On August 5, 2008 a group of 20 Mexican soldiers burst into the community of Santiago Lachivia, Oaxaca and fired into a crowd of residents preparing land for a community garden. Cecilio Vásquez Miguel and Venancio Olivera Ávila were killed. In the aftermath, when neither arms nor drugs turned up in the search, the anti-narcotics military unit moved on, leaving a stunned and traumatized community.
This is the war on drugs in Mexico; a “war” that abuses the civilian population, dramatically increases violence, and arguably has very little effect on the flow of illegal drugs to the largest market in the world, the United States.
Since 2006 Mexican President Felipe Calderón has engineered an offensive to take on the increasingly powerful drug cartels with direct military and police force. During this time violence related to the illicit drug trade has increased dramatically. An unprecedented 7,000 killings in Mexico since January 2008 have received the attention of many top-level U.S. officials, including President Barack Obama, who is making his first official visit to Mexico this week.
Military abuses against the civilian population, like in Santiago Lachivia, have also skyrocketed. Complaints against the military have increased over 500 percent since 2006, according to Mexico’s National Commission on Human Rights. Few have been prosecuted for their alleged crimes, including those who killed Cecilio and Venancio in Santiago Lachivia.
Nevertheless, Washington has praised and endorsed Calderón’s efforts to combat organized crime with $700 million, part of the Merida Initiative – a $1.4 billion military, police and technical aid package from the United States. This represents a ten-fold increase in “security cooperation” between the two countries.
Despite the media’s attention to drug related violence, there are deeper reasons for U.S. policymakers’ concerns about Mexico. U.S. Assistant Secretary of Western Hemisphere Affairs Thomas Shannon testified in March that further military aid to Mexico was extremely urgent because of the “current financial and economic crisis. With public sector budgets at risk, remittances declining, and job loss throughout the region, the attraction that organized crime and cartels present is obvious.” Shannon’s testimony alludes to the real issue: Mexico’s economy, ravaged now for 25 years of free market and free trade policies, is at risk of imploding under the weight of the international financial crisis.
As anyone in Santiago Lachivia, Oaxaca can testify, the economic crisis in Mexico began years ago and has been exacerbated by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Since NAFTA's implementation in 1994, small farmers have been placed in blunt competition with powerful multinational corporations that dominate Mexico’s markets. Unable to compete, these farmers are forced to leave their farms. Now 150,000 Oaxacans migrate every year to northern Mexico or to the U.S.
The impact of the international financial crisis – decreased remittances, slashed social spending and a suffering job market – leave a poor community like Santiago Lachivia on the verge of complete economic desperation. The image of soldiers firing on people in desperate poverty exposes Mexico’s current plight. The Mexican people need an economic solution, but instead they suffer the consequences of a military solution, with U.S. support.
Alfredo Montoya from the Mexican Center for Strategic International Studies in advocating for a renegotiation of NAFTA said that instead of being able to focus on the economic turmoil, “The Mexican President has been reduced to the role of a Sheriff in the U.S.’s war on drugs.”
The failed supply-side military strategy of combating drugs will not work in Mexico, like it has not in Colombia. After billions of dollars and eight years of Plan Colombia more drugs are flowing out of Colombia than before. As long as drugs are being consumed in the United States, the drug trade will not be curbed.
The Obama administration has correctly named the United States' “insatiable demand for drugs” as one of the causes of Mexico’s drug-related violence. The long term solution, however, may be found in one of President Obama’s campaign promises: a renegotiation of NAFTA.
A healthy economic situation in Mexico and a reduced demand for drugs in the United States would drastically weaken the appeal of drug cartels and organized crime. Military aid packages like the Merida Initiative would not be urgent. In fact, they probably would not be needed at all.
Todd Miller, is a member of the Witness for Peace international team based in Oaxaca, Mexico; Witness for Peace is a Washington, DC, based non-profit organization that monitors and seeks to change U.S. military and economic policy in Latin America in support of peace, justice, and sustainable economies in the region. Todd and the WFP Mexico team can be contacted at mexico(AT)witnessforpeace.org.