The toll of Mexico’s drug war weighs heavily around President Felipe Calderon’s neck. Leaking political fuel from a fatal milestone - 28,000 dead since 2006 - Calderon ended a three day conference on national security with what The Los Angeles Times described as “unscripted remarks.”
"This has become an activity that defies the government,” he warned, “and even seeks to replace the state. They are trying to impose a monopoly by force of arms, and are even trying to impose their own laws... Their business is no longer just the traffic of drugs. Their business is to dominate everyone else.”
Calderon’s evaluation of the cartels’ threat may be overblown. With the cartels showing no tangible indications of weakness, even after suffering key casualties, multiplying skeptics have left Calderon few choices other than to hype the threat. The fault isn’t his alone, as his task would overwhelm most anyone, but leading with the military in a counterinsurgency decreases stability over the long-term.
Though we’re less than certain, the cartels give off an impression of commercialist and preservationist insurgents - preserving the status quo for monetary gain. Before 2006 they enjoyed relative autonomy. Now, constantly under attack, the cartels’ seek to break the state’s will to fight in order to resume business. We interpret this as different from replacing the state outright or secessionism. The cartels desire quasi-statehood inside Mexico to prevent unrestricted foreign military aggression, basically any kind of regional autonomy to continue their drug operations.
It’s hard enough to believe the cartels would be able to supplant the Mexican government and conventionally defeat the military. The cartels have amassed a frighteningly high-tech arsenal, travel in state vehicles, and Kevlar is standard attire, but they would need to unite to have any real chance, an unrealistic possibility. Replacing the state is too much additional work. Hamas knows a thing or two about getting too deep in administration.
Of course Mexico’s cartels could seek the state’s destruction too. One cannot risk assumptions, they could dream of seizing military hardware and manipulating economic laws. But total domination doesn’t appear to enjoy high odds.
Nevertheless Calderon’s remarks included significant progress. The Los Angeles Times reports, “He acknowledged the need to significantly alter the drug war strategy to include education as well as addiction and jobs programs and to involve greater segments of society, including religious groups.”
This would be the start of real counterinsurgency, a welcome admission at a time when Calderon’s strategy (and America’s) is being accused of military centricity. Calderon lashed out at critics by claiming they want to give into the cartels, but what they really want is a holistic strategy that targets all aspects of society. Calderon has made similar statements before, but he grows more obliged to deliver a change in strategy as the bodies mount. And he must convince President Barack Obama to do the same.
Most positive is Calderon’s concession that the debate on legalization be thrown open. While Calderon insists he remains opposed to legalization, Mexico already decriminalized small amounts of drugs and mulled legalization. Several officials at the national security conference had raised the issue, citing California’s decriminalization bill among other evidence, prompting Calderon to warn that Mexico’s youth could be endangered.
But Calderon's office issued a statement late Tuesday saying that he no longer opposed a debate - a debate that terrifies most US officials.
“Belying his traditional reluctance to accept any questioning of the military-focused offensive,” in The Guardian’s words, Calderon admitted, "It is a fundamental debate. You have to analyze carefully the pros and cons and key arguments on both sides."
Calderon qualified the economic impact of legalization with valid points: potential decreased prices and exporting to the international market. Price fluctuation was recently addressed in a RAND analysis that predicted up to an 80% drop in marijuana prices and a 50-100% increase in consumption. Economic impact would be minimal under these conditions, an estimated $300 million in revenue. RAND notes at the end that its analysis is inherently unpredictable, and there are reasons to doubt such a minimal impact.
A price drop doesn’t favor the cartels either.
Realistically legalization is not the answer to the American drug war, which is a more proper name for a theater that stretches from Peru to Canada. But decriminalization of marijuana in America, the major consumer, and Mexico, accompanied by social health programs, is one aspect of full-spectrum counterinsurgency. As the insurgent attempts to induce death by a thousand cuts, so too must the counterinsurgent bleed the insurgent dry prick after prick.
The White House has lauded its “new” civilian approach to Mexico when military still outpaces non-military spending. America isn’t ready for decriminalization, but it must at least prepare for the debate.