But Fox seems to better reflect the trend in public and even elite opinion than does Calderón. Several developments indicate that Fox is hardly the only member of Mexico’s political elite who wants a drastic policy change regarding the drug war. A 2010 report by the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, the roster of which included more than a dozen former political leaders, diplomats and other dignitaries, strongly criticized the war on drugs. Three leaders of that commission, including former Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo, subsequently published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. They stated their thesis categorically. “The war on drugs has failed,” adding that “Prohibitionist policies based on eradication, interdiction and criminalization of consumption simply haven’t worked. Violence and the organized crime associated with the narcotics trade remain critical problems in our countries.”
Zedillo’s byline on that op-ed piece—and his signature on an even more prestigious report published in June 2011 by the Global Commission on Drug Policy—is one more indication that disenchantment with the drug war is growing within Mexico’s political elite. The PRD, the third major party in Mexico’s triangular political competition, has called for drug legalization. Santiago Creel, a leading presidential candidate of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which ruled Mexico for more than seven decades before Vicente Fox’s 2000 administration and is heavily favored to defeat the PAN in the July 2012 elections, recently stated that he would withdraw the army from the fight against the drug cartels if he became president.
Ironically, as disenchantment with Calderón’s war on drugs grows in Mexico, U.S. government support for that approach seems to intensify. Not only has the Obama administration continued to fund the multi-billion-dollar Mérida Initiative, first adopted in 2007, but U.S. intelligence agencies have provided information to Mexican security forces for raids against high-profile cartel leaders. Recently, there are indications of a trend toward far more direct measures. The administration has allowed Mexican police and military commandos to use U.S. territory as staging areas for raids on cartel targets back inside Mexico. The most graphic example of widening U.S. support for Calderón’s strategy was the confirmation in March 2011 that U.S. Predator and Global Hawk drones were flying over Mexican territory in an effort to locate suspected drug traffickers and track their movements. What especially upset critics in Mexico’s legislature and much of the news media was that those drones had been operating for at least two years, without anyone outside the Calderón administration being informed.
Brad Barker, president of HALO Corporation, a private security firm that was involved in the drone program, may have inadvertently revealed just how extensive Washington’s involvement inside Mexico has become. Noting that his firm and others were tracking both vehicles and people, Barker stated: “There’s been a huge spike in agents down there.”
That is a risky strategy. Given the renowned nationalist sensitivities of the Mexican people, such heavy-handed support for a hard-line strategy against the cartels could cause major problems in bilateral relations. That is even more likely if Washington’s policy preferences and public opinion in Mexico are moving in opposite directions regarding the wisdom of waging a vigorous drug war. U.S. leaders need to be far more cognizant of the trend in attitudes in Mexico. Calderón’s presidency comes to an end next autumn, and Washington could easily find itself out on a limb, backing a policy that no longer enjoys the support of either the Mexican people or the country’s new leadership team.
Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, is the author of eight books on international affairs. His latest book, The Fire Next Door: Mexico’s Drug Violence and the Danger to America is forthcoming in 2012.