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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.

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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.

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

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