April 24th, 2012
08:40 AM ET

Zakaria: Is Mexico winning the drug war?

By Fareed Zakaria, CNN

The drug wars dominate the discussion in Mexico and in many border states in America as well. There have been nearly 50,000 drug-related killings in Mexico since President Felipe Calderón began his six-year term. That's more than twice as many civilian deaths in the same period in Afghanistan.

Calderón is widely viewed as having blundered in taking on the drug cartels. But I have always admired his courage in doing so. And it might just be paying rewards.

Robert Bonner is a former U.S. drug enforcement official and he's also served as a commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. In a recent op-ed as well as a forthcoming Foreign Affairs assay, Bonner argues that despite the negative headlines, President Calderón has made huge gains against the drug lords.

Bonner's point is that when Calderón came to power, Mexico's half-dozen cartels were making up to $10 billion in annual revenue from drugs alone. They bribed officials and the police. Those they could not bribe, they killed. Calderón had no existing means to defeat them so he enlisted the military, a group force that could target cartel leaders and win in an all-out gun battle.

Fifty thousand lives is a heavy price to pay, but this was never going to be an easy war. The cartels had almost taken over Mexico. (More: Mexico drug war – Bodies for billions)

Now the data proves Bonner's point. It seems the tide is finally turning. Using Calderón's strategy, the Mexican government has killed more than 40 major cartel members. The Economist magazine points out that between 2007 and 2008, the number of drug-related killings in Mexico rose by 29 percent. In the next two years, it rose by 22 percent, then by 28 percent. Last year, however, there were signs of a plateau with only an 8 percent rise.

With many cartels now severely weakened, that number could fall further. A Pew poll conducted last spring shows that 45 percent of Mexicans believe the government is making progress against the cartels; 83 percent support Calderón's strategy of using the army to fight them.

When a government forcefully commits to take on an internal terrorist or drug group, it usually wins. This is what happened in Colombia over the last decade and it will likely happen in Mexico over the next few years as long as Calderon's successor stays with the fight.

The Mexican elections begin in July and Calderón steps down in December. If Mexico's children are indeed to grow up in safer conditions, then its leaders need to continue to press on in the war on drugs.

Even Mexicans who have lived with the violence agree on one thing - some action is better than the previous policy of no action at all.

Of course, success in Mexico probably means the cartels will move to Central America. Guatemala is already becoming the next frontier.

You see, then the richest country in the world has an insatiable demand for drugs. Someone is going to produce them and meet that demand...but that's for another post.


soundoff (460 Responses)
  1. Fernando X. Gaxiola

    The US public demanded that our government leave Vietnam when we lost about 47,500 soldiers and the same demand was made in Irak when a lot less soldiers were killed. Unless there is a real threat and our interests are severely threatened, we Americans are not ready to put our lives on the line. However, Mexicans and Latinamericans are ebbing killed at unacceptable rates every day and we, the United States through its government, continue to demand from those countries that the bloodshed continue. This is wrong and unnecessary.
    We must admit that the "war on drugs" has failed and stop the violence by legalizing and regulating the growing, distributing and selling of marihuana, cocaine and all other drugs.

    April 29, 2012 at 7:16 am | Reply
  2. C Jones

    All the more reason to provide a safe, legal way for people to access drugs. I don't condone hard drug usage (marijuana not included), but to prevent these nasty underground cartels, there needs to be a transparent way for people to access them. The demand for drugs will not disappear with the cartels. In fact, it only makes me believe that eventually a newer, stronger criminal organization is forming to reign in the billions waiting to be had in the drug markets

    April 30, 2012 at 6:22 pm | Reply
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  4. tu

    And lets not forget that
    1. The real business is not the drug traffic, but the weapon and arms money. The drug traffic is only the mask and the "cause"
    2. USA , yes , is the major provider for illegal weapons into Mexico.
    3. How come our government goes to another continent to fight someone else's cause and they can not stop drug into our country, somebody must be getting big money for this

    May 4, 2012 at 2:02 am | Reply
  5. exdrugagent

    Unless junkies start saying "hey man, there's no where to score any more" , then we all know that the drug war has not been won. All the while innocent people in Mexico have to witness horrible murders, are subjected to ruthless bands of extortioners, and are even victims of the senseless violence that has ensued as a direct result of an imbalance in the drug cartel power structure, the only real effect of this drug war. – GP

    May 8, 2012 at 9:53 am | Reply
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