Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Numbers Don't Add Up in Mexico's Drug War

Drug Seizures are Down; Drug Production, Executions, Disappearances, and Human Rights Abuses are Up

Just a week before Mexican president Felipe Calderon completes half of his six-year term, La Jornada reports that 16,500 extrajudicial executions have occurred during his administration. 6,500 of those executions have occurred in 2009, according to La Jornada’s sources in Calderon’s cabinet.

These latest numbers mean that 2009 will be another record-breaking year in Calderon’s drug war. In just three years in office, Calderon has surpassed his predecessor Vicente Fox’s narco-murder rate for his entire term in office. It is estimated that there were anywhere between 9,000 and 13,000 drug-related murders during Fox’s six-year term. Calderon has also beaten his own record: with one month left in the year, 2009’s 6,500 executions thus far have already surpassed last year’s 6,262.

The new numbers published by La Jornada suggest that the government had previously underreported drug war deaths. The government had previously reported 2,477 deaths in 2007 and 6,262 deaths in 2008, for a grand total of 8,739 deaths in 2007 and 2008. For the official numbers to have now reached 16,500 over the course of Calderon’s administration as sources within his own cabinet now claim, 7,761 people would have had to die in 2009, not the 6,500 that his cabinet claims. That’s a discrepancy of over 1,000 executions.

The discrepancy wouldn’t lie in mafia-related disappearances (that is, where someone is kidnapped and never reappears); the government counts those separately. 3,160 people have disappeared over the course of Calderon’s administration so far. For reference, it is estimated that 95 people disappeared during Vicente Fox’s entire six-year term.

Drug Seizures Down

The skyrocketing violence in Mexico can’t even be justified by the drug war’s quantitative results. According to the US government’s International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR), drug seizures have decreased since Calderon began his war on drugs, and drug production is on the rise.

The first graph below shows heroin and opium seizures in Mexico from 2006-2008 as reported in the INCSR. Calderon deployed the first soldiers in the war on drugs in December 2006, meaning that the overwhelming majority of the results reported in 2006 occurred under the mandate of his predecessor Vicente Fox. Therefore, 2006 is presented as a base value. 2008 is the most recent year data is available from the INCSR.



The chart shows that heroin seizures have fallen steadily since Calderon declared all-out war on drugs. Opium gum seizures showed a drastic spike in 2007, the first full year of Calderon’s war, but fell by nearly half in 2008. Opium poppy eradication showed a significant dip in 2007, and even though it rose slightly in 2008, it did not recover to its 2006 levels.

As the chart below shows, marijuana seizures and eradication have also fallen. Seizures rose slightly in 2007, but they have since fallen below their 2006 numbers. According to the INCSR, marijuana eradication has experienced a steady decline since 2003; Calderon’s war has done nothing to stem this trend.



The US State Department’s Merida Initiative spending plan, published last year, suggested that if drug seizures were to decline, as is occurring now, it could signal that Calderon is winning the war on drugs. According to the spending plan:

With additional resources devoted to interdiction efforts across Mexico, it is natural to expect an initial increase in the amounts of illicit materials (drugs, weapons, bulk cash, and other contraband) seized. However, it is important to note that should these efforts prove successful, it is likely that seizures will - at some undetermined point - decrease as criminal organizations weaken and trafficking routes are disrupted.

So could reduced seizure levels mean that Calderon's strategy has weakened drug trafficking organizations to the point that their industry has been significantly disrupted as the Merida Initiative spending plan suggests? Absolutely not. As the chart below shows, the INCSR reports that drug production levels in Mexico have increased across the board since Calderon began his war on drugs. (Drug production data for 2007 is not available.)

In other words, according to the US State Department, which prepares the INCSR and is responsible for overseeing the Merida Initiative, drug seizure and eradication is on the decline in Mexico, and drug production is on the rise. This means that since Calderon began his war on drugs, more Mexican drugs are on the market, not less.

Human Rights Abuses Increase

While executions are on the rise, drug seizures are down, and drug production is up, Mexico is also experiencing an alarming increase in human rights abuses perpetrated by government agents—particularly the army—in Calderon’s war on drugs. As Mexican human rights organizations have noted, human rights violations committed by members of the armed forces have increased six-fold over the past two years. This statistic is based on complaints received by the Mexican government’s official National Human Rights Commission (CNDH).

