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Are There Any Good Guys in the Mexican Drug War?

Once again, what passes for a victory in the Mexican drug war is really just another bloody mess:

Reporting from Mexico City - The dead drug lord lay on his back, blood-soaked jeans yanked down to the knees. Mexican peso notes carpeted his bullet-torn body, and U.S. $100 bills formed neat rows next to his bared belly.

Even in a country where pictures of gruesome crime scenes routinely show up on the front pages of newspapers, the Beltran Leyva images have stirred controversy over who staged the tableau and whether Mexican authorities did so to send a taunting message to the rest of his powerful drug trafficking gang.

"It is the state forces that adopted the basic language of the narco," columnist Luis Petersen Farah wrote in the Milenio newspaper. " 'There's your money,' the photograph seems to say. It's the language of war." [LA Times]

There's something deeply unsettling about watching the Mexican military mimic the intimidation tactics of the drug lords. Finding peace is simply not on the agenda anymore.

A Magical Day in Mexico

This is what passes for good news in the Mexican drug war:

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico (AP) -- ''Not one person murdered yesterday,'' Ciudad Juarez's leading newspaper proclaimed in a banner headline. It was big news in this border city, ground zero in the drug war -- the first time in 10 months that a day had passed without a killing.

The next day, 9 people were shot. Does anyone still believe that the drug war reduces violence? If so, I've got a condo in Ciudad Juarez I'd love to sell you.

Proof that the Drug War Sucks: Mexico

No seriously, just look at Mexico and tell me that the drug war isn't a complete disaster:

TIJUANA, Mexico — Tijuana's public security spokesman says a fleet of brand new patrol cars has been burned in a Molotov cocktail attack.

Ernesto Alvarez says the 28 vehicles were hit in the predawn attack at a Mazda dealership. Six were destroyed, the rest damaged but possibly reparable. [AP]

Reparable, you say? Yeah, imagine it's your first day on the job as a cop in Tijuana and they give you a new patrol car that's already been lightly toasted by a firebomb.

The Weekly Standard Cheers on Mexican Drug War Bloodshed

Jaime Daremblum at The Weekly Standard uses math to prove that Mexico's drug war is getting results:

But despite the continuing violence--in a particularly vicious attack on September 2, 18 people were killed execution style at a Juárez drug-rehabilitation center--Calderón's efforts have not been in vain. A new report from the U.S. State Department observes that "more than 43,000 individuals connected with the major cartels were arrested between December 2006 and February 2009," including senior members of the cartels. Mexican authorities confiscated 4,220 weapons in 2006 and 9,500 a year later; all told, they have seized "more than 27,000 since the beginning of 2008." Since January 2007, they have also confiscated some 65 metric tons of cocaine, nearly 1,250 kilos of methamphetamine, and roughly 4.2 million kilos of marijuana. These achievements are not insignificant.

He's right. These achievements are significant indeed. They got 7,500 people killed last year.

Don't you understand that the exact activities you're rooting for are the reason people are dying? What is so complicated about this? It's a simple formula: more drug war = more death. It's perfectly incoherent to root for arrests and drug seizures, while simultaneously expressing hope that the violence will subside. It doesn't work that way. Anyone struggling with this concept should just pull up a chair and watch what happens next.

Drug War Violence is Destroying Mexico's Economy

According to a new expert analysis, Mexico's brutal drug war is costing the country a whole hell of a lot of money:

Tobias estimates the economic cost of Mexico’s violence is 2 percent to 3 percent of GDP, and the total cost is $120 billion, or about 12 percent of Mexico’s $1.085 trillion GDP in 2008. The estimate by Bulltick, a Miami-based brokerage with offices in four Latin American countries, includes prevention measures, prison costs, lost foreign direct investment and expenses to victims and businesses. [Bloomberg]

What I just can't understand, no matter how hard I try, is why on earth anyone ever expected a different outcome than this. It is literally the goal of Mexico's chief drug war strategists to reduce violence and save their nation's reputation. That is what they thought would happen if they cracked down on the drug trade. Instead, every single problem they sought to address has gotten worse.

And as bad as things have gotten, you can bet that the leaders of the Mexican drug war will look at this data and say that it shows the need for more aggressive strategies to finally defeat the cartels.

How Many Americans Die Every Year in The War on Drugs?

According to Esquire, it may be as many as 15,000. It's awfully hard to calculate with any certainty, but the author's point is to demonstrate that Mexico's frightening drug war death toll isn't the only one worth discussing. Americans are also paying a great price for our disastrous drug policy and it's time to take a closer look at how those numbers add up and how ending the drug war can bring them back down.

