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Back to the future with Mexican drug strategy

Many readers will remember the Mexican presidential election of 2006.

It was one of a run of very close elections worldwide, with leftist candidate Manuel Lopez Obrador losing by less than 0.6% of the vote.

Lopez Obrador proved to be a bad loser; his supporters staged a mass campaign of civil disobedience, and even after a recount went against him he held his own “parallel inauguration”, claiming to be the legitimate president.

So there’s an element of deja vu this week: Lopez Obrador is again the loser after Sunday’s election, and again is refusing to concede defeat and demanding a recount. But this time it wasn’t even close. With 99% of the vote counted, the victor, Enrique Peña Nieto, has a lead of about 3.2 million votes, or 6.7%.

More interesting is the fact that although Lopez Obrador’s Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) was runner-up both times, the other two parties have swapped places. The centre-right National Action Party (PAN), victorious in 2006 and 2000, came in third with 26%; president-elect Peña Nieto represents the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which governed Mexico for most of the 20th century but managed only a humiliating 22.7% in 2006.

So why the turnaround? The thing that has done most to discredit PAN is the same thing that’s kept Mexico in the headlines in recent years — the appalling violence in the north associated with drug cartels. Outgoing president Felipe Calderon took “war on drugs” literally and sent in troops to fight the traffickers. The result has been a complete breakdown in law and order across much of the country and an estimated 55,000 deaths.

By contrast, the PRI when in government had, in its corrupt and authoritarian fashion, reached a modus vivendi with the cartels. No doubt a lot of money changed hands illicitly, but a lot fewer people died. According to the BBC, Peña Nieto has promised that “there would be a change of strategy” and that he would combine security measures “with strong economic reforms”.

Of course, he is not likely to say publicly that a certain level of drug trafficking needs to be just tolerated in the interests of social harmony, but it seems likely that voters would interpret his message along those lines.

Political scientist Rodolfo Hernandez Guerrero, quoted last week in The Age, explains that “the PAN perspective of the cartels is that they are not interest groups. They are the enemy.” The PRI strategy, by contrast, involves “allowing these groups to be in business in exchange for having more certainty of control and peaceful lives”.

It’s a nice coincidence that Victoria this week was addressing a junior version of the same basic problem. State Education Minister Martin Dixon on Monday proudly reported that his department has won the “Excellence in Prevention and Community Education Award” for a new secondary school drug education curriculum, to be rolled out statewide this year after a successful trial across 21 schools.

Under the program, students learn about the risks of drugs and alcohol in a realistic fashion. As one of its developers put it, they learn “practical skills, like how to pour a standard drink so they know the strengths of different kinds of alcohol”. Or, in the minister’s words, “Victoria is leading the way when it comes to creating drug education programs that have a real and positive impact on students”.

While the government doesn’t want to spell it out this way, the message of such programs is that drug and alcohol use among young people is something to be managed, not eliminated. Indoctrination of the “just say no”  kind doesn’t stop drug use, it just drives it into the most unhealthy and dangerous forms.

In their very different ways, the voters of Mexico and the education bureaucrats of Victoria seem to have reached the same conclusion: prohibition and confrontation are a dead end. It’s time to try something different.

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  • 1
    mikeb
    Posted Wednesday, 4 July 2012 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

    Without knowing more about Mexican drug cartels apart from media reports it seems a no-brainer to me that, of course, there would be less deaths if the cartels were largely ignored and left to their own devices. By “allowing these groups to be in business” the PRI are basically saying that it’s ok to traffic drugs to our children as long as they don’t cause too much trouble for us. You’d like to think our kids would be smart enough to always say “no thanks – cocaine will be bad for my health and future wellbeing” but we all know that the brain does not reach maturity until well into the twenties. The awareness of consequence in teenagers is sadly undeveloped – as just about all parents will attest. You might call me cold-hearted but I really don’t care how many drug dealers or runners or whatever die as long as long as the innocent are protected. And to those who say that prohibition doesn’t work – well maybe you are right, but do you also really think that drug use would drop if it was freely & readily available? I don’t think so.

  • 2
    warwick fry
    Posted Thursday, 5 July 2012 at 4:10 am | Permalink

    Mike - the problem with the confrontational strategy against the drug cartels is not that the drug runners get killed, but innocent bystanders (and, incidentally, the cops). Inform yourself of the situation in Mexico, and other Latin American countries, and you will learn that the ‘war against drugs’, in terms of the death toll exceeds the effects of, for example, the 12 year civil war in El Salvador. The drug lords use terror and random killings to make their point. In El Salvador there was a teachers’ strike in protest at the death threats and beatings, while students dropped out of school to avoid persecution when they declined attempts to ‘recruit’ them into the drug-lord controlled gangs.

    Charles - Good to see an article that calls attention from our remote sector of the globe to what is essentially a global problem. I think it is worth adding the observation that the US was snubbed at the recent Summit of the Americas (held ironically in Colombia) where the question of decriminalising much drug use was raised. The Latin American countries are realising that the ‘war against drugs’ only seems to have one beneficiary - the US. There have been recent, and convincing allegations that the US banking system is to a large degree dependent on the money laundering required for massive drug transactions, and that perhaps blocking the outlet rather than the supply might have better effect.

    My extensive experience of Latin America is that alcohol abuse is far more of a social problem (putting aside the criminal element and corruption involved in the ‘hard’ drug traffic) than the recreational use of marijuana or cocaine. In fact, in Bolivia where one can buy coca leaves freely in the market, habituation to cocaine seems to be only a problem with the expatriate Europeans and North Americans.

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