While López Obrador has agreed to collaborate in the murder investigation, he continues to defend his decision to not “fight fire with fire.” Rather than taking on the cartels directly like his predecessors did, the president has focused on reducing violence and organized crime by tackling the socioeconomic roots of insecurity. He is one of many politicians worldwide who have denounced the war on drugs in favor of alternatives to militarized drug and crime policing.
But abruptly terminating drug-war-related policies, at least in the near term, is not the answer to López Obrador’s security dilemma. The long and violent history of “fighting” drugs and crime in Mexico runs too deep. Hurried demilitarization risks worsening an already-precarious public security situation and ceding additional control to powerful criminal organizations.
The strategy of militarized drug policing in Mexico originated with President Richard Nixon. In 1969, Nixon launched Operation Intercept in hopes of forcing Mexico to collaborate more fully with his administration’s policies to stop the flow of drugs — one of his campaign promises. Although it technically wasn’t a full border closure, Intercept required customs agents to search every car, truck and bus entering the United States. Long delays caused a significant drop in economic activity, especially for Mexico. Only when Mexico agreed to intensify its anti-drug efforts did the United States reopen the border nearly three weeks later.
The result was a “war on drugs” in which the United States funneled increasing amounts of aid to Mexico that enhanced the enforcement capabilities of its military and police forces. Mexico’s earliest anti-drug aid requests to the United States included highly sophisticated weaponry, planes and helicopters.
In what followed, the Mexican government took ownership of U.S. anti-drug policies and highlighted the progress made in its anti-drug operations. One month after Intercept, Foreign Secretary Antonio Carrillo Flores told the Mexico City daily Excélsior that the Mexican government had increased its fight against narcotics not because of any commitments made to the United States but rather “with Mexican people and in Mexico’s interest.” That U.S.-led anti-drug policies seemed to promote rather than restrict the international drug trade seemed less important.
Yet much of Mexico’s touted progress was simply savvy rhetoric. Mexican leaders learned to use the right “war on drugs” language that appealed to U.S. counterparts while using American resources to advance their own interests in practice. In fact, drug control was never a top priority of the Mexican government. America’s developing drug war enhanced militarized policing in Mexico, but evidence suggests that Mexican political leaders used this aid to suppress domestic political dissent instead, which in time boosted the very groups trafficking drugs.
The Mexican government’s strategy backfired because in working so hard to protect its sovereignty from the United States in matters of drug control, it inadvertently ceded its sovereignty to Mexico’s earliest drug cartels, which emerged during this period.
Operation Condor, the 1975 U.S.-sponsored herbicidal eradication campaign, offers an example of how militarization led to repression while doing little to stifle the drug trade. As U.S. planes sprayed Mexican drug-producing states with powerful herbicides, the Mexican military led an intensive drug interdiction campaign on the ground. Poor communities were left vulnerable to violent abuses by Mexican authorities in their search for drugs, which included unlawful searches and seizures of homes, soldiers stealing food and cash from suspected producers, and at times, authorities opening fire on citizens.
As the U.S.-led global anti-drug campaign expanded during the 1980s, so did the Mexican Army’s role in drug policing. How deeply the strategy of militarization became embedded in narcotics policing was evident in its impact on a Mexican soldier’s career. Whereas during the 1960s, drug control was considered a nonviolent, civic action duty, by the 1980s, participation in Mexico’s increasingly violent anti-drug operations counted toward a soldier’s combat experience. This is strikingly different from the United States, where the military plays a significantly minor role in drug enforcement.
The consequences of the decades-long militarization of Mexican drug policing have been twofold. They have ensured U.S. military aid, enhancing Mexican security forces and ultimately ensuring the federal government maintains order and control, especially in drug-producing regions. But history has also shown that at times the government’s policing practices have hurt its credibility with the Mexican people. The result was that in the vicinity of the drug trade, Mexican citizens came to distrust the federal government because of abuses committed in the name of drug policing.
This mistrust means that demilitarizing too quickly would destroy an ingrained policing infrastructure and probably create a power vacuum filled by organized criminal groups. As Mexican cartels have grown more powerful, these groups at times have secured citizen support by both providing benefits to citizens that the government did not and more recently by using fear-provoking tactics against citizens.
Recent anti-drug aid given to Mexico by the United States — most prominently, the 2008 Mérida Initiative — has provided more than $3 billion dollars in equipment, training and intelligence to combat drug trafficking and organized crime in Mexico and Central America. Supporters of the agreement have praised the increased law enforcement cooperation between Mexico and the United States, the development of national training standards for the police, and the increased extraditions, most notably that of Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán in 2017. But others have criticized the Mérida Initiative’s lack of reliable metrics to determine its success as violence surges, criminal organizations intensify their efforts and human rights violations continue to be leveled against Mexican security forces.
López Obrador’s relationship to the Mérida Initiative is a reflection of his larger security dilemma. Earlier this year, he indicated he wanted to withdraw Mexico from the agreement as part of his demilitarization strategy to eschew U.S. military resources and instead focus on the economic development of Mexico and Central America. López Obrador is especially committed to creating an initiative akin to the Marshall Plan for Central America that would reduce poverty and discourage migration northward.
But the president’s development policies, while admirable, would also take years to produce results and allow violence to undermine public safety in the meantime, as recent events demonstrate.
Perhaps the most significant lesson the president has learned in recent weeks is that it’s as hard to stop a drug war as to start one. López Obrador cannot be too quick to discard the lengthy history of militarized policing in Mexico that has and continues to frame the current security climate. While his development initiatives make sense and offer a long-term solution, in the immediate term, the president must fuse them with use of his security forces, as well as the newly inaugurated 60,000-man National Guard, to maintain order with long-term development initiatives integrated gradually into the status quo.