Sincronía Fall 2011

Obama, Calderón and the Mérida Initiative: Narcotrafficking and Neoliberalism in Mexico


Peter Watt

University of Sheffield


In the town of Tancítaro, in the Mexican state of Michoacán, 2009 ended with a bizarre turn of events. In a letter addressed to the state governor, Leonel Godoy Rangel, and Mexican president, Felipe Calderón Hinojosa, the municipal authorities of Tancítaro announced their resignation en masse. As the troubled decade closed, the town faced the prospect of entering the New Year without a local government.[1]

      Despite the heavy presence of federal, state and municipal police and soldiers, local political leaders and functionaries cited the increasing power of organised crime and threats to their personal safety as the cause of their resignation and took a cross-partisan vote to ‘disappear’ the local authorities. Those who resigned said their decision was ‘irrevocable’, identifying the growing occurrence of executions, kidnappings and forced disappearances in recent years as the reason their work had become increasingly dangerous.[2] The case of Tancítaro is representative of many towns in Mexico whose local authorities and civic life are progressively experiencing the power of organised crime. According to official estimates, since Felipe Calderón assumed the presidency in December 2006 around 34,612 people have been killed.[3]

      Concurrent with the wave of violence resulting from the influence of drug cartels throughout Mexico has been a massive deployment of military personnel, ostensibly intended to limit or destroy the power of narcotrafficking organisations. In a significant strengthening of a bilateral strategy to take on the cartels, US President Barack Obama in 2009 signed off $1.4 billion of US taxpayer money ‑­

under the ‘Mérida Initiative’, which, according to the White House, ‘aims to strengthen regional security cooperation’.[4] Around half of these funds were intended for Central America, the Dominican Republic and Haiti; the rest for Mexico. In 2010, a further $450 million was allotted for military training and equipment for Mexico, although none of the money for the Initiative leaves the United States. As financial ‘aid’, the money is awarded to booming US security and defense contractors and to the US military for training their Mexican counterparts.

      US/Mexico policy under the rubric of the Mérida Initiative has a two-pronged approach; to arm and secure unpopular neoliberal policies, investor rights and US geo-political interests while quashing and punishing dissent and popular protest. The expansion of the illegal trade in drugs found favourable conditions under neoliberal policies post-1982 and post-NAFTA in 1994 and benefitted from a weak Partido de Acción Nacional (PAN) government post-2000. Unlike the stated intentions, the battle against organised crime functions as a pretext for implementing and maintaining unpopular bilateral neoliberal policies in a region which is increasingly rejecting the Washington Consensus.

      Originally termed Plan Mexico, the three-year Mérida Initiative is an outgrowth and replacement of the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP). The SPP, agreed by signatories of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 2005, was, according to the White House, an ‘initiative among the United States and Canada and Mexico to increase security and to enhance prosperity’.[5] The SPP was neither a treaty nor a legal agreement but an understanding between the governments of the three countries on how to protect NAFTA from supposed security threats to the three economies. Because the plan ‑­

was never signed into law, it was never debated publicly and in line with ‘anti-terror’ measures taken in the US following the 9/11 attacks, the SPP was an attempt to extend ‘Homeland Security’ to Canada and Mexico. Public documents about the SPP merge the language of protecting economic security with ‘terror’ threats, emphasising the policing and militarization of borders.

      The Mérida Initiative thus brings into law the basic parameters of the SPP. The latter was scrapped in August 2009 and the Mérida Initiative essentially acts as its replacement. Perhaps because the Initiative had to go through US Congress and was therefore much more exposed to public scrutiny, the language of protecting economic interests like the NAFTA agreement shrank back in favour of rhetoric which focused on combating organized crime, particularly Mexican drug cartels.

      Sceptics regard the programme as a process of colombianización, a version of Plan Colombia in Mexico. As a policy of drug control, Plan Colombia’s critics regard it a failure, given that cocaine production and export continue at the same level as before or have increased.[6] However, as a means of maintaining political and military dominance in the country and securing investor rights it can be viewed as something of a success.

      Under the Mérida Initiative, the US now provides Mexico with high-tech assistance in the war against organised crime cartels, yet makes no attempt to tackle the conditions which have allowed them to flourish in the last two decades. Washington’s approach to the problem focuses primarily on military means to combat social problems which it had no small part in exacerbating with the implementation of NAFTA in 1994.

      According to the US Department of State, the Initiative assures:

Armouring NAFTA

While the SPP was a plan to enhance economic prosperity for the beneficiaries of NAFTA, the introduction of neoliberal policies had a detrimental effect on the livelihoods of ordinary Mexicans. Ironically, the cartels were among the prime beneficiaries of NAFTA, and, like the maquiladora[8] plants of transnational corporations, exploited the cheap and readily available labour force and lax implementation of labour laws and capitalised on widespread corruption existent in governmental institutions, the police and the military and, like other moneyed interests, financed the campaigns of candidates in elections.[9]


      One of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign pledges had been to renegotiate NAFTA, but soon after assuming power it was clear that he would renege on such promises and thus, at the North American Summit in August 2009, the president cited the recent economic crisis as a reason for strengthening the agreement as the Mérida Initiative was implemented.

