I am a serious political junkie, and become absolutely consumed during every U.S. presidential campaign. I spend way too much time reading coverage of both the Democrat and Republican candidates, watching the debates, etc. In this cycle, I am disappointed but I guess not surprised that Mexico – and Latin America generally – has played such a small role in the race. Unless you include Donald Trump’s racist comments about Mexicans being ‘rapists’ and ‘murders’, it has almost been absent entirely.
To date, the presidential campaign debate over foreign policy has been dominated by daesh. Even the most dovish candidate – Bernie Sanders – says we have to ‘crush’ them. But of the roughly 18K fatalities from terrorism per year, about 32 are Americans. Here’s a useful chart showing total attacks and fatalities:
Moreover, there are strong arguments favoring an analysis that more action against Daesh will fuel more terror attacks, thereby justifying additional action. In that way, a ‘war’ on Daesh or terrorism in general is like a war on internet trolls. Yes, they are vile, sub-human creatures that should just not exist. But it’s impossible to know who all of them really are and even if you cut down one, another will pop up in his place. And the more attention they receive, the more their existence is justified.
If the President’s job is to keep the American people safe, the candidates should not be focusing on terrorism. So I am taking a moment to make the case as to why Mexico and Latin America should figure more prominently in the foreign policy proposals and debates of the candidates. Central to this case is the issue of the drug war and human rights. Although trade and immigration are hugely important, I believe that our ability to resolve bilateral issues in those areas will be enhanced by boosting our credibility when it comes to the dire situation of human rights and the rule of law.
But first, a word about Trump…
I can recall the first time I saw Trump’s comments on television here in Mexico City. It was lunchtime and I was waiting to order carnitas. The place was packed with ordinary Mexicans. The feeling in the room was palpable – anger, shock, sadness. How could Trump generalize a nation of 122 million into a caricature of a villain wanting harm innocent people? About 9 percent of people born in Mexico currently live in the United States; most people here know somebody living in El Norte. So the insult was very personal for people here. It was also a poor electoral strategy for Trump, given that Mexico is the number one source of immigrants in most states (including most battleground states).
Even more infuriating than the meanness and unpresidential nature of Trump’s comments, however, was that they were simply not true. More Mexicans are leaving the United States than arriving. Moreover, the crime rate among the foreign-born population is consistently and significantly lower than the native-born population.
On top of that, 82 percent of all rapes are committed by someone known by the victim; for murder, over half of victims know their killer. So unless Trump and his supporters have a bunch of Mexican ‘illegals’ as friends, I am not sure why they are so worked up over their purported criminality.
Unfortunately, the GOP debate on Mexico has, like everything else, been shaped by ‘what Trump said’. Similarly, on the Democrat side both remaining candidates seem content with pointing out the obvious fact that Trump’s comments were idiotic, otherwise avoiding Mexico. So what should the debate be about when it comes to Mexico?
Drug War, Cartels, and Overdoses
Overview of the Problem
In all fairness to Trump, Mexico does send a source of violence and death across the border: black tar heroin. The heroin epidemic has come up multiple times in the race, but somehow none of the candidates have completed the loop by addressing the US-Mexico relations element (not even the former Secretary of State, with all her foreign policy bonafides).
Just a few years ago, deaths from heroin overdose were 1/3 of those from cocaine; now they are about double. The correlation in time between the decline in cocaine overdose deaths and the rise in heroin overdose deaths is notable. This is in part attributable to the rise in the abuse of prescription opioid pain relievers, which exploded between 2001-06 (i.e., before the heroin epidemic started). If people addicted to pain relievers cannot obtain the drugs via a prescription or street source, heroin seems to be the backup choice.
But there’s another angle to the increase in heroin use and deaths over that time period. The Mexican cartels pursued a deliberate strategy of shifting to the sale of illegal drugs that can be produced in Mexico, principally heroin and methamphetamine. Why be a middleman for Colombian cocaine when you can control the entire supply chain? Another cause was the war on drugs itself: the cartels in Colombia had supply deals with the major Mexican cartels. During Pres. Calderon’s sexenio, Mexico’s drug war strategy was aimed at taking out the leaders of the major cartels. The ‘kingpin strategy’ was supported by the United States. And it was successful! They killed and captured a bunch of cartel leaders. So did all their underlings throw down their weapons and get a job at Wal-Mart? Nope. They just splintered into new, smaller, more fragmented min-cartels, as this sweet infographic from Narcodata illustrates:
The mini-cartels did not have enough financial resources to negotiate the same supply deals with the Colombians, and had to turn to new lines of business they could control like heroin and meth.
And the Mexican cartels are, like Donald Trump, really good at selling trash to Americans. They knew that heroin use had remained steady for so long because most illegal drug users drew a line at anything you inject with a needle. Most people of my age grew up watching Trainspotting, and that’s our popular conception of heroin use. So the Mexican cartels figured out a way to manufacture heroin in powder form. That way, it could be snorted, smoked, or swallowed in pill form. They also broadened the map, moving beyond typical drug sales locations like Chicago and New York, to medium-sized cities in the heartland.
