Skip to main content

Mexico's candidates vow a different kind of drug war

By Shannon O'Neil, Special to CNN
June 26, 2012 -- Updated 1355 GMT (2155 HKT)
University of Guadalajara students march in May against the growing violence in Mexico.
University of Guadalajara students march in May against the growing violence in Mexico.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Shannon O'Neil: Mexico's presidential candidates vow a shift in drug war priorities
  • O'Neil: They pledge to reduce horrific violence rather than focus on arresting traffickers
  • This won't change drug flow, she says, since U.S. is largest illegal drug market in world
  • O'Neil: Same shift in U.S. has made streets safer and could work in Mexico as well

Editor's note: Shannon O'Neil is the Douglas Dillon Fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. She writes a blog, Latin America's Moment, on cfr.org. Follow her on Twitter @latintelligence.

(CNN) -- With just a few weeks before Mexico's July 1 presidential election, the candidates' campaigns have been mostly driven by personalities and vague promises. Yet some policy glimpses have emerged, particularly in the security realm.

All the candidates have pledged a major shift, making violence reduction a priority over President Felipe Calderón's war on narcotraffickers, which has been carried out with U.S. cooperation. Front-runner Enrique Peña Nieto told The New York Times recently that he would focus on reducing homicide rates and not on catching cartel leaders.

It is not just Peña Nieto endorsing this approach. Calderón's own National Action Party candidate Josefina Vázquez Mota promises on her website that "results will be measured not by how many criminals are captured, but by how stable and secure the communities are."

This shift reflects, in part, the changing realities on the ground. In 2007, when Calderón began his quest, there were a little more than 2,000 drug-related homicides in Mexico. By 2011, the number had escalated to more than 16,000 drug-related murders.

The violence spread from the border and state of Sinaloa to include the once-safe industrial center of Monterrey and major cities such as Acapulco, Durango and Guadalajara. Mexico's criminal organizations diversified their operations, delving into extortion, kidnapping, robbery, human trafficking and retail drug sales, thus preying more directly on their fellow citizens. In some places, the escalating bloodshed is as much the work of local gangs concerned with rivalries and honor as it is of drug transit.

Shannon O\'Neil
Shannon O'Neil

The candidates' promises of change are also political calculus. Security rivals the economy as the top concern of Mexican voters, and 79% of them don't believe the current strategy is working. Yet some 80% of Mexicans say they don't want the government to capitulate to criminals by making deals with cartels or gangs. In response, the candidates are promising to lessen impunity and strengthen federal, state and local law enforcement.

Mexican election could mean drug war strategy shift, U.S. officials say

This shift isn't necessarily bad for Mexico -- or the United States. Close U.S.-Mexico security cooperation has already evolved from the priorities of the 2007 Merida Initiative. The approach has moved from a focus on hardware (helicopters, speedboats and armored vehicles) to software (police and prosecutor training, border investment and community development). The candidates' proposals represent just a further development along these lines to help Mexico create a functioning democratic rule of law.

Mexico election gets ugly in homestretch
Mexico protesters rally ahead of vote

A change in Mexico's security strategy probably will do little either to stem or encourage the flow of drugs into the United States. With an estimated market size of roughly $70 billion a year, the U.S. represents the largest illegal drug market in the world.

Although Americans' preferred substances have evolved over time, illegal drug use remains widespread. According to the most recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, nearly one in 10 Americans age 12 or older reported using illicit drugs in the past month.

Yet despite the significant amounts of drugs and drug money flowing within the 50 states, U.S. streets today are safer than they have been in 20 years. In large part, this is because of the strategic choices by local, state and federal authorities to focus not on drugs but on violence.

In cities across the United States, police forces don't just go after drug trafficking, but work to influence the way the drug business is conducted. The most well-known shift happened in New York City in the 1990s when the police force began rewarding officers for lowering crime rates on their beats rather than for making arrests. If Mexico works to reduce violence while building up professional police forces and clean courts, it could make streets safer there as well.

In this, Mexico is, in many ways, following the United States' own history and example. And even though this represents a shift away from the U.S. focus on curbing the flow of drugs, the United States should support this shift and continue to help Mexico.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Shannon O'Neil.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
November 24, 2014 -- Updated 2310 GMT (0710 HKT)
If Obama thinks pushing out Hagel will be seen as the housecleaning many have eyed for his national security process, he'll be disappointed, says David Rothkopf.
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
The decision by the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney to announce the Ferguson grand jury decision at night was dangerous, says Jeff Toobin.
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 0857 GMT (1657 HKT)
China's influence in Latin America is nothing new. Beijing has a voracious appetite for natural resources and deep pockets, says Frida Ghitis.
November 24, 2014 -- Updated 2151 GMT (0551 HKT)
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference in the capital Tehran on June 14, 2014.
The decision to extend the deadline for talks over Iran's nuclear program doesn't change Tehran's dubious history on the issue, writes Michael Rubin.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1925 GMT (0325 HKT)
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1244 GMT (2044 HKT)
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2329 GMT (0729 HKT)
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0134 GMT (0934 HKT)
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0313 GMT (1113 HKT)
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2256 GMT (0656 HKT)
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 2011 GMT (0411 HKT)
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1519 GMT (2319 HKT)
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1759 GMT (0159 HKT)
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0258 GMT (1058 HKT)
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 2141 GMT (0541 HKT)
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT