Calderon Needs to Get Mexicans on Board Drug Fight

By Marcela Sanchez
Special to
Friday, July 4, 2008; 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- Despite the killings of those combating the illegal drug trade, the corruptive influence of drug money and the sense that in some parts of the country drug dealers have the last word, Mexico is not Colombia, although the two are frequently held up for comparison.

Having said that, Mexico today has a population plagued by a sense of resignation, defeatism and skepticism -- as was the case in Colombia in the 1980s and '90s. Several polls taken early last month found that more than 50 percent of Mexicans believe drug traffickers have gotten the upper hand on the government, and one-third said they are willing to tolerate drug trafficking if violence were to decline. These figures suggest, as the polling firm Parametria concluded, that "Mexicans are starting to lose faith that the state can win in the war against organized crime."

This doesn't bode well for Mexican President Felipe Calderon and his 18-month-old offensive against drug traffickers. As civilian and law enforcement deaths mount, Mexicans and their government have yet to form a united front. Some try to ignore the lawlessness, some see the problem as strictly one for law enforcement, while others glamorize the criminals through narco corridos, or drug ballads.

According to Jay Cope, a retired U.S. Army colonel and Latin American security expert at the National Defense University here, Mexico is "never going to get this solved unless the people believe their government actually can protect them, and unless the people realize they must be part of this effort." Despite his own reluctance to compare the two countries, Cope added that "in most of Colombia today ... the people feel they are part of the solution and that's what we don't see in Central America or in Mexico."

The good news is that change is possible. Colombia's police and military are popular institutions today, sometimes even ranking above the Roman Catholic Church. A decade ago, according to Gallup Colombia, only 34 percent of Colombians believed the military was capable of defeating the country's leftist guerrillas, who were largely financed by drug trafficking. As of March this year, that number had more than doubled to 75 percent, a number about to jump even higher with this week's astonishing news of the military rescue of 15 hostages long held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

With increased respect for the country's security forces, Colombia's public conscience also began to shift. By the time President Alvaro Uribe came to office in 2002, wealthy Colombians were willing to pay a war tax, which they continue to do without protest. Collaboration with the authorities also increased among all segments of the population. Most recently, mass demonstrations have underscored the rejection of criminal activity, said Rafael Nieto, former deputy minister of justice.

In the battle for the hearts and minds of the population, Uribe's recognition of the state's shortcomings was also crucial, said Cope, author of a forthcoming book about the president's democratic security strategy. "Uribe accepted the reality that there were areas in Colombia where the central government was not in control, or even present," he said. "Mexicans have been less willing to discuss the absence of control in many parts of their country."

It is true that Mexico has no huge swath of land outside official control, as did Colombia when the FARC ran a territory the size of Switzerland not long ago. Still, Adam Isacson of the Center for International Policy in Washington, wonders whether there is much difference between the FARC and a drug cartel in the Mexican state of Sinaloa when it comes to the needs of the population in areas where they operate. "The Mexican state should be dealing with this as a problem of state weakness and not just saying we will take these few dozen guys out and everything will be better," he said.

Somehow the Mexican government must address the weakness sown by decades of public distrust in law enforcement and other public institutions. The Merida Initiative -- a $1.4 billion U.S. aid package to support Mexico's anti-drug effort, the first installment signed by President Bush on Monday -- might be of some help, particularly through a condition that calls for more frequent and open consultation between the Mexican government and civil society groups.

Such dialogue would be an essential first step in a long -- but doable -- campaign to convince Mexicans that they need to be part of the solution.

Marcela Sanchez's e-mail address is

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