      Although the rhetoric of the SPP and latterly the Mérida Initiative emphasises combating organised crime, they have not addressed the profound inequalities in Mexico which have allowed narcotrafficking to flourish in the NAFTA-driven economy, which, while beneficial to investors, has weakened the country’s social fabric. Privatisation of publicly owned services and reductions in public spending on infrastructure and social programmes in the neoliberal period have negatively affected swathes of the population and the majority of Mexicans have seen a significant reduction in real wages and spending power.[10] Combined with the inability of Mexican farmers to compete with cheap subsidised agricultural products from abroad – a significant factor in increasing domestic migration and emigration – lack of employment opportunities and the expansion of the informal economy in the neoliberal period have created an environment in which narcotrafficking has prospered.

      For example, particularly after the introduction of NAFTA, the market price of basic foodstuffs declined dramatically. Corn producers, facing competition from subsidised US imported corn, saw prices fall by 50 per cent.[11] Additionally, funding for the subsidised CONASUPO stores, which provided a place for farmers to sell their products and for the poor to buy them, were scrapped.[12] Consequently, unable to scrape a living in rural areas, small-time farmers migrated to the urban areas, the maquiladora belt and the United States. As US ‑­

author Charles Bowden has pointed out, NAFTA had the effect of rapidly raising the already significant number of migrants crossing the US / Mexico border so that by now, ‘The migration of the Mexican poor is the largest human movement across a border on the planet’.[13] By the mid-2000s, the number of migrants had almost reached 500,000, falling more recently, according to Mexican government statistics, to around 315,000[14] thanks to the construction of the ‘security’ barrier which skirts the border and to the global financial crisis, both of which have managed to dissuade or prevent some from making the crossing.

      This rise in the number of migrants was a direct result of policies that made it harder for farmers to obtain returns on their crops, given that the NAFTA economy imported cheap subsidised foodstuffs with which Mexicans could not compete. Unlike corn, coffee and beans, illicit drugs like heroin and marijuana are much less subject to price fluctuation and consistently fetch a high price, while demand remains steady. By 2007, for example, a kilo of illicit drugs fetched 300 times more than one of maize and a kilo of marijuana or poppy was worth more than a ton of beans. Producers of marijuana and poppies could earn sixteen times more per kilo than their counterparts producing vanilla and fifty times more than almond growers. One study by the Universidad Michoacana de San Nicolás de Hidalgo suggested that of the 31 million hectares of Mexico’s arable land, as many as nine million were devoted to growing illegal drugs, while 8.2 million produced the most ancient Mexican staple, maize.[15] Under such circumstances, it is not difficult to account for the massive expansion and cultivation of illegal crops since the 1980s, given that the majority of the poor live in rural areas. In a sense, narcotraffickers merely capitalised on the opportunities provided by NAFTA and followed a free-market ideology which stressed accumulation of ‑­

profit for individual gain, the sacrosanct status of private property and fierce and ruthless competition over control, production and distribution, to the hilt.

      Although narcotics have been prevalent in Mexico since the 19th century, the level of illicit drug production and trafficking has by now reached unprecedented proportions. For example, around 90 percent of cocaine consumed in the US has been trafficked through Mexico.[16] As farmers abandon their plots to head north, migration has had the effect of opening up land for the cultivation of marijuana and poppies. Proponents of NAFTA thus bear no small responsibility for the growth of drug production in Mexico and, ironically, are those now waging the ‘War on Drugs’.

      Faced with the burgeoning unpopularity of neoliberal policies in Mexico, confirmed by the massive protests following the elections in 2006, Mexican and US business leaders and politicians were faced with an enduring dilemma; how to maintain that status quo of dependency on the country’s northern neighbour in which 85% of exports are destined for the US whence the majority of imports also originates?[17] How to maintain the economic inequalities and disparities necessary to neoliberal capitalism without heavy investment in infrastructure and social programmes? The answer has many precedents in Latin America over the course of this and the preceding century and was found in increased military spending. It is ironic that Mexico, virtually alone in Latin America in never having experienced military rule since 1911, has moved progressively towards militarization since democratisation in 2000. Yet in a climate in which the neoliberal model has been widely rejected by civil society, free-trade and militarism go hand in hand. ‘To an extent’, noted the unusually candid Thomas ‑­

Shannon, US Assistant Secretary of State under the Bush administration, ‘we’re armouring NAFTA’.[18]


Strengthening Regional Security?

Celebrating the extension of co-operation in the ‘War on Drugs’ between the two governments, President Obama stated in August 2009 at the North American Summit that, ‘I would not be committed to dealing with this if I wasn’t convinced that President Calderón had the will and the desire to protect his people from narcotraffickers’.[19] Similarly, Obama had ‘great confidence in President Calderón’s administration applying the law enforcement techniques that are necessary to curb the power of the cartels, but doing so in a way that’s consistent with human rights [...] [A]s the national police are trained, as the coordination between the military and local police officials is improved, there is going to be increased transparency and accountability and […] human rights will be observed’.[20]  

      Such pledges are unlikely to comfort residents of Tancítaro, its former public servants, and indeed the majority of Mexicans, who have witnessed a marked increase in violence since President Calderón dispatched 20,000 troops, increasing the nationwide total to around 49,000, to the areas worst affected by the violence associated with narcotrafficking, apparently to combat the influence of the cartels.[21] In a country in which the government’s own figures estimate that the number of people living in poverty and unable to fulfil basic needs has risen to 47 percent,[22] the Mexican government’s budget for counternarcotics, by 2006 had reached $5 billion.[23] Yet the gloomy picture which emerges suggests that such spending has both failed to reduce the influence of the cartels and has contributed ‑­

to the intensification of violence. As the US Department of State Mérida Initiative webpage acknowledges, a contributing factor to the escalation of violence has been the very deployment of troops to the streets: ‘Criminal organizations, under great pressure by law enforcement agencies, are behaving in increasingly violent ways’. Thus, while US funding for the Mérida Initiative is supposed to make ‘our streets safe once again from drug and gang-related crime’,[24] the same document concedes that Mexican streets have become much more dangerous.

