Recalibrating the U.S. Strategy for the War on Drugs

Jul 17, 2017

The views expressed are the author's own and do not represent the official policy or position of the U.S. Government or any of its agencies. This article is based on a paper written to fulfill a graduate requirement for the author's degree program.

Mexico is the main trade route through which illegal drugs enter the United States, accounting for 70 percent of the foreign narcotics there. And since the United States is the world's largest consumer of illegal drugs, Mexican cartels take in an estimated $64.3 billion annually from U.S. sales (as opposed to less than half a billion per year from Mexican users).

-Blog del Narco, 20121

The Mexican citizens behind Blog del Narco are mostly anonymous writers who document the world of drug-trafficking and must remain hidden for safety reasons. If they are discovered they are ruthlessly murdered by the drug cartels. Their courageous postings of stories and photos are obtained directly or through secondary sources, sometimes from drug cartel members themselves who narcissistically want recognition for their atrocities. Thus their assessment in the quote above originates from within the warzone, in the midst of the cartels' brutalities, and elucidates a salient point on the so-called "War on Drugs": Mexican cartels are the winners in this war, serving a lucrative market in the United States. As long as the U.S. market exists, the trafficking will continue.

Drug trafficking has been part of the drug pandemic that has afflicted both the United States and Mexico for over 100 years, beginning with the Harrison Act of 1914, which first regulated narcotics. In the U.S. the toll has been largely exacted on the consumers who become addicted, whereas in Mexico it targets anyone who impedes the drug-traffickers' business. Data on the increasing costs, in human lives and trafficking trends of cocaine and marijuana, indicates that efforts undertaken so far are failing to bring about an overall reduction of drug-trafficking. The U.S. national drug strategy has essentially always been two-dimensional: supply-reduction (controlling the supply of drugs through legislation, law enforcement, interdiction, prosecution, and incarceration); and demand-reduction (reducing the demand for drugs through education, prevention, and treatment).2 Supply-reduction has served as the default approach for over 40 years. Yet the evidence available indicates that focusing on supply-side reduction efforts is not yielding definitive results; rather it shows that resources need to be shifted towards demand-side reduction. A policy that addresses the violent threat but which also reduces the source demand for the drugs stands the best chance of reducing the human toll being paid by both countries.

The Mexican War on Drugs and the Merida Initiative

The U.S. shares an almost 2,000-mile border with Mexico. This border has served as the main transit point and battleground for the latest iteration of the War on Drugs, which began with Mexican President Felipe Calderon in 2006 and was supported by President George Bush in 2007 with the Merida Initiative. The 2009 video "War Without Borders" outlines a flowchart of the cycle of activities that drug cartels participate in as a function of their business practices, which includes drug users, officials, gun shops, and violence.3 In general, but not exclusively, the drug users and gun shops are the domain of the United States, whereas the interaction with officials and violence are the domain of Mexico. Mexico mainly produces methamphetamines, heroin, and marijuana, while serving as a major transit route for South American cocaine.4 The video also states that marijuana is the true cash cow of the drug trade, citing the Drug Enforcement Agency's findings that marijuana has a profit margin three times that of cocaine, which is the most expensive drug, commanding $40,000 per kilogram as of 2009.5

The Merida Initiative, signed into law in 2008, was an unprecedented collaboration between the U.S. and Mexico. It served as the U.S. capstone to President Felipe Calderon's War on Drugs, which he launched soon after taking office, in the aftermath of a contested election and the absence of a clear mandate from the people. By employing the military in a War on Drugs and emphasizing the mantle of commander-in-chief of the Mexican armed forces, Calderon challenged the existing hierarchy of drug trafficking organizations head-on. The pillars of the Merida initiative greatly expanded the cooperation between the law enforcement and military services of each country at a time when Plan Colombia (signed into law in 2000) was being lauded for its progress. The Merida Initiative was implemented with a focus on attacking the drug cartels directly and attempting to disincentivize the drug trade through force. The Merida Initiative is representative of the supply-side approach to the narcotics trade that has long characterized U.S. drug control policy. It emphasizes interdiction, enforcement, and security measures, with domestic treatment and prevention programs, source-economic development projects, and other alternative strategies assuming considerably less importance. This strategy is broadly similar to the approach used in Plan Colombia, the multi-billion dollar U.S. counternarcotics and counterinsurgency commitment to that country.6

Calderon's War on Drugs and the Merida Initiative resulted in the successful elimination of many cartel leaders. But the negative repercussions of this success were the fracturing and reorganization of the cartels into smaller elements that continued to supply the insatiable demand coming from the U.S. The 2016 Department of State International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR) summarizes these findings succinctly: U.S. and Mexican law enforcement counterparts cooperate on investigations and other criminal justice issues related to transnational criminal organizations. Such cooperation boosted efforts to capture leaders of these groups. These successes, however, have resulted in smaller, fractured groups that violently compete for power, terrain, and market share.7

