The Skeptics

Grasping at Straws: The Mexican Government’s Latest Spin on Drug Violence

On January 11, the attorney general’s office in Mexico City released the latest casualty figures in the government’s war against the drug cartels. Most people would regard the news as thoroughly depressing. The AGO’s statement confirmed that there had been 47,515 drug-related killings from December 2006—when President Felipe Calderón gave the army the lead role in attacking the cartels—through September 2011. During the first nine months of 2011 alone, 12,903 people died in the violence. That figure compared to 11,583 during the same period in 2010.

So, not only is the carnage taking place at an alarming pace, but the annual toll is getting worse. According to the Mexican government, though, the news is actually somewhat encouraging. Why? Because, as the AGO statement stresses:

It’s the first year (since 2006) that the homicide rate increase has been lower compared to previous years. (Emphasis added.)

In other words, the already-terrible situation may be getting worse, but it is getting worse at a slower pace than in recent years. And that is supposedly good news.

It is truly a case of grasping at straws when Mexican authorities have to cite that development as the principal sign of progress in the war against the drug cartels. But it’s hardly the first time that officials in the Calderón administration have whistled past the graveyard when it came to the drug war.

The attorney general’s office even seems miffed that journalists and other analysts focus so much attention on the overall death toll. The most important thing, the AGO statement insisted, is “to guarantee that each killing is investigated.” That spin is not likely to work either. An Associated Press reporter noted dryly that “records show few of the killings have been investigated.”

At almost the same time the AGO’s statement was released in Mexico City, the U.S. Treasury Department declared that Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán, the leader of the Sinaloa cartel, was the most powerful and dangerous drug trafficker in the world. The reality is that El Chapo is not only the most powerful drug trafficker, he is one of the most powerful individuals in the world, period. Any doubt on that score vanished when Forbes magazine once again included him on its list of the world’s wealthiest people, with an estimated fortune of $1 billion. Guzmán has been on that list continuously since 2009.

The Mexican government’s optimistic version to the contrary, several of the drug cartels in Mexico are flourishing. Indeed, they are rapidly expanding their operations into Central America and elsewhere, posing a serious threat to the viability of those countries. And the level of violence in Mexico itself is getting worse, not better. Mexican—and U.S.—authorities need to abandon a policy that consists primarily of denying unpleasant realities.

The Calderón administration’s strategy of waging war on the cartels has failed—as has the entire drug prohibition model that Washington has pushed for decades. It is well past time to try a different approach.

Image: Senado de la República de México.