The Drug War Is Not Mexico's Iraq

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit to Mexico this week to chat about the war on drugs is the first major diplomatic visit since an American foreign-service worker and two consular officials' husbands were murdered on March 13, allegedly by a street gang tied to the Ciudad Juárez drug cartel. They surely won't be the last American casualties in a battle that often seems directionless and unending. When Felipe Calderón became president in 2006 and launched Mexico's drug war, he warned that things would have to get worse before they got better. Attacking the cartels would lead to a short-term spike in violence, the theory went, as the traffickers would fight over a shrinking market, after which they would no longer threaten the state. But things have only gotten worse, and now observers are starting to compare the conflict to America's war in Iraq.

This week, former U.S. drug czar Barry McCaffrey told El Universal that "Juárez is vastly more dangerous than Baghdad and Kabul ... The Mexican Army has confronted the cartels, but often the police have been scared or bought off." The weekly Proceso headlined one blistering review of the drug war "Like Vietnam, Like Iraq." Former foreign minister (and frequent NEWSWEEK contributor) Jorge Castañeda has argued that "the parallels to the Iraq war are striking."

It's not hard to explain the comparison. Both seem to have been wars of choice, launched by presidents with an excessive faith in military force and a preference for loyalists over technocrats in their cabinets. Both have tarnished the reputations of occupying armies because of abuses committed against innocent civilians. Both saw an exponential increase in violence in their first years, taking place mostly between local warlords defying the authority of the state. (The death toll in Mexico rose from 2,700 in 2007 to 5,600 in 2008 and 6,600 in 2009.) Both were led by presidents who stuck with ineffective strategies for far too long. And both have drained the treasuries and political strength of their authors. The Iraq War has cost roughly 0.9 percent of GDP per year ($128 billion), while the drug war has cost about 0.3 percent of Mexico's ($3.2 billion). Meanwhile, the latest CNN survey finds that 60 percent of Americans oppose the U.S. presence in Iraq. Similarly, according to a February poll by Buendía & Laredo, fully half of Mexico's population thinks the drug battle has made the country more dangerous, compared with just 21 percent who think it has made it safer. Mexico seems like little more than an echo.

But while this has been an effective cudgel for Calderón's critics—who say his drug war has become a quagmire—they are wrong. Not only is the drug war a simpler problem with a simpler (and more reachable) solution, but the comparison to Iraq provides more reasons for Mexico to hope than to despair.

The first point in favor of Mexico is that the drug war was not, contrary to the way it has been portrayed, launched as a war of choice in the same way Iraq was: organized crime was a genuine threat to Mexican public health and safety. Historically, Mexico was a mere transit point for narcotics. But the advent of in-kind payments by drug cartels—in which traffickers are paid with drugs instead of cash—along with the influx of dollars into the country resulting from NAFTA, has transformed it into a $1 billion annual consumption market. According to a drug survey conducted by the health ministry, over 50 percent more Mexicans are addicted to illegal drugs now—some 465,000—than in 2002. Moreover, citizens untouched by murder must still worry about widespread kidnapping and extortion, which terrorize local populations and strangle municipal economies. Residents of the worst-hit regions—including Michoacán, Chihuahua, and Tabasco, among others—would never have forgiven their president had he not tackled this issue. This was always a war of necessity.

Second, even the odds to begin with make Mexico's prospects look much better than America's in Iraq. While there is no historical precedent for the successful imposition of liberal democracy on a resistant population by military force, numerous countries have vanquished organized crime. Most notably, Colombia went from a failed narcostate to a solid, stable, and growing nation in just 15 years. If Colombia, a smaller and poorer country than Mexico (whose murder rate in 1991 was eight times higher than Mexico's today), could eliminate its drug cartels, surely Mexico can do the same.

The question is thus not whether Mexico should fight this war, but how to win it. Here the Iraqi example is encouraging. After years of poor execution, the United States snatched stability from the jaws of defeat by making two strategic shifts. First, it began supporting the Sunni Awakening movement, which transformed some of the war's most brutal insurgents into government allies. Second, it deployed a temporary troop surge, which restored a bare minimum of security to the capital. As a result, violence in Iraq plummeted, from 34,500 estimated civilian deaths in 2006 to 3,000 in 2009. Although no one would suggest that America has already triumphed, the advances there have allowed Barack Obama to shift troops from Iraq to Afghanistan.

Mexico is overdue for its own adjustments. Experts on organized crime suggest that while the country's troop and police presences are sufficient, it remains gravely lacking on other fronts. The judicial system, which is deeply corrupt and historically inefficient, has shown no capacity to prosecute, sentence, and incarcerate people arrested by security forces. The cartels' money-laundering capability remains virtually untouched, since Mexico's weak civil-asset-seizure law requires a tie to a criminal case. Intelligence and anti-corruption efforts are still insufficient: while the government has infiltrated many weaker cartels, it has struggled to penetrate the Sinaloa Federation, Mexico's largest drug-trafficking organization. And since Calderón's initial strategy relied so heavily on the military, social investment—particularly in the areas where the cartels thrive—has been scarce, providing the gangs with a highly vulnerable recruiting pool of young men who neither study nor work. (Calderón has begun to emphasize a civilian approach instead.)

These weaknesses will take many years to address, and they will require a president with a strong enough mandate to untangle the webs of protection that the narcos enjoy from politicians and businessmen at the state and local levels. But the murders of the Americans may actually help to resolve them, by creating political conditions in the United States to ramp up aid to Mexico, as it successfully did in Colombia. The American team visiting Mexico this week announced a $331 million plan to bolster law enforcement and community development in crime-ravaged regions, a small but promising start. (Total assistance to Colombia eventually topped $6 billion.) And American intelligence and security cooperation with Mexico has grown exponentially in recent years, leading to the killing or capture of a number of drug lords in recent months. If this momentum continues to build—perhaps with the disbursement of the long-delayed $900 million from the Mérida Initiative plan to fund anti-drug efforts—it could become Mexico's equivalent of the surge and a turning point in a conflict that will eventually subside.