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Last Updated: 06/04/2012How to Transform Drug Policy in Mexico: Suggestions to the Next President
Hye Young Kim
The upcoming presidential elections in Mexico may provide an opportunity to break from the failed policies of the ongoing "war on drugs" and pursue an alternative, rights-based, and public health-centered drug policy. After discussing the social costs and self-defeating rhetoric of the "war on drugs", this paper offers some hope that a change is in the air, and makes several concrete policy recommendations for the incoming president.
My government is absolutely determined to continue fighting against criminality without quarter until we put a stop to this common enemy and obtain the Mexico we want. – President Felipe Calderón
In Mexico, barely a day goes by without reports of horrific carnage related to the current “war on drugs” which has been ongoing since President Felipe Calderón came to power in 2006. The headline news regarding 49 headless corpses, committed by one of the notorious drug cartels and found near the northern city of Monterrey on 13 May 2012, has again shed light on the devastating impacts of Mexico’s drug war. The cost of the “war on drugs” is incalculable. In its recent report, entitled Neither Rights Nor Security: Killings, Torture, and Disappearances in Mexico’s “War on Drugs” (HRW 2011), Human Rights Watch notes that the country has experienced a staggering rise in violence with overall homicide rate having jumped by over 260 percent from 2007 to 2010, after declining steadily for nearly two decades. Although official figures are uncertain, the National Security Center (CISEN) estimates that there have been more than 28,000 deaths from December 2006 to the end of 2010 (Barrett 2011). However, recent media reports suggest the accumulated death toll has reached as high as 55,000 since the inception of the war.
The increasing incidents of violence are largely attributed to the struggle between and within powerful cartels to control the drug trade and other lucrative illicit businesses. The drug cartels have committed serious crimes against one another as well as against members of the security forces. In addition, their illegal activities have “touched virtually every sphere of public life, from extortions of small businesses to blockades of major highways; from closures of schools to nighttime curfews; from mass kidnappings to assassinations of public officials” (HRW 2011). What is more disturbing is the fact that they have terrorized the whole Mexican society by, for example, public displays of violence (HRW 2011). In response, the Calderón administration took harsh measures and initiated military intervention against the drug cartels. As a starting point, he sent about 7,000 federal troops to the state of Michoacán and the military operations soon extended to several other states such as Chihuahua, Sinaloa, and Baja California (Barrett 2011). More than 30,000 soldiers were deployed in different cities in the country, and the highways and streets were soon filled with military and security forces (Barrett 2011).
The war on drugs in Mexico, a policy driven by militarization and criminalization, has been proven not only ineffective as a means of dealing with drug-related organized crime, but has demonstrably worsened the bloodshed. Mexicans, frustrated by the failed response of the government, have shown their anger and disappointment through various mass demonstrations demanding an end to the drug war and impunity for the violence it has generated. In this respect, the upcoming presidential election, which will be held on 1 July 2012, may provide an important opportunity to revisit, reexamine, and reorient the current government’s drug policy. This paper thus aims to provide policy recommendations to the new leader of the country. To do so, I will first critically analyze the rhetoric of existing drug policies at the international and national level. Secondly, I will discuss human rights violations as a result of the flawed drug policy and war on drugs in Mexico. Given the social costs, I will argue for a rights-based drug policy which promotes an evidence-based and public health-centered approach, rather than the militarized, repressive, and prohibitionist approach that currently characterizes Mexico’s drug policy.
(1) Rhetoric of Drug Policy: ‘Demonization’ and ‘Degeneration’
Drug policies in most countries are driven by political rhetoric preying on public fear. To understand the origin of the language, it is worth exploring international drug policy for the last half century. There are three treaties which have governed international drug policy with the specific purpose of reducing supply and demand for certain substances: (1) the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs; (2) the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances; and (3) the 1988 Convention Against the Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances. The language of UN legal mechanisms concentrates mainly on controls, guiding the development of restrictive and punitive policies at national level in the name of reducing illicit use and supply(Takahashi 2009). In particular, the 1988 Convention is the most prescriptive and punitive of the three, aiming at increased international law enforcement and stronger domestic criminal legislation (Barrett and Nowak 2009). But, in general, each treaty encourages criminal sanctions to be put in place at the national level.
