When, earlier this summer, the Mexican government admitted that some 28,000 people had been killed in prohibition-related violence since President Felipe Calderon rolled out the army in December 2006, it seemed to mark a turning point in Mexico's ongoing debate over how to end the madness. Calderon began an ongoing series of meetings with civil society organizations, government functionaries, and the political parties, and even suggested that drug legalization was open for debate.
That doesn't mean any of the four legalization bills, mostly aimed at marijuana, in the Mexican Congress's lower chamber or the one in the Senate are likely to pass. After all, it was only last year that Mexico approved the decriminalization of the possession of small amounts of drugs (and even that was wrapped inside a broader bill aimed at widening the drug war). Analysts who spoke to the Chronicle this week agreed that while the increasingly open debate over legalization is a step in the right direction, reform is going to be an uphill battle, at least until Calderon's successor is chosen in 2012.
The series of meetings Calderon has been holding are a good thing, if long overdue, said Maureen Meyer, a Mexico analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America. "With these encounters, he's getting more buy-in from all sectors -- civil society, the government, the political parties -- but it's late," said Meyer. "The critique of current strategy should have begun long ago. At least in the past few weeks, there has been more frankness in his discourse on the magnitude of the problem and more willingness to engage in discussion, but what that means in terms of policy remains to be seen."
What it does not mean, Meyer said, was real measurable progress toward legalization. "There are several bills that are looking at legalization, mostly of marijuana, and yes, this broader debate is happening, but it will be a long time before we see some legislative changes in the county," she said.
"The debate over legalization has already been going on for many years," said Jorge Hernandez Tinajero, a Mexico City political scientist and member of CUPIHD (in English, the Collective for an Integrated Drug Policy). "It is the political class that has been slowest to enter into it, and especially the president, who was the last to concede that a discussion was necessary," he said.
"In reality, Calderon brought this up not because he thought he could win the debate, but because his strategy has been just a tremendous failure, and this disaster is reaching intolerable levels, including among his closest allies," Hernandez continued. "For example, the theme of legalization leapt up in an encounter with civil society organizations dedicated to security, and almost all of them are on the right."
But while the years of carnage under Calderon has opened the door for legalization, it is still a minority position even if it is gaining more high-powered adherents, such as Calderon's predecessor Vicente Fox. None of the three main political parties are keen on it even if some political figures are keen to use the bloodshed as a club against Calderon. And from the north, the US is glowering down.
"I don't think drug legalization will go any further than a discussion among specific sectors of society," said Victor Clark Alfaro, head of the Bi-national Center for Human Rights in Tijuana. "It's mainly supported by intellectuals and academia, but it doesn't have the sympathy of the population as a whole, nor does it have the support of the US government," he argued.
Even if there is no political will to advance legalization in Mexico right now, the issue will continue to fester until it is addressed, said Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington, DC. "The issue of legalization and decriminalization is not going to go away, it will hunker down in the suburbs of this debate, and at a certain point, will explode," he predicted.
"We don't know how or when this is going to end, but it won't end with this president," Clark said. "There are sectors of the population telling him to change his strategy, but Calderon has told society he is going to continue with the strategy until the end of his term. That means two more years of the same or worse. Probably worse," he predicted.
While political progress toward legalization and a reduction in violence appears blocked for now, Calderon's deployment of the Mexican Army and the bloody results of that deployment have damaged both the president and the military. It is also contributing to the likelihood that Calderon's conservative PAN (in English, National Action Party) could lose the presidency in 2012. The PAN fared poorly in off-year elections this summer.
"If you ask me how I will remember Calderon, it is the violence," said Clark. "The huge number of people getting killed with the war against drugs, the increasing activity of the drug cartels -- this war has obviously damaged Calderon's image instead of bolstering it, at least in our country," he said.
"Calderon's approval ratings are down from the beginning of his government, but they haven't decreased much lately," said Myer. "But if you ask a citizen in Ciudad Juarez, they tell you there's more violence than two years ago and they want the military and the federal police out. There is some hesitancy in continuing to support the PAN," she added. "It's not just the violence, it's also the economy."
The Mexican military, too, is seeing its image tarnished as it wages war against the drug traffickers and, seemingly, a substantial portion of the various local, state, and federal police forces, who are actually working for the so-called cartels. The number of human rights complaints against the military has climbed to more than 2,000 since it left the barracks at the end of 2006.
"Calderon played the military card, the ultimate card he had, but the military hasn't succeeded," said Birns. "It has instead generated negatives: increased violence, increased human rights violations, increased repugnance toward the military from the population. The army's commitment to the war has rendered it unpopular."
"When President Zedillo deployed the military in the 1990s, it was an institution with a good image in society, but when Calderon deployed them in large numbers the military is paying a price in terms of its image because of the increasing number of human rights violations," said Clark. "The soldiers lack training to deal with the drug war, but they are on its front lines."
But while it is the military waging the war, it is doing so on behalf of the governing elite. It is the president and the Congress who make the decisions, and when it comes to embracing drug legalization as a solution to the violence, they are just not there yet.
"The political class still doesn't understand the terms of the debate," said Hernandez. "Nor does it really know the drug problem. Our task as reformers now is to try to steer the discussion so they understand that drug legalization by itself is not going to end the problems of security, but it would help the drug problem."
While it is ultimately up to Mexico to resolve the problem of violence and insecurity related to the traffic in illicit drugs, there is something Americans can do to help, said Hernandez, and he wasn't referring to sending more guns and helicopters and DEA agents. What would help in Mexico would be watching California vote to legalize marijuana, he said.
"The debate in Mexico has also been pushed by the marijuana reforms in the United States," said Hernandez. "The perception is that while you are legalizing, we are killing ourselves. And the political class understands this, so the referendum in California is very important for us."