Vicente Fox, a 58-year-old conservative businessman and former governor of Guanajuato state, was sworn in as Mexico's president on December 1st. His July election marked an historic change of regime in Mexico, which for the last 70 years had been ruled by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).
In carefully chosen remarks directed at US audiences and in some of his cabinet selections, Fox has provided signals that his administration wants to revisit Mexico's cooperation with hard-line US drug policies.
While he has pledged to attack drug-related crime and corruption, Fox took advantage of pre-inaugural interviews with US media outlets to jab at US portrayals of Mexico as corrupt and efforts to blame it for America's drug habit.
In remarks typical of his spate of interviews, Fox told CBS' 60 Minutes last Sunday, "The billions and billions of dollars generated by drug consumption comes from the United States. And those billions of dollars are used to bribe Mexican officials or Mexican policemen. Let's face that we have a problem, that each one of us has it, and let's meet it together."
"We Mexicans are smart, but not that smart to be able to smuggle all those drugs by ourselves," he continued. "So there must be some corruption in the United States."
Talk is one thing, but with a pair of appointments to his cabinet, Fox has put well-known advocates of drug policy reform in two critical posts. He named author and political scientist Jorge Castaneda as Foreign Minister and former Mexico City police chief Alejandro Gertz Manero to head the newly created Public Security Ministry.
Castaneda has advocated repeatedly and eloquently for drug legalization, most notably in a widely read September 1999 essay in Newsweek. (That essay, as well as detailed analysis of these appointments and much more is available from Narco News at http://www.narconews.com/mextransition1.html online.)
After being named Foreign Minister, Castaneda took pains to reiterate his position. On November 24th, he told Mexico City's La Jornada that drug policy was one of the key issues in bilateral relations with the US, that the US must end its annual certification of Mexico's compliance with US drug war aims, and that bilateral drug policy needs "a new focus."
He also bluntly restated his pro-decriminalization position. To resolve the drug problem, he told La Jornada, requires, "the decriminalization in the long run of certain currently illegal substances... and the use of market mechanisms to minimize the profits derived from the prohibited character of the drug trade."
Although almost unanimously described in the US media as a leftist, Castaneda has left his youthful leftism behind. In his 1993 book, "Utopia Unarmed: The Latin American Left After the Cold War," he attacked Cuba, trashed Latin American guerrilla movements, and argued that only playing within the rules of the global economic system would bring desired change.
He has also signaled that although he will adopt a more aggressive posture toward the United States and wants to renegotiate NAFTA, he fully supports the neo-liberal economic policies of his boss.
Alejandro Gertz Manero, Fox's choice to head the new Ministry of Public Security, is a former president of the University of the Americas in Mexico City and current Mexico City police chief. The new position is a critical one in Fox's plan to radically restructure the Mexican law enforcement apparatus.
Gertz Manero has received high marks from observers for his crime-fighting and anti-corruption efforts in Mexico City and, like Castaneda, has explicitly addressed the failure of current drug policies.
As first reported in English by Narco News, Gertz Manero called for "a Holland-style" drug policy earlier this year.
In a May column in El Universal (Mexico City), he called for a "third path," writing that: "The production and transit countries for drugs, like Cambodia, Colombia and Mexico, live with their own hell, while their institutions are infiltrated by drug traffickers and suffer a constant decay, their social structures brutally erode without finding answers or viable solutions."
"The third path has worked for countries like Holland that try to end the economic pressures of drug trafficking and recognize that drug addicts are ill, taking charge to allow the free use of drugs by those addicts inside of a therapeutic project, so that those who have irredeemably fallen into this vice do not become instruments of the economic interests of crime."
Whether and to what degree Castaneda and Gertz Manero bring drug policy to the fore remains to be seen, but with these appointments the Fox administration has positioned itself to be able take on the US drug warriors if it chooses.
The drug warriors are certainly watching. In September, outgoing drug czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey publicly warned Fox against pulling the Mexican military out of the anti-drug effort. Fox had proposed "demilitarizing" drug law enforcement.
Again in November, McCaffrey warned Fox against eliminating the military's role in drug enforcement. Sounding like a character from the Godfather, McCaffrey told Fox, "Be careful what you do," the San Diego Union Tribune reported.
In an interview with the same paper, DEA administrator Donnie Marshall threw down some markers for the Fox government. Warning that the US "is not satisfied with the results we've seen from Mexico," Marshall told the paper whether or not leading Mexican drug cartel figures are extradited to the US will be a crucial indicator that Mexico is meeting US goals.
Marshall also supported the certification process, claiming it had produced "substantial progress" in Colombia in recent years.