Whether measured by increased public safety, reduced supply of illegal drugs on the US market or the dismantling of trafficking organizations, the war on drugs in Mexico is failing. It has been four years since President Felipe Calderón announced the offensive and sent tens of thousands of soldiers into the streets. The results are at least 28,000 drug war–related homicides and thousands of complaints of human rights abuses by police and armed forces. Arrests of drug kingpins and lesser figures have set off violent turf wars, with no discernible effect on illicit flows. The murder of politicians, threats to civilians and disruption of daily life have furthered the downward spiral.

None of this should come as a surprise. Although Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has held up Plan Colombia as a model for Mexico, the drug war didn’t work there either. A decade and $7 billion after Plan Colombia began, regional drug production remains stable, and small paramilitary groups have replaced the large cartels as traffickers. Violent crime has dropped, but corruption has deepened. Diplomatic relations have been affected, as many neighboring nations consider US military involvement in Colombia a threat to regional self-determination.

Despite these results, on March 23 Clinton announced plans to extend indefinitely the $1.3 billion Mérida Initiative, the Bush-era funding and training program for the Mexican drug war modeled on Plan Colombia. The administration has requested $310 million for Mexico under the initiative in the 2011 budget. The problem is, the drug war is not underfunded; it’s unwinnable. As long as a lucrative market exists, the cartels will find a way to serve it. But that doesn’t mean we have to resign ourselves to the unbridled power of the cartels. Rethinking the drug war is not tantamount to surrender. Here are a few key elements of an alternative strategy:

§ Follow the money. If we’re serious about weakening the cartels, it’s time to get serious about cracking down on illicit financial flows—even when it affects powerful interests.

§ Increase funding for treatment. Approaching illegal drug use as a health issue is a win-win strategy. Education teaches young people the costs of addiction and abuse, and treatment and harm-reduction programs can improve lives and reduce costs to society, as well as cut demand for illicit substances.

§ End prohibition, beginning with marijuana. Without the billions in revenue that pot provides, cartels would have fewer resources to recruit youth, buy arms and corrupt politicians.

§ Give communities a role besides "victim." As Mexican funds and US aid have been diverted to the drug war, social programs in Mexico have been severely cut back. This is exactly backward. Strong communities—ones with jobs, ample educational opportunities and coverage of basic needs and services—are well equipped to resist the infiltration of organized crime.

Read more from our special forum on drug policy reform:

Ethan Nadelmann, "Breaking the Taboo"
Marc Mauer, "Beyond the Fair Sentencing Act"
Bruce Western, "Decriminalizing Poverty"
Tracy Velázquez, "The Verdict on Drug Courts"
David Cole, "Restoring Lost Liberties"