US and Mexico: A "Common Future"

by Bret Kincaid

She said it like it is. "Our insatiable demand for illegal drugs fuels the drug trade," Secretary of State Clinton told reporters during her diplomatic trip to Mexico a couple of weeks ago.  She put blame solidly on the US side of the border when she admitted what many Americans have known for decades.  Clinton made the trip early in her tenure as secretary of state to address tense US-Mexico relations.  At least three issues have raised tensions: (1) The US is preventing Mexican trucks from delivering goods in the US in violation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA); (2) immigration; and (3) most deadly, the recent rapid rise of drug-related violence in northern Mexico and the threat of it spilling over the US-Mexico border.  These and other US-Mexico issues are so important that President Obama also plans to make a diplomatic trip to Mexico later this month.

Conflict related to drug trafficking in Mexico has been especially bloody.  In the past 15 months, the Mexican drug cartels ( have murdered over 7,000 people with impunity.  Although President Felipe Calderon has dispatched some 45,000 troops and 5,000 police to fight this "drug war," his effort to bring the powerful cartels under control is undercut by the heavy armaments of the cartels (fueled by a very lucrative illicit arms trade with US suppliers), a police force riddled with corruption working against his efforts, and an equally corrupt judicial system that, according to one prominent 2002 study, successfully prosecutes less than 5% of reported crimes.  To the chagrin of Mexican officials, the US Joint Forces Command has compared Mexico to Pakistan by claiming that though Mexico isn't as unstable as Pakistan, much of Mexico's government is "under sustained assault and pressure by criminal gangs and drug cartels." (

It is tempting to address this spike in violence with force.  Indeed, the three-year Merida Initiative, signed into law last June, allocates hundreds of millions of dollars to help the Mexican military and police fight the drug kingpins.  And President Obama has pledged an additional $80 million in Blackhawk helicopters. (  Unfortunately, throwing money in the direction of a force-based approach risks much of it being wasted by the black hole of corruption, not to mention fueling the current increase in human rights abuses by Mexican security forces.

It is encouraging that the Merida Initiative is not completely short-sighted.  It seems about 60% of the monies are dedicated to strengthening civil agencies like the police force and judicial institutions.  Still, in her recent testimony about the Merida Initiative during congressional hearings, Joy Olson, executive director of the Washington Office on Latin America, worried that the US wasn't doing enough on its side of the border. (  She encouraged two things that the US could address domestically: (1) its "insatiable" demand for illicit drugs; and (2) its illicit black market arms trade with Mexican drug cartels.  In addition, the US, according to Ms. Olson, should invest much more in institutional reforms in Mexico's police and judicial systems that can lead to the rights respecting arrest and prosecution of drug traffickers."  The amount of money currently devoted to these institutional reforms in the Merida Initiative, however, pales in comparison to overwhelming influence of the $25 billion-plus drug trafficking industry in Mexico.

These are reasonable and hopeful policy recommendations.  Let's ask our members of Congress to get our house in order first by helping Americans who struggle with drug addiction to receive quality, long-term drug treatment as well as cracking down on arms buyers who are shipping weapons to Mexican drug kingpins.  Furthermore, let's ask our senators and representatives to put more resources into the already on-going bilateral work to reform Mexican police and judicial institutions.

Bret Kincaid is associate professor of political science at Eastern University in St. Davids, PA.


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