Washington has begun the annual spring drug certification ritual. First came the press speculation about whether the President would certify Mexico and Colombia to have been good allies in the drug war (he did), and then stories about whether Congress would vote to overturn the President’s decision and impose economic sanctions. Arguing in support of certification, State Department officials paint a picture of Mexican progress in curbing the drug traffic that enables them to protect key bilateral relations on issues like trade, investment, loans and immigration. Those opposed to certification range from hard-line drug warriors like House Speaker Dennis Hastert to anti-NAFTA liberal Democrats. Long-term observers see the drama as so much sound and fury. After all, Mexico has never been decertified.
The important story behind certification, however, is that regardless of who wins the annual debate, its effect is to spur a steady and troubling escalation of a drug war that threatens democracy in Mexico while failing to curb the flow of drugs into the United States. As this year’s certification debate got under way in February, Mexican officials predictably committed to a $400 million expansion of their drug-interdiction efforts.
Four years ago President Ernesto Zedillo responded to US pressure by calling in the military to replace the civilian police, widely seen as corrupt. In December 1996 generals were put in charge of the Federal Judicial Police, the National Institute to Combat Drugs and the Center for the Planning of Drug Control. Military personnel have occupied top law-enforcement posts in two-thirds of Mexico’s states. Overall, some 40 percent of the 180,000-member army is reportedly working on drug control.
This new role for the military in internal affairs is particularly troubling, given the tenuous transition to electoral democracy now under way in Mexico. If challenges to the seven-decade monopoly by the ruling PRI succeed in bringing reformers to power, they could confront a military that will be hard to hold accountable to civilian authorities and the rule of law.
If an emboldened military is a threat to Mexican democracy, one that is corrupt as well is a far more serious concern. Defense Ministry files revealed in 1997 that ten generals and twenty-two officers were under investigation for alleged ties to traffickers. Things have worsened since. Three elite Mexican agencies established last year and given US training and financing may have already been infiltrated by drug traffickers. The names of fifteen officers from the US-trained Organized Crime Unit within the Mexican Attorney General’s office were found in documents seized from drug traffickers in mid-1998; five were fired when they failed lie-detector tests. The Organized Crime Unit was created with much fanfare after the chief of the previous drug enforcement agency, Gen. Jesús Gutiérrez Rebollo, was arrested in 1997 for selling protection to a powerful drug lord. Gutiérrez had been brought in to rebuild the previous antidrug agency–which had been created to replace its corrupt predecessor.
The pattern of systematic and deepening corruption is a result of the extraordinary profits of the drug trade, which entice counternarcotics forces to “trade” enforcement for a share of the take. Even US agents are regularly drawn into the trade–a point underlined by a recent report by the US Customs Service of 180 cases of corruption in 1997. And the more efficient the Mexican police and military become because of US training, the better able they are to track and find traffickers, and the higher the bribes they can extract for nonenforcement. The cartels spend an estimated $500 million a year on bribery in Mexico and still make billions. The militarization and corruption US policy promotes in Mexico is for naught. The black market created by the drug war dooms the strategy.
The policy’s success in increasing the cost of trafficking has raised US street prices to as much as ten times the production costs in Latin America, generating huge profits for producers and traffickers. Like rational capitalists, they respond to distribution problems by increasing supply, writing off the costs of interdiction and creating new routes to meet demand. Steady US demand and unlimited foreign supply insures the US price is never high enough to significantly reduce consumption and addiction at home.
The certification debate may be empty, but it is anything but benign. The escalation it fuels could help foster a southern neighbor with a civilian government unable to control a powerful and corrupt military. The debate distracts us from facing the flaws in US drug strategy. Fighting drug abuse and addiction at home with a foreign war against drug suppliers is bad policy that can only make bad neighbors.