      Despite this, advocates of the Mérida Initiative claim that this does in fact represent progress. They explain that the crackdown on the cartels has squeezed their capacity to operate relatively unhindered. As a result, they compete more fiercely and therefore more violently. According to this view, the rise in executions, forced disappearances, threats to personal safety and the continued breakdown of the social fabric in places like Ciudad Juárez and Tijuana is a sign of success, for it means that the cartels are truly feeling the heat.[25]

      While it may be true that the cartels have felt some disruption to their operations from the authorities, the production and trafficking of illicit substances is thriving in Mexico. As a United States Government Accountability Office admits, Calderón’s strategy of disrupting and hindering the trade, ‘does not appear to have significantly reduced drug trafficking’.[26]

      The ‘increasingly violent ways’ in which cartels operate are facilitated by one major aspect which US policy refuses to address. Given that the arms used by cartels overwhelmingly originate in the US, one might expect an initiative whose declared goals are to combat narcotrafficking and reduce violence would tackle the problem of illegal arms smuggling into Mexico. Consider that some ninety per cent of illegal arms seized by the authorities originate in the United States.[27] By ‑­

now, in a country of 105 million inhabitants, some fifteen million arms circulate illegally.[28]



The most notable precedent of present US policy and military aid to Mexico is Plan Colombia, initiated ostensibly to combat the production of illegal narcotics. Colombia, like Mexico, is the other major US ally in a Latin America in which civil society has demonstrated a clear rejection of the neoliberal model and US imperialism. Creating highly militarised allies in a region whose future (and therefore dependence on the US) is increasingly uncertain, is one way in which to secure investment rights and access to resources for multinational companies.

      Behind the declared goals of the Initiative would seem to be a plan intended less to combat narcotrafficking and more to maintain secure access to markets while stifling dissent and protest which potentially affect those interests.[29] Such developments have parallels and precedents elsewhere.

      In their book, Chemical Warfare in Colombia, Hugh O’Shaughnessy and Sue Branford argue that Plan Colombia failed to reduce the production of illegal crops (particularly cocaine) – levels of cultivation either stabilised or in fact increased.[30] In the interim, however, millions of Colombians were displaced, making it the country with the highest number of displaced people after Sudan. Militarization of the countryside and the growth of paramilitary organisations were used as methods of social control, again ensuring that elite interests were protected from the population while opening vacated lands to further exploitation of natural resources. Additionally, with increases in US military ‘aid’ to Colombia, the human rights situation worsened, making it the most dangerous country in which ‑­

to be a dissident, unionist or journalist in the Western hemisphere. O’Shaughnessy and Branford note that if reduction of coca production were the intended goal of Plan Colombia, it was clearly a failure.

      In the post-Cold War world in which the ideological currency of the battle against ‘communism’ has become virtually worthless, military spending to protect, enhance and promote the interests of free-trade and the geo-political interests of the US government would have been altogether unpalatable. Accordingly, the ‘War on Drugs’ and the ‘War on Terror’, have provided conveniently timed substitutes.

      Plan Colombia responded to the perceived threat of guerrilla insurgency posed by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) but also to the need for the US to bolster its dominance in the region. With the election of several left-leaning governments and the political mobilisation and organisation of marginalised groups from El Salvador to Uruguay, President Obama’s funding of seven military bases in Colombia is a significant step in attempting to rein in and intimidate Latin America’s more progressive forces. As the US’s closest ally, Mexico has become the latest battleground in assuring US hegemony throughout the hemisphere.


Strengthening Institutions of Justice?

Obama’s declaration that ‘enforcement techniques’ should be ‘consistent with human rights’ is contradicted by Mexican and foreign human rights organisations who record a strong correlation between military presence and violence against civilians.[31] They are virtually unanimous in their scepticism of increased military spending in the ‘War on Drugs’, highlighting the differences between declared ‑­

goals and the failure to eradicate the production and export of illicit substances. In May 2009, over seventy Mexican human rights and civil rights groups petitioned both governments not to push through the Mérida Initiative. They cited institutionalised corruption within the military, the sharp rise in executions, torture, arbitrary detention and sexual abuse reported by the National Human Rights Commission since Felipe Calderón had assumed the presidency and begun a crackdown on organised crime.[32]

      The Mexican state has a history of guaranteeing impunity to the military and politicians and failing to investigate human rights violations. Typically, those individuals and groups pressing for investigation into alleged abuses are met with indifference and contempt and there is little recourse for those seeking representation, as the burden of proof usually lies with the complainant. For example, in a country where the poorest sectors (which often bear the brunt of the worst violations) are those with the least education and most likely to be illiterate, in practice there are few systems in place to register complaints. Complainants themselves are thus expected to present legal evidence against the state and the military but when they do, both local and national governments place hurdles in their path.

      In an unprecedented ruling in December 2009, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights found the Mexican state guilty of the crimes of forced disappearance, extra-judicial execution and torture. The Court ruled that the present administration is, like its predecessors, guilty of human rights violations because it fails or refuses to investigate complaints made against its own security forces. It recommended that the government scrap article 57 of the military code which guarantees legal immunity to violations committed by military personnel.[33] ‑­

Human Rights Watch similarly observes that the increased military and police presence has upped human rights violations and that immunity for the perpetrators continues.[34] The continued existence of article 57 in the military code means that Mexico is almost alone as a ‘democracy’ in legally guaranteeing immunity from prosecution to soldiers involved in human rights violations.

