Why Declaring ‘War’ on Mexican Drug Cartels Is a Bad Idea

[*Originally published August 2, 2017 by  The Crime Report, a publication of The Center on Media, Crime, and Justice at John Jay College

In a recent opinion piece for U.S. News & World Report, Matt Mayer proposed that Congress “declare war” on Mexican cartels in order to curb the growing number of fatal opiate overdoses of Americans.

It’s an incendiary proposal—and a dangerous one.

Not only would it be ineffective in countering cartels or reducing fatal overdoses in the U.S.; it would lead to lead to the murders of thousands more Mexican civilians, not to mention endanger the lives of American soldiers.

The drug war in Mexico has already taken a deadly toll. Between 2006 and 2015, more than 100,000 people have died as a result of narcocrime-related incidents in Mexico—many of them innocent casualties not only of turf battles among trafficking cartels but of Mexican military operations against those cartels.

This year, Mexico is on track to record its highest number of homicides since official record keeping began in 1997. The first six months of 2017 have seen a total of 12,155 homicide cases opened.

Also of concern: Violence is spreading throughout Mexico. Where previously it was concentrated in a few areas, 27 of 32 Mexican states now report an increase in homicides.

The Mexican government’s increased reliance on the military to counter the spreading power of the cartels dates from 2007, when then-Mexican President Felipe Calderón more than doubled the number of personnel assigned to domestic security and counternarcotic operations from 20,000 to 50,000.

Although a parallel investment in local economic development, neighborhood revitalization and violence-prevention helped to reduce homicides in some Mexican states, several studies suggest that localities with joint military operations actually saw an increase in homicides.

The carnage continues. Current President Enrique Peña Nieto has continued the domestic military deployment even while conceding that military measures alone have done little to curb production or consumption of illicit drugs. Yet some of his military tactics have made things even worse. His strategy of targeting top cartel leaders may have led to even more widely dispersed violence by fueling internecine battles for leadership among the groups.

A U.S. “hot war” in Mexico would not only double-down on such an ineffective and disastrous strategy, but put it on steroids.

Even leaving aside the challenge to international jurisprudence such a military intervention would present, it would add yet another point of conflict between the current U.S. administration and Mexican civil society, which is already incensed by Washington proposals to build a border wall and back out of the North American Free Trade Agreement .

And it’s a new military commitment that Americans hardly need. US military personnel are already engaged in intensive combat operations in at least five countries.

Mayer may not be concerned with the cost to Mexican society and civilians of a U.S. military intervention. His primary concern is curbing the high rate of fatal opiate overdoses in the United States. Nonetheless, U.S. military intervention in Mexico will not significantly reduce illegal drug consumption or overdose rates in the United States.

For proof, we need only look at the sustained U.S. military involvement, through “advisors” and equipment, in counternarcotic operations during the war on drugs in the 1980s and 1990s—an involvement that has had no substantial impact on demand and use reduction in our country.

There are better solutions. Anyone concerned about the opioid epidemic in the U.S., should support evidence-based harm reduction approaches. That includes greater distribution of naloxone to peers, opening drug consumption rooms, and addressing the underlying social and political factors, such as poverty, alienation and personal trauma, that drive addictive behavior.

Mexicans and other Latin American countries, such as Colombia, Costa Rica, and Uruguay have grown weary of the ineffective violence from the drug war and have supported public health-based approaches as well as drug decriminalization. In fact, Colombia, Guatemala, and Mexico united in bringing about a renewed debate on drug policy at the United Nations.

Medically supervised drug consumption rooms, for instance, exist in Canada, Europe and Australia. There are 74 in Europe alone. Such a facility in Vancouver, Canada, has had no fatal overdoses in its entire history.

Legal prescription of medical heroin has also proved useful for longtime users when other treatments have failed. Increasing access and distribution to naloxone, which is still opposed by some U.S. policymakers despite conclusive evidence that it reverses the effect of overdoses, can also have a more positive impact.

Decades of austerity measures and divestment from social safety net, economic opportunities, and health services have contributed to our current national opioid crisis.

Providing people with opportunities to earn incomes, and live in affordable housing can positively impact their health choices, including drug consumption. Reducing social and economic alienation and providing client-specific trauma-response may also help reduce drug demand.

The Mexican government is supportive of such measures. Policymakers who might be tempted by Mayer’s call to war should consider the evidence-based public policy recommendations issued under the newly launched “Instinto de Vida” (Instinct for Life) campaign, which seek to cut homicide rates in Latin America by 50%.

Our drug war has gone on for over 50 years. It hasn’t prevented the current crisis.

Opening a new, violent chapter in that war is unlikely to solve it.

Marc Krupanski is a program officer with the Public Health Program of the Open Society Foundations, where he leads the law enforcement and harm reduction portfolio. He has worked on law enforcement and security sector reform both domestically and internationally over the past 14 years. He welcomes comments from readers.

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