 people arrested on drug charges since Calderon took office, three-quarters have been released. Only 5 percent of the remaining 60,000 or so have been tried and sentenced.
Meanwhile, the area used for poppy and marijuana production has risen, according to the US government, to 6,900 hectares and 8,900 hectares respectively. Restrictions on the transshipment of cocaine from South America to the US have made only a dent in street prices, which spiked last year, but have stabilized this year at levels well below their historical highs in the 1990s.