      A study by the Universidad Iberoamericana on freedom of information in Mexico, for example, concluded that Mexico’s record was only a marginal improvement on Libya, China and North Korea, ranking it 182 out of 189 countries included in the survey.[35] Yet despite the dominant climate of impunity, the unwillingness of the authorities to investigate alleged human rights abuses, repeatedly reported by Mexican and international human rights organisations, US military aid to Mexico continues unhindered.  

      The Mexico City based human rights organisation, Centro Prodh, notes that between early 2007 and early 2009 – in correlation with the President Calderón’s deployment of troops throughout the country – human rights violations committed by the military rose by 472 percent. According to the same report, ‘the rise in abuses by the military against the population owes itself to the increase in the number of military personnel spread throughout the country as well as to impunity, thanks to the fact that the military know they can commit them without suffering any consequences’. The authors also observe that such conduct on the part of the military is becoming increasingly normalised and that, ‘within this logic and in light of the above we can suppose that during the next three years of the government of Felipe Calderón, abuses by the military against the population will continue to rise in the “war against organised crime”’.[36]


      As a result, President Obama’s optimism that ‘enforcement techniques’ will be ‘consistent with human rights’ is barely credible. In the areas worst affected by narcotrafficking, Mexican society faces intimidation and violence on two fronts; from the cartels and from the police and military. Thus, if the crackdown on organised crime is intended to increase security on the streets, funding a military whose human rights abuses are well-documented, makes little sense.


Vetting the New Police Force

Between 1993 and 2009, some 217,000 low-paid soldiers deserted the Mexican army, many of whom left with their arms.[37] Among these are former members of special elite forces and anti-drug squads trained in the US by the FBI and the DEA from which the now notorious mercenary army, Los Zetas, was formed. Having previously trained, funded and armed many Zetas, US policy has now declared war on them and increased military funding under the Mérida Initiative to that end.[38]

      Likewise, the bilateral strategy does little to account for military and police corruption. Elements of the police forces which do not work with the cartels are frequently compromised by their sheer power. Refusing to cooperate with a cartel in control of the local or regional plaza[39] can prove deadly for non-corrupt officers and their families. Those who enter the police because they have few or no qualifications and who pursue a career in the profession very often encounter the quandary of whose interests they must serve.[40] A 2008 report by the United Nations, for example, estimated between 50 and 60 percent of municipal government offices have been ‘feudalised’ by the cartels,[41] partly because soldiers and police officers can supplement or replace low pay with money from the drug ‑­

trade. In recognition of this, Calderón increased the basic soldier’s salary by 46 percent in 2007,[42] though soldiers continue to desert. Other estimates by Mexican Intelligence indicate that the majority of police forces – some 62 percent – throughout the country are either linked to or are controlled by narcotrafficking cartels and that 57 percent of the arms given to the police are used in illegal activities.[43] Likewise, reports of cooperation and mutual support between the military and narcotrafficking organisations have become more common, with the army at times opting not to destroy plantations of poppies and marijuana or actively working for narcotraffickers by protecting these crops.[44]

      Such statistics cast doubt on the effectiveness of a binational policy which increases spending on the military and the police in order to combat the cartels. As more money funnels into military training and equipment, the line between the civilian police force and the military is becoming ever more blurred. The Mexican military – with little threat of foreign invasion and a history of repressing dissent and rebellion at home – has traditionally viewed civil society as an internal enemy. Now, however, the army carries out civilian tasks previously performed by the police. In some states, like Coahuila and Nuevo León, which have the highest number of reports of human rights violations by the military, military officers command some municipal police forces and have taken charge of public security. In fact, military generals and soldiers have access to posts within the police at municipal, state and national level.[45]         

      US training of elite Latin American military and police squads has numerous precedents, constituting a bloody history of violence and repression. The notorious School of the Americas located in Fort Benning, Georgia, now renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation following negative ‑­

publicity in connection with its training of Latin American military officers in ‘counterinsurgency’ and torture techniques, is an ominous indication of what may lie in store for Mexico. Under the Mérida Initiative, explains a press release issued by the US Embassy in Mexico, Mexican federal police investigators will be trained by a ‘cadre’ of US and Colombian instructors.[46] Given Colombia’s recent history in which the security forces, in collaboration with paramilitary organizations, won the country the accolade of the worst violators of human rights in the Western hemisphere, a reasonable person might ask what military ‘training’ entails.

      With the US military overstretched in the Middle East, the Obama administration has invested heavily in training Mexican military Special Forces, firstly because deployment of US troops to the country would be massively unpopular on both sides of the border and because legally, US troops cannot serve on Mexican soil, although many FBI and DEA agents are stationed there while others cross the border to carry out investigations. Additionally, Mexico was one of twelve Latin American and Caribbean governments not to grant US military personnel immunity from a decision by the International Criminal Court which could make them vulnerable to international law.[47] Training Mexican troops to fight a war planned by the American government, ostensibly to curb the supply of illegal narcotics into the US, has the advantage allowing Washington to be seen as having no involvement in human rights violations.