Predictably, Mark Kleiman has a problem with the article's pro-legalization angle and expresses his doubts about the 15,000 figure. My question for Kleiman is this: if that number is wrong, then what's the correct number? How should it be calculated? The bottom line here is that people are getting killed constantly in the war on drugs and we're trying to do something about it.

Kleiman hypocritically attacks both sides in the drug war debate for failing to use what he considers "factually and logically sound arguments," while simultaneously insisting – without any proof -- that legalization will create catastrophic spikes in drug use. He could be right, but we don’t really have any way to find out other than by doing exactly what he says we shouldn’t do. Personally, my gut instinct is that Kleiman is partially right, but that the benefits of reducing the collective harms of prohibition will decisively outweigh the new harms he anticipates. Again, there's only one way to find out.

Moreover, it's just crazy to accept the current body count based on the assumption that alternatives can't possibly work. LEAP's Neill Franklin nails this point:

But what about the argument that drugs will spread like wildfire if we don't keep bringing down the hammer?

"First, there's no concrete study to support such a belief — it's all completely speculation," Franklin insists. "So in my left hand I have all this speculation about what may happen to addiction rates, and then I look at my other hand and I see all these dead bodies that are actually fact, not speculation. And you're going to ask me to weigh the two? Second, if the addiction rate does go up, I'm going to have a lot of live addicts that I can cure. The direction we're going in now, I've got a lot of dead bodies."

Regardless of how legalization might impact addiction rates, it's just a fact that people are presently getting shot to death over drugs on a daily basis. If you think it has to be that way, you're wrong. People do not have to be murdered in the streets constantly. We can change that, we really can, and then we can do some more number crunching and decide if regulating drug sales is worth it or not.

Drug Traffickers Plot to Kill Mexico's President

I've had a creeping feeling for a while now that the cartels might try to take things to the next level:

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexico has captured a drug smuggler believed to have been plotting to assassinate President Felipe Calderon in revenge for the army's crackdown on trafficking, a senior police official said on Monday.

Dimas Diaz, a mid-ranking member of the Sinaloa cartel in northwestern Mexico, was arrested on Sunday in the Sinaloa state capital of Culiacan with four other traffickers, said Ramon Pequeno, head of the federal police's anti-drug wing.

"Government intelligence reports led us to find out the threat was from the Sinaloa cartel, with Dimas Diaz entrusted with the details of a possible attack," he told reporters. [Reuters]

The magnitude of all this is quite incredible to behold. We've reached a point where anything is possible in Mexico (anything, that is, except victory in the bloody war on drugs). The prospect of a Presidential assassination is a deeply unnerving reminder that the situation in Mexico could actually become considerably uglier than it already is.

I shudder to think what effect such an event would have on the already problematic level of U.S. involvement in Mexico's disastrous war on drugs. Please, let's just stop this now before it literally destroys everything there is to destroy.

Mexico's Drug War is Eventually Going to Collapse

President Calderon's epic drug war escalation is rapidly becoming an unprecedented exhibit in the absolute futility of everything drug prohibition stands for. The harder you fight, the more you lose, and that realization is increasingly beginning to sink in:

There are now sustained calls in Mexico for a change in tactics, even from allies within Calderón's political party, who say the deployment of 45,000 soldiers to fight the cartels is a flawed plan that relies too heavily on the blunt force of the military to stem soaring violence and lawlessness. [Washington Post]

No kidding. How are soldiers supposed to "stem soaring violence" when their deployment is causing it? Violence is what soldiers do for a living.

U.S. officials said they now believe Mexico faces a longer and bloodier campaign than anticipated and is likely to require more American aid.

They didn't anticipate this. Seriously. Anyone who's surprised by this outcome has no business working on international drug policy, let alone allocating American tax dollars towards programs that do the exact opposite of what they think.

U.S. and Mexican government officials say the military strategy, while difficult, is working.

What does that even mean? You said you were trying to reduce violence and you increased it. Unless your goal is to eventually kill everyone in Mexico, it's not working.

"This battle is a full frontal assault," Monte Alejandro Rubido, Calderon's senior adviser on drug policy on Mexico's National Security Council, said in an interview. "There are no alternatives."

Yes there are. And the only rational and humane choice you have is to begin discussing them now before thousands more lives are needlessly lost. There is only so much the Mexican people can tolerate and it's really just a matter of time before the war has to be stopped. This plan didn't work last year and it won’t start working next year.

