Billions Wasted in Mexico Pushing Failed U.S. Drug War Tactics

A new report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) makes painfully clear that the U.S. is wasting hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars on the drug war in Mexico, with little oversight, instead of investing in proven strategies to reduce drug demand and weaken Mexico's powerful drug cartels.

The GAO report, released on Wednesday, says that, after two full years, the U.S. has no clear measures in place to determine if its $1.6 billion aid package to Mexico-known as the Merida Initiative -is having any impact whatsoever on the strength of the cartels.

The report is the latest indication of failure in the war on drugs, of which there is crystal clear evidence. Nearly 25,000 people have been killed in Mexico because of prohibition-related violence since President Felipe Calderon unleashed the Mexican army against the cartels, who appear stronger than ever, three years ago. Yet drugs remain as widely used and easily available in the U.S. as ever.

For this failure, Mexico pays a huge price. The past month has been one of the bloodiest on record: hundreds of homicides each week, 18 partygoers gunned down in the city of Torreon, a brazen car bomb attack in Ciudad Juarez-now the world's deadliest city, an attack on a drug treatment center -- which seems to be a growing trend -- in the city of Chihuahua that killed 19 people; and several high-profile political killings, including the assassination of Rodolfo Torre Cantu, a popular frontrunner in a gubernatorial campaign in the border state of Tamaulipas.

News of Torre's assassination shook the country, with experts saying it's the most notable political murder in two decades. But like other Mexican politicians and law enforcement officials who have been slain, or who have been found guilty of corruption and collusion with the cartels, the assassination is proof that the failure of this drug war is claiming more than individual lives. It is destroying Mexico's democratic institutions.

There's an even darker side to the Merida Initiative program. Not only do these funds lack basic standards of accountability, but they are not linked to other important criteria - namely, a respect for human rights. Human rights organizations have documented numerous abuses since the Mexican army was sent into the streets. Only 15 percent of Merida Initiative monies, however, are contingent upon upholding human rights standards.

No matter how many tanks, helicopters and bombs the U.S. provides, the Mexican military will not be able to outgun the cartels, whose profits daily increase because of the U.S. demand for drugs, which, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described on her first visit to Mexico, is "insatiable".

At least she and other members of the Obama administration have paid some lip service to reducing drug demand in the U.S. through education, prevention and treatment. But the recently released 2010 National Drug Control Strategy is more of the same: 64 percent of the federal drug control budget focuses on largely futile supply-side policies like eradication, interdiction, and enforcement (of which the Merida Initiative is a huge chunk), while only 36 percent is devoted to the demand-side of the equation.

In truth, the governments of the U.S. and Mexico are failing in every way: not spending money where it counts, and not evaluating how they do spend our money- perhaps out of a knowledge that it's all going down the drain anyways. Both governments continue to claim that the rising bloodshed is a sign of "weakness" on the part of cartels, but the reality in large parts of Mexico could not be bleaker.

The easiest way for the U.S. to help Mexico is to reinvest this money into education, prevention and treatment - with real, numerical measurements for success.

But more fundamentally, the U.S. needs to acknowledge that the violence in Mexico is related to the prohibition of drugs, not drugs themselves - just like the violent gangsters of Alcohol Prohibition. The only way forward, then, is to pursue alternatives to prohibition - an exit strategy to the drug war. Activists and intellectuals across the hemisphere, including former presidents of Mexico and other Latin American countries, are calling for a new paradigm in U.S. drug policy, beginning with marijuana.

In fact, Calderon's predecessor, Vicente Fox, has openly called for legalizing marijuana, an idea that is gaining traction as a first step to more effectively combating the cartels. According to U.S. government officials, more than half of cartel profits may come from the marijuana trade. Legalizing marijuana, as Californians will have the opportunity to do in November, will go a long way towards weakening the cartels, greatly increasing the likelihood that future military operations against them will have measurable success.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

alternet logo

Tough Times

Demand honest news. Help support AlterNet and our mission to keep you informed during this crisis.