Criminalising Dissent

Felipe Calderón’s narrow victory over the Party of the Democratic Revolution’s (PRD) progressive candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, in the 2006 ‑­

elections was swamped by allegations of election fraud, leading to widespread popular outcry and massive street protests. Mexicans’ experience of fraudulent elections has a long history stretching back throughout the seventy years of Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) rule. Fraudulent or otherwise, it was clear that an increasingly large electoral majority expressed dissatisfaction with the neoliberal order imposed post-1982 and by NAFTA in 1994, with most voters casting ballots against the PAN. From the perspective of high-level planners and Mexican elites, the prospect of a democratic opening which did not subordinate the demands of the population to the wealthy, to investors and US hegemony would be an alarming development.

      As elsewhere in Latin America, the legitimacy of neoliberal policies and the ‘free-market’ has met serious challenges and is being questioned by civil society and governments alike. For US and Mexican planners, ‘armouring NAFTA’, and thus furthering the interests of investors and US geo-political interests, makes sense in a Latin America which is increasingly rejecting the Washington Consensus. The formation of Mercosur, the treaty of regional economic integration spearheaded by Venezuela, the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA), the prospect of a new common currency and bank for ALBA members are all signals that US hegemony in the region is waning.

      In this context, Colombia and Mexico have received the largest amount of US aid of the Latin American countries and are also its strongest political allies. President Obama’s programme for seven military bases in Colombia reflects concerns that US political and business interests are increasingly vulnerable to new and popular civilian governments. General John Craddock, Commander of US Southern Command (South Com) articulated preoccupations about a ‑­

democratic opening in Latin America in 2006, noting that, ‘An election can present an opportunity for those with extremist views to exploit themes of nationalism, patriotism and anti-elite or anti-establishment rhetoric to win popular support’, leading to a ‘distrust and loss of faith in failed institutions [which] have also fuelled the emergence of anti-globalization and anti-free trade elements that incite violence against their own governments and their own people’.[48] In short, the concern of US planners seems more to do with economic nationalism and a rejection of the neoliberal order in Mexico and Latin America than with organised crime.

      As such, the militarization of Mexico under the rubric of ‘The War on Drugs’ can be seen as a tool with which to maintain control of an unpredictable political climate. López Obrador’s near victory in the elections in 2006 was a fitting illustration, and the unpopular Calderón government has sought to reinforce its authority by way of strengthened military capabilities. The present government is weakened by its minority share of seats in the Congress and state governorships, the majority of which are still held by the PRI.

      Since the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York in 2001, the rhetoric and justifications for sending millions of dollars in military aid to Colombia and Mexico have become increasingly murky. ‘Security’ and ‘terror’ have become so ambiguous and fluid so as to signify practically any challenge to the dominant order. Dissent and political action which oppose elite political and economic interests are frequently presented as ‘terror’ threats, regardless of their legitimacy. Duncan Hunter, Chair of the House Armed Services Committee underlined the US government’s fear about ‘unconventional threats’ in Latin America, expressing alarm about ‘extremist groups and supporters of Islamic terrorist groups,’ adding ‑­

that the US government is ‘also concerned about the possible shipment of weapons of mass destruction’.[49] In a similar vein, South Com General John Craddock associated the ‘War on Drugs’ with the ‘War on Terror’, grouping together alleged threats to US security as diverse as, ‘The transnational terrorist, the narco terrorist, the Islamic radical fundraiser and recruiter, the illicit trafficker, the money launderer, the kidnapper and the gang member’.[50] From the perspective of US geo-political interests, such statements have the advantage of delegitimizing left-of-centre challenges to the Washington Consensus by creating the impression of an association between drug traffickers, leftists, Islamic terrorists and smugglers of WMD and that they are bent on the destruction of the United States.

      In practical terms, there are signs that the ambiguous definitions of ‘terrorism’ and ‘narcotrafficking’ are leading to a criminalisation of public protest. For example, in 2009 during Operation Chihuahua, a corollary of the Mérida Initiative, in which the military replaces the local police force and occupies entire towns, soldiers targeted peasant and indigenous leaders using three year old warrants related to their leadership of anti-NAFTA protests but using the pretext of drug-trafficking. Similar charges have been brought against groups protesting against the expansion of transnational mining operations in the Sierra Madre.[51] Mexico does not have an insurgency on the scale of the FARC in Colombia, but dissidents and leaders of social movements and activist groups find themselves increasingly threatened and intimidated by the armed forces.

      Prior to the economic crisis in 1982, the corporatist state clung on to power via a tentacle-like control and co-option of groups, such as the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM) and peasant organisations, and an alliance with business elites. Many social movements had at least some political representation within ‑­

the PRI but, with weakened and dysfunctional public institutions, are increasingly opting for political alternatives which reject the state completely. When inhabitants of communal land earmarked for development in Santa María de Ostula in Michoacán in 2009 resisted attempts by local caciques and hired gangs to take control of the territory, they occupied the land and built dwellings, bypassing the local and national authorities. Military forces, predictably, were at the ready to set up detachments nearby. Santa María de Ostula is one of many rural communities resisting attempts by outside actors to use the land for development and tourism and the reaction of the state is becoming increasingly heavy-handed. Similarly, repressive intervention by military forces in Oaxaca in 2006 provided a further illustration of the authoritarian tactics used by the government to crush political challenges.