Mexicans – including Chapo in his “interview” with Sean Penn – are fond of saying that if Americans want the flow of drugs going across the border to stop, they should just stop using drugs (i.e., supply follows demand). But this is an false oversimplification of consumer psychology, especially when you are talking about highly addictive substances. There is plenty of blame in the United States for the heroin epidemic: overprescribing of pain relievers at ‘pill mills’, the treatment of drug use as a criminal justice rather than a public health issue, etc. But it’s not like Americans flew down to Mexico and asked the cartels to please start sending heroin. It was a deliberate strategy to open up a new market, just like any major enterprise. Oh, and by the way, illegal drug use in Mexico – which has always been at the bottom of OECD countries – is on the rise.
What the candidates should be addressing
The candidates – amazingly, on both sides – have done a good job addressing the need to change our domestic approach to drug addiction and incarceration for drug offenses. But I have not heard any of them close the loop by proposing what to change with our approach to Mexico.
A smart candidate would formulate a Mexico drug war policy based on the following:
- The ‘kingpin strategy’ in Mexican has utterly failed precisely due to its success. Catching high-level cartel leaders makes for good headlines and Tweets, but it leaves a massive organized crime structure behind that simply reorganizes into several new factions.
- Handing over $2.3 billion in funding for military hardware, among other things, is a neat, quantifiable objective and surely buys some credit with the Mexican government and law enforcement, but it is counterproductive if that hardware is used to commit human rights abuses (more on that below), is given to law enforcement agencies that are controlled by cartels, or is used to achieve short-lived ‘victories’ like capturing Chapo.
- There is a lot of yelling about border security in terms of poor migrants crossing on foot, but as serious of a problem re drugs are the tunnels and the mules with visas flying to places like Columbus, Ohio.
The drug war policy generally needs more perspective (like, should we be calling it a war?). We’re talking about 15-20K deaths per year from overdose, compared to almost 31K deaths from car crashes. I know, cars generate much more social benefit than drugs, but we have grown to tolerate a reality where 92 people die every day.
Human Rights, Corruption, and the Rule of Law
The human rights situation in Mexico is, to a large extent, the other side of the drug war coin. Similar to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as much as U.S. military deaths pile up, it’s really the people who are the object of our attention that suffer the most. In Mexico, the death toll from the drug wars is staggering:
My understanding is that that number does not include the huge numbers of people who have ‘disappeared‘ in Mexico, in a phenomenon known as ‘forced disappearances’ (it’s a sad comment on the situation when literally everyone in Mexico knows what that means).
Keep in mind that the numbers for both disappearances and killings are likely lower than in reality for a variety of reasons, including an unwillingness by family members to report incidents to police, bad statistical/record keeping practices at the local level, etc.
The dismal state of human rights in Mexico reached a boiling point in 2014 with the forced disappearance – and likely execution – of 43 student teachers from the poor town of Iguala, Mexico. Although only one of a series of widespread abuses that included involvement of government law enforcement agencies, its timing and visibility provoked an incredible response from civil society and international human rights organizations. Even the U.S. State Department cut 15 percent of funding under the Merida Initiative for 2015, arguably influenced by the Iguala teachers case.
Meanwhile, widespread corruption – from traffic beat cops to Los Pinos – not only persists, but is conducted openly and virtually unpunished. Collectively known as ‘impunity’, the symbiotic relationship between narco violence and government corruption has created two Mexicos: one for the elite and traffickers, which enrich themselves by illicit means; and another for the majority of Mexicans, who face a spectrum of violence ranging from low wages and unsafe working conditions to becoming another casualty in the drug wars.
Most U.S. presidents, including Pres. Obama, have given Mexico far more latitude in the areas of human rights, corruption, and rule of law than they would to, say, Cuba. This approach is not entirely unjustified. We share a long border with Mexico and generally have a strong relationship. Lecturing about human rights would probably have little impact and would jeopardize cooperation in important areas. But an argument can be made that Mexico has reached a turning point where the absence of the rule of law is resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of Mexicans and Americans.
What the candidates should be addressing:
- Our relationship with Mexico is highly important and ‘special’, but not unconditional. The lawlessness and violence in Mexico has seeped over the border: not only in the form of drug addiction and money laundering, but also literally as evidenced by the mutilated bodies found in border areas like Texas.
- Although no U.S. administration has ever ignored human rights and the rule of law, it has often taken a back seat to security cooperation and trade (covered below). It makes no sense to cooperate on security issues with law enforcement agencies that have been in large part ‘captured’ by narcos. Also, the U.S. has long been reluctant to address so-called ‘grand’ corruption at the presidential level. But even if this corruption is unrelated to narcos – although sometimes it is – it is part of and fuel for the same phenomenon. Elevating the priority of anticorruption and rule of law efforts in the bilateral relationship will not undermine security, but enhance it.
- Recently, Mexican state-owned companies – notably PEMEX – have sought out the benefits of U.S. law and courts by suing private companies under the civil RICO statute for paying bribes to employees of … PEMEX. If the Mexican government likes the idea of using U.S. courts and law to seek ‘justice’, they should be fine with victims of human rights abuses bringing their grievances in U.S. court.
- Guatemala – although by no means a model student on rule of law and corruption – has been successful in attacking impunity through the UN International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). Most recently, it forced the president out of office based on a corruption investigation. The CICIG is so popular, that people in neighboring Honduras were protesting corruption there, and demanding the creation of their own anti-impunity body. In January 2016, they got one – the MACCIH under OAS auspices – although it remains to be seen if they can replicate the CICIG’s success. If the Mexican government is unable or unwilling to root out corruption and impunity, the U.S. should consider encouraging the creation of a CICIG-like mechanism to do it for them.