Mexico has begun taking steps to promote international cooperation in its fight to manage heroin production and the drug trade’s related criminal enterprises. This is being lauded by many as a positive shift, both toward putting an end to the cartels and toward better Mexican-American relations in a time when both issues loom large. Let’s not forget, however, that Mexico’s track record in controlling organized crime is, at best, riddled with failure and well-meaning incompetence and, at worst, marred by corruption and human rights abuse.
Last week, the Mexican army flew a contingent of U.S. military officers, UN observers and embassy officials into Sinaloa and Chihuahua. These Mexican states proved ideal for opium and marijuana cultivation and birthed the infamous Sinaloa Cartel. Officials and UN observers were there to witness the destruction of fields of poppies. It was the first time Mexico had allowed observers to witness their narcoguerra or war on drugs firsthand.
Michael O’Boyle wrote a Reuters exclusive covering the trip. O’Boyle explains that the Mexican army is attempting to gain recognition from Washington and Mexico for its efforts. He pointed out that it, “Coincides with high-level bilateral talks between Mexico and the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump about how to stem the flow of heroin north into the United States and guns and money south into Mexico.” O’Boyle also quoted a Mexican military expert in Washington, who called the move a “big development.”
The reason the Mexican military needed to address doubts in Washington is due to the fact that the U.S. has poured approximately $2.5 billion dollars since 2008 into activities designed to aid their war on the heroin trade and have yet to see much return. These funds have primarily come through a programme called the Mérida Initiative, which focuses on building the capacity of Mexican federal agencies by providing training, arms and equipment. The initiative also works to embrace community policing strategies and stimulates education and employment opportunities for at-risk youth.
However, many individuals have been suspicious of the efficacy or even motivation behind Mexico’s narcoguerra. In an interview with the Daily Beast, Laura Carlsen, director of the Americas Program of the Center for International Policy in Mexico City, says the Mexican government “can’t defeat the cartels militarily.”
There are two flaws in the current plan, she says. First, organized crime is “too lucrative.” Whenever a kingpin is eliminated, the potential rewards of the drug industry are great enough that a new leader quickly emerges to take their place. Second, “the military can’t defeat the drug cartels,” says Carlsen, “because it doesn’t want to. Police and military are often complicit with drug traffickers.”
Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) sources went so far as to tell Jack Anderson and Jan Moller at the Washington Post, “When [Mexican soldiers are] flying in planes and helicopters over the poppy fields of Baborigame, they no longer spray crop-killing herbicides. Now, they spray water and fertilizer.”
This theory is somewhat backed by U.S. estimates of Mexico’s poppy cultivation, which is based on satellite images of the fields. According to them, Mexican poppy cultivation has more than doubled since 2013 to around 28,000 hectares as of 2015. That would be enough to produce around 70 tonnes of heroin. According to the Mexican army, in that same period, they destroyed 25,960 hectares of opium fields.
Given that it only takes two to three months for opium poppies to grow from seed to a harvestable product, the two stories don’t explicitly contradict one another. It does, however, seem suspicious that such a dramatic spread in poppy fields was allowed to continue.
The corruption also occurs at a higher level, like the case of former state prosecutor, Edgar Veytía. Veytía was the prosecutor for Nayarit, a state which seemed immune to the drug-fuelled violence that gripped much of Mexico. In 2016, it ranked at No. 2 on the Mexico Peace Index, a survey by the Institute for Economics and Peace think tank. It also showed the largest improvement of any state between 2011 and 2013, according to the index.
Unfortunately, it was revealed last week that Veytía himself was a drug trafficker who had been carrying heroin to San Diego every fortnight on his regular trips to visit family. This arrest has raised suspicions that Veytía was working with the mafia and acting to cover up their crimes.
In addition to this inefficacy and corruption, there have been widespread and frequent allegations of human rights abuses by soldiers against Mexican citizens. As of July 2016, Human Rights Watch reports that the National Human Rights Commission in Mexico had received almost 10,000 complaints of abuse by the army since 2006. More than 2,000 of those occurred during the current administration, which promised to put an end to such atrocities. Until 2014, these accusations were also handled entirely by the military’s own justice system, which routinely failed to hold members of the military accountable. While that has now changed, the process is still incredibly slow and convictions are rare. Of those 10,000 complaints, approximately 100 have resulted in convictions of military personnel.
The 2017 Human Rights Watch report on Mexico also states: “Torture is widely practiced in Mexico to obtain confessions and extract information. It is most frequently applied in the period between when victims are detained, often arbitrarily, and when they are handed over to civilian prosecutors, a period in which they are often held incommunicado at military bases or illegal detention sites. Common torture techniques include beatings, waterboarding, electric shocks, and sexual abuse.” In one case, roughly 80% of suspects detained by the Mexican army showed injuries consistent with ill treatment and torture.
At this point, Mexico needs international funding and support to help fund their continuing struggles against the cartels who profit from the heroin trade. If Mexico is able to destroy more of their poppy fields, the United States will see less heroin and fewer drug traffickers heading across their border. They shouldn’t, however, allow themselves to be fooled by the propaganda tours that Mexico is currently facilitating. There are deep flaws in the strategy and execution of the narcoguerra that need to be considered carefully and can’t be solved simply by throwing more money at the problem.