It's not hard to understand the reluctance of so many who bear responsibility for this to admit that they've been wrong all along. The countless lives lost and destroyed are not something anyone wants on their conscience and the human mind is a powerful tool for shielding desperate people from uncomfortable truths. Still, the battlefield that smolders before us is obviously here to stay as long as we continue down the hopeless path our governments have chosen for us. As long as this has gone on, it nonetheless stands to reason that it cannot continue forever.

It is vastly nobler to admit failure in the name of progress than to continue it out of fear and shame.

The Mexican Drug War is Losing Public Support

In a report on the latest massacre of federal police in Mexico, the Los Angeles Times points out that the Mexican people seem to be losing faith in President Calderon's escalated campaign against the cartels:

"We cannot, we should not, we will not take one step backward in this matter," Calderon said Tuesday.

Mexicans seem skeptical. In a new poll, more than half of respondents said they believe the government is losing the war. Only 28% said it is winning, according to the survey, published Tuesday in the daily Milenio newspaper.

That frustration is becoming a big problem for Calderon:

MEXICO CITY - President Felipe Calderon suffered a setback in midterm elections yesterday when the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party unseated his party as the largest force in Mexico’s fractured Congress in a vote that turned on the global economic crisis and the government’s crackdown on drug traffickers. [Boston Globe]

And it's only going to get worse. Calderon's crackdown has produced the opposite of its intended effect, which is exactly what one should always expect from aggressive tactics in the war on drugs. Violence and corruption will only continue to escalate and Calderon will inevitably be fighting for re-election amidst daily episodes of horrific street violence brought about by his own policies.

Calderon's predecessor Vicente Fox is now advocating discussion about legalizing drugs and it's probably just a matter of time before that debate becomes the central question in Mexican politics.

Feature: America's War in Afghanistan Becomes America's Drug War in Afghanistan

As summer arrives in Afghanistan, it's not just the temperature that is heating up. Nearly 20,000 additional US troops are joining American and NATO forces on the ground, bringing foreign troop totals to nearly 90,000, and an insurgency grown wealthy off the opium and heroin trade is engaging them with dozens of attacks a day across the country. But this year, something different is going on: For the first time, the West is taking direct aim at the drug trafficking networks that deliver hundreds of millions of dollars a year to the insurgents.
the opium trader's wares (photo by Chronicle editor Phil Smith during September 2005 visit to Afghanistan)
Last week, hundreds of British and Afghan troops backed by US and Canadian helicopters and US jets engaged in a series of raids in southern Helmand province, the country's largest opium producing and heroin refining region, seizing 5,500 kilograms of opium paste, 220 kilos of morphine, more than 100 kilos of heroin, and 148 kilos of hashish. They also uncovered and destroyed heroin labs and weapons caches, fending off Taliban machine gun and rocket-propelled grenade attacks as they did so.

"This has been an important operation against the illegal narcotics industry and represents a significant setback for the insurgency in Helmand Province," said Lt. Col. Stephen Cartwright, commanding officer of some of the British troops. "The link between the insurgents and the narcotics industry is proven as militants use the money derived from the drug trade as a principle source of funding to arm themselves with weapons and conduct their campaign of intimidation and violence. By destroying this opium and the drug making facilities we are directly target their fighting capability. The operation has been well received by the Afghan people."

It wasn't the first Western attack on the Afghan drug trade this year, and it certainly won't be the last. Operating since last fall on new marching orders, Western troops and their Afghan allies are for the first time engaging in serious drug war as part of their seemingly endless counterinsurgency. And they are drawing a sharp response from the Taliban, which must be seen not so much as a monolithic Islamic fundamentalist movement, but as an ever-shifting amalgam of jihadis, home-grown and foreign, competing warlords, including the titular head of the movement, Mullah Omar, disenchanted tribesmen, and purely criminal drug trafficking organizations collectively called "the Taliban."

So far this year, 142 NATO and US troops have been killed in the fighting, putting 2009 on a pace to be the bloodiest year yet for the West in the now nearly eight-year-old invasion, occupation, and counterinsurgency aimed at uprooting the Taliban and its Al Qaeda allies. Also dead are hundreds, if not more, Taliban fighters, and an unknown number of Afghan civilians, victims of Western air strikes, twitchy trigger fingers, and unending Taliban attacks on security forces and public places.

There will be "tough fighting" this summer and beyond in Afghanistan, top US commander Gen. David Petraeus said Wednesday in remarks to reporters in Tampa. As US and NATO troops go on the offensive "to take back from the Taliban areas that they have been able to control, there will be tough fighting," he said. "Certainly that tough fighting will not be concluded just this year. Certainly there will be tough periods beyond this year," he added, noting that the Taliban insurgency is at its bloodiest levels since 2001.