The results of success and drawbacks in U.S strategy however, are not without examples of possible future progress. In shifting priorities within existing resources, we can find opportunities. A concerted priority shift from curbing supply reduction to curbing demand reduction would consolidate gains and directly address the issue of U.S. consumption. The INCSR acknowledges that "the United States will also continue programs to curb its own domestic drug demand and inhibit the illegal flow of arms and cash into Mexico."8

Homicide, Cocaine, and Marijuana

One clear source of available data on the effects of the War on Drugs is the Mexican government's report on Intentional Homicides, Sequestration, Extortion, and Vehicle Robberies from 1997–2015. Mexico defines murders as intentional homicides, as opposed to unintentional homicides, or manslaughter. In 2007, intentional homicides in Mexico reached an 18-year low of 10,253 for the total year.9 Prior to 2007, the War on Drugs in Mexico did not exist. During this period, drug cartels existed primarily as large organizations that maintained influence through agreements with corrupt police and officials. There was also a de facto understanding with Mexico's primary political party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which had uncontested supremacy from 1929-2000. From May 2008 and on, intentional homicides were recorded at over 1,000 deaths every month and have not dropped below that since.10 This increase was the direct result of the combined U.S. and Mexican efforts to attack the cartels. Total yearly intentional homicides, however, appeared to have dropped steadily since 2011, which was recorded at an 18-year high of 22,852 deaths.11 In analyzing the years 1997-2015, the increase and reduction in intentional homicides coincides with the beginning and end of President Felipe Calderon's term of office from 1 December 2006 to 30 November 2012, but a closer look at additional data on cocaine and marijuana cultivation shows that there may be more to the story.

At the same time that Mexican homicides increased after 2007 with Calderon's War on Drugs, Colombia began implementing the National Consolidation Plan to further gains made from the U.S. partnership under Plan Colombia, where the government was finally able to extend central governmental control into deeper rural areas, previously held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The centerpiece of the National Consolidation Plan was the increase in manual eradication methods which correlated with a drop in coca cultivation.12 (Figure 1) Mexico's history with drug trafficking is as old as its relationship with the U.S., however its real history with cocaine trafficking began as a result of illicit-transiting agreements with Colombian drug cartels in the 1980s. The success of Plan Colombia was evident in the significant drops in coca cultivation numbers, going from a high of 227,000 hectares in 2007 and then dropping significantly to 80,500 hectares in 2013, before returning to a high of 193,000 hectares cultivated in 2014.13 (Figure 2) The available information points to the possibility that an overall reduction in coca cultivation, as a result of Colombian manual eradication efforts, increased the price of cocaine, while at the same time, President Calderon began escalating the war on drugs. The successes of Mexico's assault on cartels produced fractured organizations that reorganized as quickly as they could to maintain operations and meet the demand that was becoming more lucrative. The use of violence became the most effective means to influence the state, which had engaged in open warfare against them.

For marijuana that was cultivated in Mexico, the data shows that it dropped from 12,000 hectares in 2011 to 11,000 hectares in 2014.14 One possibility that helps to explain both the drop in intentional homicides and marijuana cultivation in Mexico is the marijuana legalization efforts that were simultaneously occurring in the U.S. Legalization for recreational use was first instituted in Oregon and Washington in 2012 and coincides with the production drop seen in Mexico. Today, recreational legalization includes eight states as well as the District of Columbia.15 Alongside recreational use, medical use has now become legal in 29 states, as well as the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and Guam.16 Nationally, the legalization movement has continued to gain traction, with a significant effort by military veterans emphasizing its efficacy in treatment for traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).17 While it is dubious to say that the legalization of marijuana in the U.S. is singlehandedly the cause of reduced homicides in Mexico, it is important to note that it coincided together and could very well be interrelated. A VICE news report in 2015 quotes Beau Kilmer, co-director of the RAND Drug Policy Research Center: "You're not going to eliminate the black market overnight . . . It's going to take some time, because essentially when you look at prices in the black market, whether it's marijuana or meth or cocaine, you're compensating drug dealers and everyone in the supply chain for the risk of arrest and incarceration. That goes away with legalization."18

The Merida Initiative began mostly as a supply reduction strategy based on a premise that American society would abandon its use once faced with dwindling supply and that increased punitive measures would further degrade its prevalence in U.S. and Mexican communities. Unfortunately, the result has proven that assumption to be untrue. From within Mexican society, a year-long, in-depth reporting project concluded in 2012 documented the perpetually deteriorating situation: . . . the bloodshed only seems to be getting worse. Despite the government's supposed best efforts, the blows against DTOs (drug-trafficking organizations) have been selective, with a focus on Los Zetas and La Familia Michoacana. Meanwhile, the increased military presence on the streets has resulted in increasing civilian deaths. The cartels have become so emboldened that is seems unlikely they will ever go back to playing by the rules of civilized society. Unless there is a change in strategy, it's likely that the situation will worsen in the next sexenio [Note: sexenio is the popular word for the term limit for the president of Mexico, which is a one six-year term].19

The capturing and killing of major cartel bosses has resulted in the scramble for power from within the cartels. Corruption and impunity in Mexico must still be tackled head on and the Mexican federal government's legitimate use of force must be regained. The best way to achieve these goals will remain through continued Security Cooperation with U.S. law enforcement agencies and the U.S. military. The U.S. approach, however, should begin to address the challenge of demand-reduction more aggressively.