These treaties allow us to see how the narratives in most national drug policies are formed: it is an exceptional, existential threat to our health, our security, and indeed the very fabric of society. According to the 1961 Convention, the addiction to narcotic drugs is an “evil” and it is the government as well as the international community who should bear a moral duty to combat it because it is a danger of “incalculable gravity” that warrants a series of extraordinary measures. Therefore, it is not surprising to find how such perception has been deeply embedded in government policies. Mexico is not an exception. Isaac Campos (2010) from University of Cincinnati explains how the concept of “degeneration” has shaped the drug policy of the country. Drugs including alcohol have been considered as a “substance that degenerated entire races and placed the national security at risk”, by causing crime, madness, and death (Campos 2010, p.399). This, in turn, has led to nation-wide campaigns against drug abuse culminating in Mexico’s modern war on drugs; a law governing the import and distribution of the opiates, cocaine, and marijuana, was declared in 1920 (Campos 2010).
One of the most effective rhetorical justifications for the prohibition of drugs at any cost has been the ‘protection of children’ (Barrett 2011). When US President Richard Nixon officially launched a “war on drugs” in 1971, declaring drug abuse to be “public enemy number one,” he brought special attention to children and young people who could be in danger by the use of narcotics and dangerous drugs. Ironically, however, children, as well as the general population, have experienced a wide range of human rights violations precisely because of drug control efforts. In the city of Juárez, Mexico alone an estimated 10,000 children have been orphaned by the drug war violence.
(2) Drug War, Undermining Human Rights
In fact, the punitive response to drug use and possession, which focuses on criminalization and legal enforcement, often marginalizes human rights standards. The world has witnessed the emergence of a massive illicit market under the current prohibition-based drug control regime with an estimated annual value of $320 billion (Wood et all 2009). Significantly, countries with the world’s most punitive drug laws, such as China, the US, and Russia, have failed to prove that more stringent prohibitive drug policies lead to lower levels of drug use (Wood et all 2009). Rather, more problems have emerged, such as an increasing number of incarcerated populations, rising risks of the HIV transmission through drug injection, and elevated rates of drug-related mortality.
Another consequence of prohibitive drug policies has been the widespread violation of the right to a fair trial and due process. According to Count the Costs (2011), a collaborative project between a range of organizations marking the 50th anniversary of the 1961 Convention, elements of drugs enforcement in many countries, including Mexico, have seen a reversal of the burden of proof from the ‘presumption of innocence” to a ‘presumption of guilt’. The phenomenon is most commonly associated with threshold quantities for drug possession; therefore, if the threshold is crossed there is a presumption of a supply or trafficking offence, invariably associated with a dramatic ramping up in punitive responses (Count the Costs 2011). Even the death penalty is a mandatory sentence in some countries for possession above a certain threshold. Under such policy, detention without trial, over-incarceration and various forms of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment are unsurprisingly common (Count the Costs 2011).
In conjunction with this, “legalization” of drugs has been much discussed recently (Nicoll 2012). Already a few US states have legalized the use of marijuana for medical purposes and several Latin American presidents have joined the call for policies that combine legalization and decriminalization with more focus on prevention and treatment programs. Considering that for most Mexican drug cartels, trafficking and distribution of the plant is their primary source of revenue, legalizing marijuana for at least recreational use would break down the vicious cycle that feeds the black market. However, resistance to change is ever strong. The International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), an independent committee charged with monitoring application of the provisions of the 1961 Convention by state parties, strongly resists the idea of legalization as it may jeopardize the current drug control system. Furthermore, the US is also staunchly opposed to legalization. Given that it is the largest consumption country where most drugs from Latin America including Mexico are trafficked, the US role is crucial. However, it appears to be unlikely that the US will legalize drugs in the near future.
Human rights violations in Mexico due to the drug war have been routinely reported. Complaints relating to military and police abuses made to national human rights commissions have increased by a dramatic 900% since the beginning of the drug war in 2006 (Count the Costs 2011; HRW 2011). Attacks on journalists, human rights defenders and migrants by criminal groups and security forces have gone uninvestigated. For example, 35 journalists were killed with eight more missing, feared dead, between 2007 and 2010; and in Veracruz police officers kidnapped, robbed, and beat a journalist who had earlier witnessed police attacking a reporter. In addition, as Barnett (2011) has documented, children and entire families have been killed at drug war military checkpoints. These include Bryan and Martin Almanza, aged five and nine, killed when soldiers opened fire on their vehicle in April 2010. In June 2007, two women and three children, aged two, four, and seven, were shot and killed when they failed to stop at a military checkpoint involved in “the permanent campaign against drug trafficking”. More recently, a child of fifteen and his father were killed by soldiers in Monterrey, with relatives saying they were shot without any indication to stop (Barrett 2011).