No Mas Abusos (No More Abuses), a joint project of the Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez Human Rights Center, the Fundar Center for Analysis and Investigation, and Amnesty International’s Mexico Section, monitors human rights abuses committed by soldiers, police, and other government agents. No Mas Abusos tracked human rights complaints received by the CNDH over the past few years. Its results are as follows:

Year, Number of Complaints, and Percentage


No Mas Abusos notes that human rights complaints filed with the CNDH “doubled from 2006 to 2007, and increased by over 330% in 2008 in relation to the previous year. The pattern that the complaints received in the first six months of 2009 demonstrate, which allows us to estimate the tendency for the entire year, indicate that [in 2009] we will see another significant increase in human rights complaints.” No Mas Abusos notes that, “It should be pointed out that the data presented in this edition of the No Mas Abusos bulletin only represents a partial percentage of the total number of victims of military abuses in the whole country.” This is because the data is based on complaints received by the CNDH, a government agency, and not all abuses result in formal complaints, either due to fear of retaliation of a lack of faith in the efficacy of filing complaints with the CNDH.

Is the Drug War Worth It?

The drug war in Mexico is a failure by all measures: security, human rights, and drug interdiction.

The Mexican government, on some level, seems to be realizing this. It announced in July that it would scale back the military’s involvement in day-to-day policing activities in Ciudad Juarez. Up until that point, Ciudad Juarez was “the Calderon-style laboratory for combating criminal organizations,” with soldiers taking over the majority of policing activities from local police. It was an experiment that went terribly wrong.

In July, the Chihuahua state Secretary of Public Security, Víctor Valencia de los Santos, and federal Public Security Secretary Genaro García Luna made the decision to scale back the military’s role in Ciudad Juarez because “the thousands of soldiers and municipal police have not done anything other than march through the whole city daily, and that surveillance strategy has not produced results other than ‘it winds up being too expensive in terms of gasoline and diesel consumption alone.’ All that in addition to the costs of feeding and housing the troops that come from other parts of the country.”

But now the military’s role in Ciudad Juarez won’t just be scaled back: Juarez’s Board of Regents has decided to remove the military entirely from the city. La Jornada reports: “Leopoldo Canizales of the Institutional Revolution Party (PRI) said that a study of the Military’s cost-effectiveness in no way favors the soldiers. The expected results have not been delivered because crime, murders, kidnappings, extortion, car thievery, and other crimes continue to increase.” According to local officials, in just eight months the city government has spent well over $14.5 million pesos ($1.3 million dollars) to sustain the military occupation. Furthermore, over a thousand complaints have been filed against soldiers and federal police in Juarez alone since January 2008; the majority of the complaints are for property damage and bodily harm. Faced with these facts, the Board of Regents decided to not renew the city’s contract with the defense department.

The drug war’s utter failure has led Mexico’s former Secretary of Foreign Relations, Jorge G. Castañeda, to call on the government “to reestablish the tacit modus vivendi agreement [a truce based on an agreement to disagree] that it had with the drug cartels because the policy of total confrontation with those organizations has not succeeded in stopping the violence,” reports El Universal.

Nonetheless, the drug war wages full-force in other parts of Mexico, and the United States government has not taken concrete actions to change the course of its involvement in Mexico’s drug war. The Obama administration will fully fund the military-heavy Merida Initiative, a plan conceived by Calderon and former US president George W. Bush to wage war on organized crime in Mexico. US Ambassador to Mexico Carlos Pascual announced that the US plans to continue funding the Initiative past its 2010 expiration date, but without its controversial name.

Chihuahua state congressman Victor Quintana argues that the US continues to wage and fund a failed war because it doesn’t have to suffer the consequences like Mexico does: "The United States doesn't feel the effects, because it has a hypocritical position. It is one of the biggest drug markets and at the same time one of the biggest sources of drug traffickers' weapons, and it doesn't pay the costs of that. It only enjoys the benefits of money laundering and drug trafficking."


Originally published in Narco News on November 29, 2009.

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