Jo Tuckman, 11 August 2010
Mexico's president, Felipe Calderón, launched his presidency three and a half years ago with an unprecedented military-led offensive against the country's drug cartels. Since then 28,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence that continues to escalate, with little sign that the power of the traffickers has been reduced.
Yesterday Calderón finally accepted that the strategy had failed to rein in the cartels, and called on his growing number of critics to help him revise the government's approach to the drug wars.
"I agree that the strategy should be questioned," the president said. "And so I am willing to receive and analyse proposals of how to change and improve it."
The admission came days after Calderón's predecessor called for drugs to be legalised. Vicente Fox, who also belongs to the National Action party, said prohibition had failed to curb violence and corruption. "We should consider legalising the production, sale and distribution of drugs," Fox wrote on his blog. "Radical prohibition strategies have never worked."
Calderón himself fervently opposes legalisation, although he recently called for a "fundamental debate" on the issue. He has also claimed that Fox's relative inaction in the face of the cartels' growing power contributed to the current situation.
In the latest of a series of government-organised debates on the drug war, Calderón repeated that unilateral legalisation would increase drug use and do little to reduce the cartels' income. But he was forced to listen to blistering attacks on the government strategy by opposition leaders.
"The government's strategy is not working," Jesus Ortega, leader of the leftist Democratic Revolution party, said. "If the government only attacks the traffickers then the error, and the failure, of the strategy is evident."
Ortega also railed against the use of the army and navy in anti-drugs operations. Critics of the offensive say the military's lack of preparation for an internal policing role has caused human rights abuses.
Calderón said he agreed that withdrawing the military was desirable, but impossible until civilian state and municipal police forces had been purged of rampant corruption and were strong enough to face the problem on their own.
The sessions also produced complaints about the scant attention paid by the government to the money-laundering that fuels the illegal industry and finances the violence. Mexican drug trafficking is estimated to be worth anywhere between $10 billion (£6.4b) and $40b a year.
Calderón admitted that not enough had been done to track illicit earnings but said the government had trouble hiring top financial experts who could make much more money in the private sector without putting themselves in danger.
The president agreed with calls by other leaders on the need to improve education and employment opportunities for young people to help them avoid drug use or recruitment by the cartels.
Analysts said the Mexican president's new willingness to open the debate marks a dramatic departure from his previous tendency to equate any criticism with a capitulation to organised crime.
"In almost four years the government cannot claim any kind of victory and the debate is the result of the crisis of legitimacy in the strategy," said Samuel Gonzalez, a former Mexican drugs tsar who has been pushing for a rethink for years. "But at least it is now being discussed and that has to be a good thing."
The debate was also seen as an attempt to spread responsibility for the bloodshed. "If we join together we can win this battle," Calderón said. "But if we continue to lack coordination and blame each other, the simple truth is that we cannot move forward. I understand perfectly well that there is a perception that the war is being lost, but I do not share it."
The main problem, he said, is that local public institutions are too weak to maintain control when the forces withdraw.
He added: "I am asking for the political parties for their help, their strength and their collaboration to allow us to rebuild the institutions of security and justice at all levels," he said. "We can beat the criminals. We can re-establish the rule of law in this country."
Mexico's drug violence is rooted in a series of turf wars between different trafficking organisations that are also involved in other illegal activities, such as kidnapping, extortion and people trafficking. The violence and the number of civilian casualties has increased since December 2006, when the government launched an offensive against them involving tens of thousands of soldiers and federal police. The main axis of the war is the rivalry between the Sinaloa cartel and the Zetas – a group founded by renegade special forces troops. Sinaloa, led by the country's most famous kingpin, Joaquin El Chapo Guzman, is based in the Pacific coast state of the same name. The Zetas control much of the Gulf coast. Both Sinaloa and the Zetas are also present in other parts of the country. One of the most intense current battles is for control of the northeastern border state of Tamaulipas, just across from Texas, where Zetas are fighting their erstwhile bosses in the Gulf Cartel, which has now reputedly allied with Sinaloa.
Other relevant trafficking organisations involved in the wars include La Linea, which is based in Ciudad Juarez, just across from El Paso in Texas, and is trying to hold off the encroachment of Sinaloa. Here the extreme violence is intertwined with rivalry between local youth gangs reflecting a dramatic degree of social decomposition.
Elsewhere, the quasi sect-like group called La Familia is rooted in the central state of Michoacan, and the Tijuana cartel maintains its bastion in the border city just over from San Diego in California. The Beltran Leyva group is involved in a bitter struggle for control of the organisation following the death of its leader in a navy operation last year