Three Ways the US Can Help End Drug Violence in Mexico

Three Ways the US Can Help End Drug Violence in Mexico

Supporter of the peace caravan led by Mexican poet Sicilia holds a banner during a rally (Courtesy Reuters).
Supporter of the peace caravan led by Mexican poet Sicilia holds a banner during a rally (Courtesy Reuters).

A caravan calling itself The Movement for Peace With Justice and Dignity rolled through the US last month, pushing for a handful of policy changes that would reduce drug-war violence in Mexico.  The most controversial demand was probably the decriminalization of drugs, though this is steadily getting grassroots traction in the US.  The other policy changes—better regulating arms trade, money laundering, and military aid—are not radical at all.

In fact, when it comes to reforming US policies in these areas, everyone seems to be on the same page, but little gets done. In the last few months, US presidential candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have echoed statements by Mexican leaders that the United States shares blame for the drug-related violence in Mexico.  But Romney’s plans for Mexico are dominated by imaginary national security threats, and Obama has done little to tackle the problem in almost four years.

Since 1986, the US has poured some $219 billion into securing its southern border, but when it comes to narcotics trafficking, the money seems to be a waste.  There are 18,500 agents manning the border, double the number in 2005.  The number of people detained for illegally crossing is at its lowest since the 1970s, but the quantity of drugs seized is multiplying at an alarming rate.  In 2010, the US seized 49% more marijuana, 54% more meth, and 297% more heroin than in 2006.

In September, yet another outgoing Mexican president blamed the United States for violence in his country. President Felipe Calderón is the man responsible for deploying the Mexican army to control civilian areas in late 2006, militarizing counter-narcotics operations and causing the level of violence to increase exponentially.  So it is telling that he is coming out against the War on Drugs itself.

At the UN General Assembly in New York this September, Calderon told world leaders that “thousands and thousands of young people in Latin America have died because of drug trafficking-related violence, and in particular, the nations that are suffering the most are the ones located between the drug-producing zone in the Andes and the main drug market: the United States.”

During the run-up to the Presidential election in Mexico earlier this year, Calderón’s predecessor, Vicente Fox, was even more blunt.  "We're fighting this war for [the US],” he said, calling it “useless.”

In 2009, on one of her first trips abroad after becoming the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton made similar remarks in Mexico, saying “We know very well that the drug traffickers are motivated by the demand for illegal drugs in the United States...clearly, what we have been doing has not worked and it is unfair [to Mexico] for our incapacity.”

Clearly, a sustainable solution depends on making the drug trade less lucrative in the US, including by deregulating the use of drugs like marijuana. But these are not issues that will likely be tackled in the next four years.

Here are three other things the next President can do that would likely reduce the violence in Mexico.

1. End our deadly experiment with assault weapons

“Unlimited access to assault weapons in the U.S. is a key factor in the current strength of criminal organizations,” Calderón recently told an audience in Washington, DC.  “You can see a clear correlation between the moment in which the assault weapons ban expired here in the US in 2004, and that is exactly the moment in which the violence in Mexico started to grow.”

Calderón overlooked his own role in the escalation of violence, instead mentioning an issue that should resonate with Americans. Recent mass murders involving high-powered assault weapons in the United States periodically ignite a public debate over the legality of guns like the AK-47 and AR-15.  In Mexico, these kinds of crimes are a daily occurrence, and much of the blame for enabling these killings lies with US policy makers who are reluctant to challenge groups like the National Rifle Association.

Even Obama says he would like to stop weapons from flowing south to Mexico, but is unwilling to do so because he does not want to upset the gun lobby.

Just how bad is the problem?

The AK-47 is imported by weapons dealers in the United States from eastern Europe to be sold in border states like Texas.  An investigation by the Washington Post two years ago showed how a small number of gun dealers sell assault weapons with little regard for who the customer is, or what they might be doing with them.  In just three years, one dealer had managed to sell more than 500 AK-47s and SKS rifles, many of which ended up in drug-related seizures in Mexico.  According to statistics from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), which traced some 90,000 weapons for the Mexicans between 2007 and 2011, 60,000 came from the United States.  51% of the US-origin weapons seized in 2011 were untraceable, likely bought at gun shows that often require no identification or background checks.  In 2011, 43% of US-origin firearms were high powered rifles, up from 28% in 2007. 

The cartels continue to favor the AK-47 and the AR-15, weapons whose most deadly versions were illegal under the Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act, which expired in 2004.  Along with re-enacting that ban, a June 2011 report from the US Senate recommended stricter background checks at gun shows, a ban on importing these kinds of weapons to the United States, and requiring firearms dealers to report when they sell multiple high-powered rifles to a single customer. 

But attempts to implement these recommendations at the national level, or even sign-on to basic global arms sales agreements, have been abandoned by US lawmakers after criticism from the gun lobby.

2. Close loopholes and end light punishments for money laundering

Cartels rely on a number of methods to move their profits across the border, including smuggling cash, wire transfers, currency exchanges, and prepaid cards that are not checked at the US-Mexican border.

