Mexico’s New President and the War on Drugs

Mexico elected a new president last week, Enrique Pena Nieto. Mexico is the most important bilateral relationship to the United States, but Mexico’s politics and economics receive less attention from the American people and in the American press than it should — so blog about it I will!

Nieto recently did a sit-down interview after his victory in which he says he wants to tweak Calderon’s anti-drug strategy, but mainly stay the course. He cites the success of Colombia and — like so many in Latin America, the United States, and Europe — he sees the dogged persistence and strategies of President Uribe in Colombia as cause for inspiration.

But exporting the Colombia strategy to the rest of Latin America has been tried and hasn’t worked. Washington Monthly in January published a good piece on Mexico, Colombia, Uribe, Plan Colombia and why Colombia’s war on drugs strategy has failed in Mexico. One excerpt:

At a very basic level, Colombia circa 2002 faced a very different set of problems than what Mexico faces today—and Uribe’s “democratic security” strategy was tailored to the former. Drug trafficking was linked to an armed insurgency that, however corrupted over the years, still rested on an ideology and concrete political goals. FARC and the paramilitaries both cared about territory for its own sake. Mexican cartels, on the other hand, are less bothered by symbolic gains and are happy to operate near or even within state institutions.

The very natures of the two states are different as well. “Colombia had never been in control of its territory, so the real challenge was to assert state authority for the first time,” explains Shannon O’Neil of the Council on Foreign Relations. “In Mexico, that’s not the problem. The government has a presence in every small municipality; the question is, who do they report to? It’s a very different challenge; Mexico’s challenge is corruption.”

Before we can draw lessons from something else, we have to make sure it’s actually analogous. Colombia and Mexico are both countries. They both have drug traffiking problems (which of course are fueled in part by the insatiable American demand for those drugs). But it’s still apples to oranges with respect to how the countries deal with the problem.

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Bret Stephens, who’s smart and, I should say, very funny in person, says in his most recent column that we shouldn’t forget the enormous strides Mexico has made to becoming a stable democracy–the fact that we don’t talk about it shows how far they’ve come.

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