Zidane Zeraoui believes that for the fight against drug-trafficking and organized crime to succeed in Mexico, Felipe Calderon‘s government must take drastic measures: reforming and cleansing the police, and acting firmly with respect for the law.

EVER SINCE FELIPE CALDERON BECAME PRESIDENT of the Republic of Mexico, a bloody confrontation between drug-traffickers and the forces of the law has raged throughout Mexico – and the drug-traffickers are winning. The problem of drug-trafficking and organized crime in Mexico is extremely complex, and in order to understand the violence we need to analyze the past policies of the PRI.

The relation of the drug traffic to power is what will above all permit us to understand the nature of the drug war. Drug-trafficking had a low profile on the agenda of the PRI throughout their entire period of political dominance. The main source of revenue for drug-trafficking was made in sales to the United States, not in domestic sales, and the porous borders allowed for easy transportation. The sale of drugs on the national level was thus very limited both because of a low demand at that time, and because of the little publicity that drugs received in the state-controlled media.

The participation of the police in protecting and aiding the organized gangs that dealt in drugs led to the rise of an almost invisible corruption, culminating under the Salinas administration (1988-1994). And while the press regularly denounced bribes (which in Mexico are common among the police, for example, to avoid a traffic ticket or to speed up bureaucratic processes), the complicity of the police and drug-traffickers was never reported in the national media. Little by little this corruption became part of the security structure of the country. Obviously, before pressure from Washington, the Mexican government had to throw a drug dealer in prison every once in a while to set an example. And so from time to time the PRI made a martyr out of some unlucky drug dealer, as was the case with Caro Quintero, who in his terrible bout of chance assassinated an agent of the American DEA.

Yet, even imprisonment did not represent a very real punishment. From prison, drug lords could continue to control their empire, and profit from the vacation that prison offered: television, women, alcohol, drugs, and even meals from public restaurants, as long as they paid for the luxury.

The system of drug policy under the PRI worked by limiting the upheaval of civil society, controlling drug sales in Mexico, and spreading drug revenues throughout an entire system of corruption. The culmination of this system occurred when Raul Salinas, brother of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, became one of the principal organizers of drug sales and arbiter between the different drug gangs. The construction of an airport in Agualeguas, the native city of the President 100 kilometers from the US border, was one of the first warning signs of this deep-seeded governmental corruption. The airport was enormous and clearly over-served the needs of the 20,000 inhabitants of Agualeguas. The real use of the airport, it is assumed, was to transport drugs without hindrance.

The end of the Cold War, the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement, and the terrorist attack of 9/11 have made the continuance of the PRI’s drug policy impossible. The end of the Cold War changed the international role that was assigned to Mexico; NAFTA provided for greater economic and political transparency; and 9/11 changed Washington’s security agenda drastically.

Drugs have begun to be sold increasingly in Mexico, both due to a rise in demand and in supply. And the US government has started a policy of certification in the War on Drugs. Mexico had been on the US’ black list for years, but US pressure drove the government of Ernesto Zedillo (1994-2000) to take more energetic measures against drug-trafficking, including increasing collaboration with the United States.

Confrontation between the police and organized crime was limited under the administrations of Zedillo and Fox.

But upon taking the Presidency, Calderon adopted a much more decisive attitude, turning to the army to combat drug trafficking. This is not the first time that the army has been used to fight organized crime, but it has never been done to such a great extent. By taking on the role of Minister of Defense, the President is reclaiming the Mexican Presidential tradition of Echeverria and Salinas de Gortari. But this time, he’s acting against drug trafficking.

President Luis Echeverria Alvarez (1970-1976) took on the role of Minister of the Interior in order to increase internal repression. He is remembered in particular for the massacre at Corpus Cristo in 1971. Carlos Salinas de Gortari became Minister of the Economy in order to negotiate the Free Trade Agreement with the US and Canada. And Calderon has taken up the banner of Defense and increased his role as head of the Armed Forces. His decision to use the army to combat organized crime in the state of Michoacan is a prelude to the undeclared war, which is now affecting every region of the country.

However, it is the role that police play in organized crime that is the real problem. Many of the murders that have been carried out, like that of the General in Tabasco, were carried out by police officers, not hit men. And there have been bombings perpetrated by the police against fellow officers not involved in the network of corruption. The dozens of police officers that have stepped down or been thrown in prison is merely the tip of the iceberg in this massive internal confrontation between police officers.

Confronted with the complexity of the fight against organized crime, Mexico has sought a global rather than a national strategy. On one hand, the sophisticated weaponry of the hired hit men has been entering from the US border, which implies US cooperation to allow the weapons through. And on the other hand, Calderon’s government has met with its neighbors and friends in Latin America in order to implement a regional drug policy. On April 9th and 10th in Campeche, in the south of the country, the leaders of Mexico, Colombia and Central America met in order to launch the Puebla-Panama Plan. The security agencies of Mexico and Colombia conversed greatly during this meeting on how to create a unified front to face organized crime.

For the War on Drugs to succeed, the police must be cleansed of corruption, the prison system must be reformed, and above all, the impunity of government forces must be ended, above all in the judicial system. The government can conquer the drug traffic without violating human rights, but it is going to take a real respect for the law and a firmness of will to do it.