      Similarly, recent attacks on Zapatista communities in Chiapas have been justified using the language of the drug war. In June 2008, when the army raided the Zapatista communities of La Garrucha, Hermenegildo Galeana and San Alejandro in an attempt to regain land taken by activists following the 1994 uprising, they issued public statements defending their incursions by claiming they were searching for illegal drugs.[52] Such statements stretched the realms of credibility, not least because they failed to present any evidence that the Zapatistas were involved in drug trafficking, but also because both alcohol and drugs are strictly banned in those communities. Furthermore, in a country in which 15,273 people[53] were killed in incidents associated with narcotrafficking in 2010, the Zapatista controlled territory must be one of the few corners of Mexico not to be subjected to the current explosion of cartel violence.[54]


      The focus on drug trafficking in Chiapas is peculiar, given that Ciudad Juárez, on Mexico’s northern border, now the world’s most violent city, witnessed some almost 3,000 drug-related executions in 2010. In Juárez alone, the number of femicides (feminicidios) reached unprecedented levels in 2009 and 2010, a 50 percent increase on all those committed in the previous 16 years.[55]

At the same time, President Calderón’s crackdown on drug trafficking strangely correlates with the new wave of attacks on communities in Chiapas. Military attacks in Zapatista rebel territory in recent years have intensified, threatening around 800 families and 12,000 hectares of rebel-controlled land. According to Ernesto Ledesma, director of the Centre for Political Analysis and Social and Economic Investigation in San Cristóbal de las Casas, ‘we haven’t seen an offensive this intense for at least ten years’.[56] Greater military presence in Chiapas has brought with it counterpart paramilitary organisations which, according to Ledesma, the state has ‘reactivated’. ‘They are doing what the Spaniards did during the Conquest and what the ranchers and local mafias did after the Mexican Revolution’, he notes, and ‘they are dispossessing the indigenous people once again from their lands, from their territory.’[57] Much of the land now controlled by Zapatista communities is rich in biodiversity and natural resources and developers interested in expanding ecotourism and mineral and timber extraction have for some years focused on Chiapas as a potential market to be unlocked.

      Unlocking and developing those markets is likely to lead to further conflicts with the communities already inhabiting those areas. Thus, the army maintains seventy-nine bases in the state, fifty-six of which are in Zapatista territory.[58] Such bases are now occupied by special elite units and their presence serves a double ‑­

function. Some surround Zapatista communities and act as effective tools of counterinsurgency and spying. A secondary function of the military presence in Chiapas is to act as an immigration and security barrier as part of the Plan Sur and was implemented at the behest of the US government in order to prevent Central American economic asylum seekers heading north through Mexico to the US border.[59]

      In this context Mexico / US policy would appear to prioritise protecting and developing unpopular economic interests, employing heavy-handed military and police methods to deter challenges from social movements and civil society while using the Drug War as a convenient pretext.



US policy towards Mexico has been packaged as an initiative to reduce the power and violence of drug cartels, thereby rendering Mexico more ‘secure’. Yet since Calderón increased the deployment of police and members of the armed forces after taking power in 2006, formal complaints of human rights violations have increased six fold. Ciudad Juárez, on Mexico’s northern border, has now become more violent than Baghdad; indeed, it can now claim to be the world’s most violent city. A 2010 Global Peace Index study in 2010 ranks Mexico 107 of the 149 countries studied, placing it in the Latin American and Caribbean region slightly above Haiti and Guatemala.[60]

      One obvious reason for the violent tactics of the cartels relates to the prohibition of marijuana, heroin and cocaine. Because narcotrafficking has to operate illegally and clandestinely, this in turn leads to violent conflict between powerful interests competing for control of plazas. Cartels compete with each ‑­

other aggressively for plazas precisely because the industry provides such enviable profit margins. Illegality means heightened risk for the chain of producers, runners, traffickers and dealers alike, which translates into higher prices on the streets. If the US and Mexican governments were to decriminalise illegal narcotics, while stringently controlling them and providing free access to addicts, cartel profits would be severely constrained. In addition, were it not for the huge demand, the power of the Mexican cartels would fold. Although studies demonstrate that drug prevention and treatment programmes for addicts are twenty times more successful than interdiction, US policy in Mexico, as in Colombia, promises no funds for such programmes. In fact, the Bush administration, rather than extend funding to rehabilitation programmes, slashed them at the same time as the Mérida Initiative was being drafted.[61]

      The legalisation of drugs and investment in rehabilitation programmes are most unlikely, both because of their probable electoral unpopularity and because for both governments securing and maintaining economic interests seem to be a more important priority than reducing drug consumption.

      From the perspective of narcotraffickers, prohibition, while an inconvenience, is in fact extremely profitable, with the illegal industry now providing the economy with some $23 billion annually, more than remittances sent home by the millions of Mexicans in the US and perhaps even more than that generated by the national petroleum industry.[62]

The expansion of the industry in the past three decades was in part the outcome of a crackdown by the Reagan administration in the US on Colombian traffickers using the Caribbean basin as a sea and air route to land narcotics in Florida. Due to the increased risks in the 1980s, the Colombians began moving ‑­

cocaine and marijuana to their contacts in organised crime in Mexico. In turn, the Mexicans would take care of the smuggling contraband goods over the US border, thus circumventing the need for the Colombians to contend with crossing the Caribbean. At the same time, the neoliberal restructuring of the economy in Mexico pushed more workers into extreme poverty and unemployment. Already scarce, even fewer opportunities were available for unemployed young people looking to better their lot. This allowed the relatively small Mexican cartels to take advantage of an endless pool of cheap labour which was often willing to take risks for a relatively high level of remuneration. As the Mexican cartels grew and became better organised – with networks and distribution lists throughout Mexico, the Americas and now Africa and Europe – they were less dependent on their Colombian counterparts.[63]

