A power factor that the Mexican president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, will have to deal with in the heterodox strategy he plans to implement to combat violence and drug trafficking is the government headed by President Donald Trump in the United States. Not only because the US president conceives the fight against drugs as a war that has one of its main scenarios on the border with Mexico, but because several key officials in the area of security and justice are at odds with the anti-drug policy proposed by López Obrador. The future Mexican president is in favour of addressing the issue with a preventive, public health approach and with elements of restorative justice.
This should sound like a claudication to Trump and his “hawks”, who insist on maintaining the failed strategy against narcotics that President Richard Nixon launched more than half a century ago -which puts the accent on repression- and whose results are disappointing: it has not managed to reduce neither the consumption nor the production of drugs. On the contrary, the United States continues to be the world’s largest consumer of narcotics, not only traditional ones, such as marijuana, cocaine and heroin but a wide variety of designer drugs that can be manufactured at home and chemical products such as oxycodone, a synthetic opiate produced mostly in China.
In contrast to the flexibility shown by President Barack Obama to at least discuss at the hemispheric level the advisability of maintaining repressive and prohibitionist anti-drug policies that have aggravated the problem of consumption and have caused several thousand deaths in Mexico, Colombia and Central America, Trump proposes more hard hand to face the problem. Last March, he even proposed applying the death penalty to drug traffickers and ensured in every epic: “I will win this battle”. But the war on drugs has already sufficiently demonstrated its failure.
In Mexico, Felipe Calderón, the president who declared war on drug trafficking, lost it incontrovertibly. During his presidency (2006-2012), homicides increased by 102 per cent in relation to that of his predecessor, Vicente Fox, and the drug cartels achieved unprecedented territorial control. And after Calderón lost the war, and left a country with 121,613 dead and 24,956 missing -according to the National Registry of Data of Missing or Missing Persons (RNPED)-, Enrique Peña Nieto maintained the same strategy.
The result is that in the last twelve years there have been 257,556 homicides, one every 25 minutes on average, according to figures from Inegi and the National Public Security System. The phenomenon that the last two presidents of Mexico set out to fight with a heavy hand and Army and Navy troops in the streets worsened and placed the phenomenon of violence like the one of greatest concern for Mexicans.
This strategy had the full backing of the United States and its security agencies, which played an unprecedented role in Mexico, although not always transparent in the face of public opinion. Now that López Obrador proposes to try different policies against drugs and encourages a national debate to seek approaches that reduce violence, Washington has been sceptical, cautious and reluctant to support the new strategy. The next secretary of the Interior, Olga Sanchez Cordero, has said that to achieve peace in Mexico it is necessary to consider an amnesty law for peasants dedicated to illicit crops, reducing penalties for drug traffickers who submit to justice, comprehensive reparations to the victims and the decriminalization of drugs such as marijuana and poppy.
Last July, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the Trump administration would not support “the legalization of all drugs anywhere” or anything “that could allow more drugs to enter our country.” Last year, in the United States, 63,600 people died from an overdose of drugs, 66 per cent of them from opiate use that not only come from Mexico, Colombia and Asia but also from pharmacies in that country.
Last year, US pharmacies distributed 11.2 billion pills containing opioids that are used to treat pain but to which millions of Americans are addicted. A Jama Psychiatry study revealed that 75 per cent of heroin addicts in the United States started with these opioid analgesics. The response of the Trump administration has been more heavy handed. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has asked prosecutors to seek the death penalty for people linked to drug trafficking “when appropriate,” which is rejected by human rights and civil liberties advocates. Trump has praised the anti-drug strategy of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who, according to allegations made by humanitarian agencies, has personally killed alleged drug traffickers. And one of the reasons that the president of the United States exposes to justify the construction of the wall on the border with Mexico is that it will “stop” the flow of drugs to that country. It is evident that the alternative security policies that López Obrador seeks to implement are emerging as an element of tension in Mexico-US relations.
Unauthorized translation of the original article in Spanish, published on January 25 (2019), in the newspaper Proceso by Rafael Croda.