One of these loopholes can easily be closed. Prepaid cards allow the carrier to bypass the usual limit of $10,000, because the current definition of "cash" does not include these cards, a problem experts call the “stored value card loophole.”

Blocking the other avenues for money laundering will require the US to start doling out some serious penalties. While the US has investigated a number of high profile financial firms for their role in money laundering, the meager penalties being levied for failing to monitor wire transfers and currency exchanges will probably not prevent future abuse. And the US seems to be focusing on firms involved in international terrorism, not narcotics-related activities.

In 2010, Western Union settled a four year investigation that showed it allowed billions of dollars in wire transfers that were obviously being used by cartels between the US and Mexico.  But the company only ended up paying a fine of $94 million.

That same year, Wachovia, now part of Wells Fargo, settled a lawsuit from a two year investigation by US and Mexican authorities.  The bank had failed to apply anti-laundering rules to currency exchanges in Mexico for more than $378 billion in transactions.  For its trouble, Wachovia paid a $110 million fine, in addition to $50 million for not monitoring cash used to smuggle 22 tons of cocaine. 

When evidence emerged that some of the world’s largest banks were making money skirting sanctions against Iran, Cuba, and Sudan, Congress finally took serious action, opening lengthy investigations against banks like HSBC.  HSBC had allowed $19.4 billion to flow to Iran through US accounts, failed to monitor $60 trillion (yes, trillion) in wire transfers, and ignored some 17,000 accounts it knew to be suspect for six years.  HSBC’s Mexican branch was not subject to basic monitoring despite the country’s narcotics problems, allowing some $7 billion in cash to be moved with little oversight between the US and Mexico.  The investigation also blamed the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the division within the Treasury Department, for failing to do its job in regulating the bank.  HSBC looks set to pay a $700 million fine for its practices, a small fraction of the $22 billion it made last year.

But no one at Wachovia, HSBC, or Western Union has faced criminal charges as a result of these investigations.  And one wonders if these practices would have gotten so much attention if they were not also linked to traditional national security obsessions like Iran or Cuba.

3. Don't produce another Plan Colombia

Mexico has seen about 94,000 homicides since 2006, and only two percent of these cases have been solved.  In fact, it is increasingly unclear who is killing who in Mexico, and civil society groups there say the US should be very careful about the kind of aid it gives to security forces. 

Romney thinks “the United States and Mexico should explore the need for enhanced military-to-military training...similar to practices that were successful in combating cartels and narco-terrorist networks in Colombia.” Obama’s policy over the last four years has gone along the same lines. 

Under the controversial Plan Colombia program, the US provided Colombia about $7.4 billion in aid between 2000 and 2010, more than two thirds of it going to the military, in an effort to curtail cocaine exports.  Thousands of people are believed to have been killed by the very military the US was providing aid to.  Critics of the plan say that more funding for a militarized response to drug trafficking resulted in a significantly higher level of violence.  Should a similar US aid program for Mexico, the Merida Initiative (or "Plan Mexico" to its critics), be subject to close inspection?

Calderón deployed some 45,000 troops across the country starting in late 2006, and increased the paramilitary Federal Police force from about 6,500 to 36,000.  Allegations of human rights abuses went up with the surge: Mexico’s National Commission on Human Rights received 691 abuse cases between 2003 and 2006, but between 2007 and 2010 that number jumped to 4,803.  Mexico’s Military Prosecutor’s Office said it opened 3,671 investigations against soldiers between 2007 and 2011, resulting in just fifteen convictions.

The Merida Initiative was originally exclusively geared towards helping the Mexican military disrupt drug trafficking.  Of the $1.3 billion allotted to Mexico between 2007 and 2010, $421 million was for purchasing military equipment.  Almost $1.1 billion was for International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement (INCLE), a program that trains and equips law enforcement to combat narcotics groups with equipment like Black Hawk helicopters.  In Colombia, INCLE funds are used for the controversial coca eradication program.

The Federal Police, often lauded by President Calderón and a chief recipient of US funds, has been used to quell student protests, and has been caught killing its own members at Mexico City’s airport.  Security forces have attacked US CIA trainers, and some top Mexican Army officials have been indicted for helping cartels.

After coming under criticism from human rights groups, the Obama administration revised the Merida Initiative funding, relabeling the program “Merida 2.0”, in an attempt to remove overt military funding.  Fifteen percent of annual funding was tied to a handful of rights reform benchmarks, and while some of them have been met on paper, it is unclear how many measures will actually be implemented.  A top Mexican court recently ruled that allegations of abuse by the military must be tried in civilian courts—one of the requirements for receiving that fifteen percent of funds—but by April of this year, only eight cases out of around 4,000 had been transferred to civilian courts.

The $269 million expected to go to Mexico in 2013 will include just $23 million in “Developmental Assistance” and $35 million in “Economic Support Funds”, while $199 million will go to the INCLE program.  The program’s goals have been revised, adding the need for a “21st century border” and “building strong and resilient communities.”  But it is unclear just how these communities would be built, when the funding clearly continues to favor prosecuting traffickers instead of cutting their most important supply: impoverished Mexicans looking to make a living catering to American drug users.