Drug trafficking has become so huge that if the industry were to fold, Mexico could experience a financial crisis because narcotics now are now among the country’s most important export commodities. In 2001, the government Centro de Investigaciones y Seguridad Nacional (CISEN) estimated that profits from the drug industry totalled three times those of Mexico’s 500 wealthiest companies.[64]

Cartels are not the only group to benefit from prohibition. The growing private prison industry on the other side of the border makes a handsome profit from locking up addicts and dealers, with drug related convictions accounting for the highest number of prisoners, allowing the United States to boast the highest rate of incarceration and the largest prison population in the world, one in every hundred adult Americans.[65]

      Those concerned with a dignified future for Mexico, one in which human rights and social stability are vigorously protected, should be cognisant of the ‑­

conditions which allowed the illegal market in drugs to thrive. Bilateral policy addresses neither institutionalised corruption nor the socio-economic problems that have empowered drug cartels and it is doubtful whether spending on Blackhawk helicopters, surveillance equipment and training by the Colombian military will guarantee the security Obama and Calderón promise and for which residents of Tancítaro and thousands of other Mexican towns yearn.

      Perhaps one way to begin to reduce rule by drug cartels is to change the environment in which they operate, but this would mean restructuring the economy in favour of a more protectionist model, one which invests in social and infrastructure spending and which addresses the woeful economic disparities existent in a Mexico in which the world’s richest man, Carlos Slim, acquires on average $27 million every day, while the majority of Mexicans survive on less than $2 daily.[66]

      Journalist Charles Bowden points out that Ciudad Juárez, the world’s most violent city, was the precursor to and the ‘poster child of the global economy’ and that the differences between Ciudad Juárez and El Paso on the US side, essentially the same city, have to do with the effects of the global economy on each:

            El Paso is contiguous with Juárez. You can’t tell visually where one ends and         the other begins […] Both cities are essentially Mexican. El Paso is almost all

Mexican American. Why there’s a difference is there’s a rule of law. People get decent housing, people in El Paso have jobs, their electricity works, there are public schools, the water comes out of the faucet. If you want to know why this is the future it is because enough people are not being treated they way people in El Paso are and too many people are being treated the way people in Juárez are.[67]


      Free trade has been favourable to illegal and legal capitalists alike but detrimental to ordinary Mexicans and there is no indication that binational policy – which clearly does not have as its main priority the security of Mexican society – is about to reduce the power of these interests. Radical changes are indeed needed. After two years of Obama’s presidency, and a over a decade since the democratic transition in Mexico, it is apparent that such change will not come from above unless sufficient popular pressure can be exerted upon both governments to do so. One hopes that 100 years on from the outbreak of revolution, Mexico’s revolutionary spirit will strengthen and unite against policies and forces which must seem insurmountable, but which must be overcome nonetheless.





[1]Homero Lemus, ‘Renuncian alcalde y regidores de Tancítaro por temor a amenazas del crimen organizado’, La Jornada Michoacán, 5 December 2009.

[2] Ernesto Martínez Elorriaga, ‘Analizan diputados desaparecer poderes en Tancítaro, Michoacán’,

La Jornada, December 6 2009.

[3] Siddique, Haroon, ‘Mexico drug wars have killed 35,000 people in four years’, The Guardian, 13 January 2011.

[4]‘Fact Sheet: US-Mexico Discuss New Approach to Bilateral Relationship’, White House website, [Accessed, 21 February 2010]

[5]‘SPP Myths vs. Facts’, [Accessed: 25 March 2010].

[6] Hugh O’Shaughnessy and Sue Branford, Chemical Warfare in Colombia. The Costs of Coca Fumigation, London 2005, p. 2.

[7]    ‘The Merida Initiative’. Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, June 23 2009. [Accessed: 22 March 2010]

[8] Textile and assembly plants (mostly foreign owned and located in northern Mexico) characterised by poor working conditions and low pay.

[9] Ignacio Alvarado Álvarez, ‘Vulnerable, “blindaje” electoral’, El Universal , February 16 2009. 

[10]  Carlos Salas and Eduardo Zepeda, ‘Employment and Wages: Enduring the Costs of Liberalization and Economic Reform’, in Kevin Middlebrook and Eduardo Zepeda, eds., Confronting Development: Assessing Mexico’s Economic and Social Policy Challenges, Stanford 2003, pp. 522-559.

[11]  Noam Chomsky, Profit over People: Neoliberalism and the Global Order, New York 1999, p. 122.

[12]  David Bacon, 'Oaxaca's Dangerous Teachers', Dollars and Sense, September / October 2006.

[13]  Charles Bowden, ‘The War Next Door’, High Country News, March 1 2010.

[14]  Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development, 'International Migration Outlook' Paris 2008, pp. 262-263.

[15]  Ernesto Méndez, ‘Las drogas destruyen al…maíz’, Excélsior, 29 October 2007.

[16]  Stephanie Hanson, ‘Mexico’s Drug War’, Council on Foreign Relations, November 20 2008.

[17]  Laura Carlsen, ‘Armoring NAFTA: The Battleground for Mexico’s Future’, NACLA, September / October, 2008 p. 18.

[18]  Carlsen, ‘Armoring NAFTA’, p. 17.

[19]  White House Office of National Drug Control Policy,

[20]  ‘Obama Reverses Campaign Pledge to Renegotiate NAFTA’, Democracy Now, 11 August, 2009.