That rising insurgency, financed in large part by drug trade profits, has sparked a rethinking of Western anti-drug strategy, as well as the deployment of nearly 20,000 additional troops, with some 7,000 of them headed for Helmand, which, if it were a country, would be the world's largest opium producer.

Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, laid out the new thinking in testimony to the Senate last month. The West is losing the battle against opium production, he said, so instead of merely going after Taliban militants it is time to "go after" the powerful drug lords who control the trafficking and smuggling networks in Afghanistan.

"With respect to the narcotics -- the threat that is there -- it is very clearly funding the insurgency. We know that, and strategically, my view is that it has to be eliminated," Mullen said. "We have had almost no success in the last seven or eight years doing that, including this year's efforts, because we are unable to put viable livelihood in behind any kind of eradication."

While the new approach -- de-emphasized eradication of farmers' fields and targeting the drug trade, especially when linked to the insurgency -- is better than the approach of the Bush years, it is still rife with problems, obstacles, and uncertainties, said a trio of experts consulted by the Chronicle.

"We are seeing a clear shift away from eradication being the dominant focus and a clear emphasis on rural development as a way to proceed, and that is a major positive development," said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a scholar of drugs and insurgency at the Brookings Institution. "Interdiction was always nominally part of the package, but there is now a new mandate. Since October, NATO countries can participate in the interdiction of Taliban-linked traffickers. Certainly, the US and the UK are planning to vastly engage in this mission."

"The whole policy has changed," agreed Raheem Yaseer, assistant director of the Afghanistan Studies Center at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. "There was lots of criticism about the troops not going after the drug leaders and the trafficking. They were concentrating on the terrorists, but now they realize the opium traffic has actually been used to finance their activities, so now they are trying to eliminate the traffickers and promoters of the trade," he explained.

"There is more emphasis on reconstruction," said Yaseer. "There will be some compensation for people who are giving up the poppy, and shifting from poppy to saffron, things like that. Still, security is key, and there are some problems with security," he added in a masterful use of understatement.

"The administration appears at least to understand that eradication should target cartels rather than poor local farmers," said Malou Innocent, a foreign policy analyst with the libertarian leaning Cato Institute. "I hope they continue down that path; it's the best of many horrible options. The best policy would be legalization," she said, adding wistfully that she would prefer a more sensible drug policy.

"I have a feeling this is going to be a very bloody summer," said Malou. "There will be more violence because of the Afghan elections this August, as well as the Taliban's annual spring and summer offensive, which this year is going to be a sort of counteroffensive to the Western surge."

What the new emphasis on going after traffickers will accomplish remains to be seen, said Felbab-Brown. "Interdiction could provide a good reason for the Taliban to insert itself more deeply into the drug trade, or it could encourage traffickers to join the Karzai government," she said.

The effect of the new campaign on security in the countryside also remains to be seen, Felbab-Brown said. "Our reconstruction capacity is so weak after decades of neglect and a systematic effort to destroy those projects," she noted. "At bottom, though, the effectiveness of rural development programs depends on security. Without security, there is no effective program."

Western military forces also have some image-building to do, said Yaseer. "Because of wrong policies of the past and high civilian casualties, the original favorable perception of the foreign troops has changed from favorable to antagonistic. It will take some time to get back the good image."

Yaseer also had doubts about the utility of the massive foreign, mainly US, troop increase now underway. "Unless the sources of the problem, which lie in Pakistan, are attacked, adding more troops will not be very useful," he said. "They will just make the region more volatile and create more resentment, and they will provide the insurgents with a larger target than before," he said.

"The new administration's desire to change the policy makes one a bit optimistic, but again, time will tell whether the West is serious about them," Yaseer continued. Progress will depend on the nature of the operations and whether the new policies are actually implemented, whether this is real."

For Malou, the clock is ticking, and Western soldiers have no good reason to be remaining in Afghanistan for much longer. "We haven't found bin Laden in eight years, and most of the high-level Al Qaeda we've captured have been the result of police detective work, not military force. The foreign military presence in Afghanistan is perceived as a foreign occupation by many people in the region on both sides of the border, and that's poisoning the well even further," she said.

The US needs to be planning an exit strategy, said Malou. "When you look strategically and economically, the US just doesn't have a vital interest impelling us to stay in the region indefinitely," she said. "We need a timeframe for withdrawal within the next several years. We need to narrow our objectives to training security forces. I don't see any reason why we need to stay in this region any longer."

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