Respond, Yes, But Only the Right Way: The U.S. Debates Drug Cartel Violence in Mexico

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Day after day we hear nightmarish stories of gangland slayings in Mexico, as drug-related violence expands, affecting the lives of countless families and communities across Mexico, as well as the U.S-Mexico border region. Mexico’s Attorney General estimates that rival drug cartels killed 6,262 people in 2008.

And in the U.S. Congress and the White House, our policymakers are talking about “how to help Mexico.” Pentagon leaders are touring Mexico, talking in alarmist ways about failed states and pledging help. I am finding it eerily reminiscent of the days leading up to Plan Colombia.

Yes, the United States can and should help. But there are ways to respond that can help—and ways to respond that create new troubles ahead.

LAWG had the chance to testify before the House Foreign Operations Subcommittee on March 10.  Many thanks are due to Subcommittee Chair Nita Lowey for providing an opportunity for U.S. and Mexican nongovernmental groups to share perspectives and provide some advice and cautionary tales about what the United States should do—and avoid doing. See our testimony, testimony by Mexican human rights expert Ana Paula Hernandez, and testimony by the Washington Office on Latin America.

What should we do? By far the most important step we can take is to clean up our own act. We need to reduce demand for illicit drugs and stop the flow of assault weapons from the United States into Mexico.

To do this, the United States must take a public health approach, improving access to high-quality drug treatment programs. Each year barely one-fifth of the Americans in need of such treatment receive it. Expanding and improving treatment and prevention would be the single most important contribution that the U.S. government could make in addressing the problem caused by the illicit drug trade in Latin America. Any U.S. aid package, even if well designed, will not solve the problem but at best temporarily shift it, after enormous human suffering, to another geographical area. We owe it to our neighbors and to ourselves to finally test out more effective and humane public health solutions to this enduring problem.

Second, the United States must put a stop to the “iron river” of assault weapons flowing into Mexico. According to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), 90 percent of the weapons confiscated from organized crime in Mexico originate in the United States. The solutions are fairly well defined—we just need to muster the political will to accomplish them. They include enforcing the ban on importing assault weapons into the United States, enforcing the laws so dealers don’t sell to fronts to the drug cartels, and restoring an effective ban on sale of assault weapons in the United States.

Third, we can provide U.S. assistance to Mexico, but with a focus on strengthening the justice system and making civilian law enforcement more accountable. And with human rights requirements included and seriously enforced.

But what we should not do is also on the table for discussion in Washington right now. We should not, through U.S. aid, equipment and training, reinforce the role of the Mexican military in daily law enforcement. Human rights violations, such as the shooting of civilians by soldiers operating checkpoints, since 2006, when the military has been increasingly brought into policing roles.  When you take the army out of the barracks, it is often hard to put it back.

The United States so often responds to problems in Latin America—in this case, problems partly of our own making—as if guns and helicopters provide the solution. But this is not the answer, either for Mexico, or for the United States.