[21]John Gibler, Mexico Unconquered. Chronicles of Empire and Revolt, San Francisco 2009, pp. 52-53. Hugh O'Shaughnessy, ‘US waves white flag in disastrous “war on drugs”’, The Independent, 17 January 2010.

[22]  CONEVAL, ‘Pobreza por ingresos’,

[23]  ‘Mexico – Mérida Initiative Report.’ US State Department, 2009, p.1.

[24]  ‘The Merida Initiative’. Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, June 23 2009.

[25]Stratfor, Mexican Drug Cartels: Government Progress and Growing Violence, December 11 2008. United States Government Accountability Office, ‘U.S. Assistance Has Helped Mexican Counternarcotics Efforts, but the Flow of Illicit Drugs into the United States Remains High’. 25 October 2007, p. 11.

[26]  United States Government Accountability Office, ‘U.S. Assistance’, p. 11.

[27]Hugh O'Shaughnessy, ‘US Waves White Flag’, The Independent, 17 January 2010.

[28]  Laura Carlsen, "A Primer on Plan Mexico," Americas Policy Program Special Report, Washington, DC: July 10 2008, p. 6.

[29]  Laura Carlsen, ‘Armoring NAFTA’, NACLA, September / October, 2008.

[30]  Hugh O’Shaughnessy and Sue Branford, Chemical Warfare in Colombia. The Costs of Coca Fumigation, London 2005.

[31]See, for example, Human Rights Watch, Uniform Impunity. Mexico's Misuse of Military Justice to Prosecute Abuses in Counternarcotics and Public Security Operations, New York 2009 and Kristin Bricker, ‘Mexican NGOs, Brigadier General, Unite in Letter Against Plan Mexico’, The Narco News Bulletin,

[32]  ‘Sociedad amenazada. Violencia e impunidad, rostros del México actual’, Centro Prodh, Mexico City 2010, p. 90.

[33]  Peter Watt, ‘Saving History from Oblivion in Guerrero’, Monthly Review, March 2010, p.51.

[34]  Human Rights Watch, Uniform Impunity.

[35]  Charles Bowden, Down by the River, New York 2004), p. 16.

[36]  ‘Sociedad amenazada.’, Centro Prodh, p. 49. Translations by author.

[37]  José Reyez, ‘Mercenarios en el Ejército Mexicano’, Revista Contralínea 139, July 12, 2009.

[38]  Todd Miller, ‘Mexico’s Emerging Narco-State’. NACLA. July 1 2009.

[39]  Geographic and institutional (e.g., police force, local government) range controlled by cartels.

[40]  Howard Campbell, Drug War Zone, Austin 2009, pp.200-214.

[41]  Gustavo Castillo García, ‘El narco ha feudalizado 60% de los municipios, alerta ONU’, La Jornada, 26 June 2008.

[42] Claudia Herrera and Jesús Aranda Enviados, ‘Asegura Calderón que cumplió con la tropa, al aumentarle 46% el salario,’ La Jornada, 20 February 2007.

[43]  Gustavo Castillo García, ‘Controla el narco a 62% de los policías del país, dice informe’, La Jornada. 1 February, 2009.

[44]  See Charles Bowden, Down by the River, New York, 2004. Also see, ‘Narcos Also Infiltrate Mexican Military’, Narcosphere,

[45]  ‘Sociedad amenazada.’, Centro Prodh, pp. 51-52.

[46] ‘The Merida Initiative’, US Embassy, Mexico.

[47]  Grace Livingstone, America’s Backyard, London: Zed Books, 2009, p. 120.

[48]  Cited in Livingstone, p. 120.

[49]  Livingstone, 120.

[50] Livingstone, 122.

[51]  Laura Carlsen, ‘The Perils of Plan Mexico’, Counterpunch, November 24 2009.

[52]  Carlsen, Laura, ‘Armoring NAFTA’, p. 21.

[53] Siddique, ‘Mexico Drug Wars’.

[54]  Gibler, 'The Hidden Side of Mexico's Drug War: An Interview with ERPI Guerrilla Leader Commandante Ramiro', Z Magazine, October 2009, p. 41.

[55]  Villalpando, Rubén and Gustavo Castillo, ‘Registra Juárez en 2010 la cifra más alta de feminicidios en 18 años’, La Jornada, 2 January 2011.

[56]  Gibler, p. 214.

[57]  Gibler, 214.

[58]  Gibler, 216.

[59]  Raúl Delgado-Wise, 'Critical Dimensions of Mexico–US Migration under the Aegis of Neoliberalism and NAFTA', Canadian Journal of Development Studies, 25(4), 2004, p. 593.

[60]  ‘Global Peace Index, 2010’, Institute for Economics and Peace.

[61]  Laura Carlsen, ‘A Primer on Plan Mexico’.

[62]  Gibler, p. 53.

[63]  For an illuminating discussion of this process, see Dominic Streatfield’s Cocaine. A Definitive History, London: Virgin Books, 2001.

[64]  ‘The Importance of the Drug Trade in the Mexican Economy’, El Diario de Juárez, June 25 2001.

[65]  Adam Liptak, ‘1 in 100 US Adults Behind Bars’, New York Times, 28 February 2008.

[66]  Gibler, p. 98.

[67] ‘Charles Bowden Chronicles the “Murder City:” Juarez, Mexico, The Takeaway, March 23 2010,


SSincronía Fall 2011