The Case for Demand-Reduction

There were signals of changing perspectives from within President Obama's administration. The 2015 National Drug Control Policy Performance Report highlights progress in key areas that the U.S. has undertaken to address and stem the domestic demand for drugs.20 The 2016 National Drug Control Policy Budget Report shows an approximate 44 percent demand-reduction / 56 percent supply-reduction split for 2015 programs, with over $11,574 million allocated for prevention and treatment and a combined $14,762 million for domestic law enforcement, interdiction, and international funding.21 The national movement to decriminalize and institute judicial reform within the U.S. to address minor drug offenses also seemed to indicate a movement toward a more demand-reduction approach. Today, however, that movement appears to have come to a standstill, even though on the Mexican side, in 2015, in a surprising, or perhaps not=so-surprising twist, the former president of Mexico, Vicente Fox, spoke out on his belief that a paradigm shift was needed to truly succeed in the war on drugs: There is a way out of this debilitating situation. The way is to move from a regime based on prohibition to one of regulation. . . . We need to accept the reality of our past failures to eliminate drug use and drug trafficking, and accept that prohibition itself creates the lucrative black market for banned drugs and is the foundation upon which the cartels' power, money and violence find a firm foothold. Regulation and alternative drug policy is the way of the future.22

The success of Plan Colombia and other similar anti-drug efforts throughout the hemisphere may easily lead an observer to conclude that the heavy-handed approach yields the most concrete results. Unfortunately, the real drawbacks of the successes of these efforts highlight the reality that progress in one area may simply shift the market to other zones that are more permissible.

The demand for drugs does not seem to have fallen, which when viewed through the lens of macroeconomics makes perfect sense. The market continues to demand the product and commands a higher price because supply is dwindling and entrepreneurs then find ways to circumvent legal and transnational restrictions to provide the desired goods to those markets, if the perceived risks are worth the reward. It is important to note, however, that macroeconomics also has its nuances, in that controls can be placed to manipulate markets. Therefore, the War on Drugs will always necessitate a heavy-handed approach to directly confront the cartels' use of violence and to ensure compliance with codified laws.

A comprehensive strategy needs to have a conventional counter-narcotics element to it, but also needs to reflect a change in perspective that directly addresses the cartels'strategy. The cartels' modus operandi is always to meet violence with an escalation of violence. A revised U.S. strategy should attack their core business, i.e. the demand. The first step must be to acknowledge that demand-reduction has generally been only a secondary goal and a dramatic shift is needed. Possible recommendations for revising the current strategy include:

  • Shifting to a 70 percent demand-reduction / 30 percent supply-reduction prioritization of U.S. federal funding for counterdrug efforts
  • Decriminalizing minor drug offenses and continuing to support each state's right to self-determine the decision to legalize marijuana
  • Prioritizing frequent drug tests and light parole for criminally active users; for example, Hawaii's HOPE program which targets higher risk, felony offenders with increased supervision and treatment resources to prevent recidivism 23 24
  • Increasing support to the existing Communities Drug Free Support Program to prevent youth substance abuse
  • Refocusing U.S. counter-narcotic targeting efforts from the kingpin traffickers to the crucial middle layer of operational management within the cartels, which would debilitate their organizational capacity; this would be the most efficient re-prioritization of supply-reduction efforts if funding were to be shifted as recommended above25

Cartels and illicit trafficking organizations will continue to exist even if demand is reduced, because criminal enterprises will find new opportunities. Already, cartels engage in extortion, human-trafficking, and illegal oil-trafficking. However, a focus on a demand-reduction centered strategy will more appropriately support the education and health of the U.S. population and may complement the supply-reduction strategies in a more effective way.

APPENDIX FIGURE 1 (Source: U.S. Department of State, 2016 INCSR Strategy Report, Volume I)

You may also like

Still from Origin. Credit: Neon/IMDB

JUL 15, 2024 Article

Ethics on Film: Discussion of "Origin"

This review explores global issues around race and oppression in Ava DuVernay's "Origin," based on Isabel Wilkerson's book "Caste." How can we start this discussion?

JUL 9, 2024 Article

The Rise of Preemptive Bans on Human Microchip Implants

As the impact and influence of chip implants increases in the U.S., it's time to raise ethical and legal questions about this technology.

JUL 2, 2024 Podcast

Cybernetics, Digital Surveillance, & the Role of Unions in Tech Governance, with Elisabet Haugsbø

Senior Fellow Anja Kaspersen speaks with Elisabet Haugsbø, president of tech union Tekna, about her engineering journey, resiliency in the AI era, and much more.

Not translated

This content has not yet been translated into your language. You can request a translation by clicking the button below.

Request Translation