(3) Investigating Drug Policy in Mexico
Mexico’s drug policy, as pointed out earlier, has been largely driven by fear of insecurity and violence, which effectively justifies repressive militarized intervention. The government boasts the success of its drug policy only through the numbers of people incarcerated or the capture of high-level targets of organized crime; but says nothing about the social determinants that propel the business (Zedillo and Wheeler 2012). In this atmosphere, little room has been given for the formulation of an alternative policy, in particular, a policy based on health, human rights, and rule of law.
Of course, there have been signs of a potential policy shift, for example, the Obama administration announced its abandonment of the phrase, “war on drugs”, and began to focus more on demand reduction (Boddiger 2010). For their part, Mexico has passed a law that decriminalizes possession of very small amounts of illicit drugs, aiming to differentiate drug users (who need medical treatment) from drug dealers. Another notable policy initiation is a program called “New Life” through which the government has established a national network of prevention and treatment centers in high-risk communities (Boddiger 2010). It is estimated that between 1300 and 1730 public clinics are in operation offering community-based prevention initiatives (Boddiger 2010). Notwithstanding some of the positive changes, there remain many challenges within Mexico’s current drug policy.
First of all, a public health approach is largely absent. Although Mexico is not considered to be the highest consumption country in the world, a recent statistic shows that there is a tendency of steady growth of drug consumption like marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamines (Zedillo and Wheeler 2012). According to Encuesta Nacional de Adicciones 2002-2008, 6% of the Mexican population has experimented with some illegal drug and 18% of students in Mexico City use illegal drugs at least once in their lives. Overshadowed by the ‘war on drug’ rhetoric, however, the public health approach has received very little attention in terms of budgets, institutional development, or accountability, results and transparency (Zedillo and Wheeler 2012).
Worse even, the government has not prepared a comprehensive drug prevention strategy, which is further exacerbated by the lack of coordination between social, educational, and security institutions (Zedillo and Wheeler 2012). The socially imposed stigmas on drug users often become obstacles for them to reach out to the health care. The insufficient health system has lead to a burgeoning of underground rehab places called “Anexos” that are uncertified compulsory treatment centers (Boddiger 2010; Dávalos 2011). Allegedly, these “treatment” centers are not much different from prison: there is no professionally trained staff and rampant human rights violations are regularly committed inside the centers including physical and psychological abuses, massive killings, and enforced slavery (Dávalos 2011). The fact that people are admitted into these centers without proper registry system makes people more vulnerable to any kind of abuses with no rights (Zedillo and Wheeler 2012).
Mexico’s drug policy has suffered also from a poor record of rule of law. The legal system for protecting human rights in the country has been dramatically weakened by, for example, eliminating restrictions over detention while the prosecution gathers evidence, or avoiding civil trials for crimes committed by the military (HRW 2011). The law against “small-scale” trafficking, albeit praised as a benevolent initiative, clearly demonstrates how improper the judicial system is and how a deficiency of law can do more harm, especially to poor and marginalized populations. Against its original intention, due to the low threshold, almost any user can be considered a criminal instead of a consumer (Zedillo and Wheeler 2012), this is because the law states that possessing above ½ gram of cocaine is considered a criminal offense. In reality, because cocaine is sold in grams, it is likely that simple consumers will be charged as criminals.
Consider the figures (Zedillo and Wheeler 2012): 35% of the imprisoned population in Mexico are associated with drug-related crimes; and 75% of them are in jail because of drugs worth less than $100, with 20% of them actually being held for amounts worth less than $15. Without good legal defense, which requires a lot of money, the poor easily fall into the flawed prosecution system; while heavy traffickers can take advantage of the judicial structural failures and use their economic influence to get lesser sentences. As a result, it is the most vulnerable who are often criminalized under the drug policy, without any human rights protection mechanism provided by the state (Barrett and Nowak 2009).
TRANSFORMATION IN DRUG POLICY
The upcoming presidential election is expected to provide an opportunity to bring alternative perspectives to formulate a different policy. In this respect, the following recommendations can be considered.
Letter for the New President of Mexico with Policy Recommendations
Given the discussion above, please consider the following list of recommendations for reorienting the direction of drug policy in Mexico.
Six years have now passed since the Calderón administration launched the “War on Drugs” with a package of repressive military interventions in the name of cracking down drug cartels. The rhetoric of war and threat of security has justified the continuation of the failed government policy. Having witnessed the devastating impacts in every corner of the society, Mexican people are now calling for a transformation of drug policy. Mexico, as a responsible government, should listen to the demands from the people and try to fulfill its obligations. As a new administration is about to come in, providing an opportunity to revisit, re-examine, and re-orient the direction of drug policy of the country. Because the causes of the problem are not simple and there are many socio-economic factors involved, adopting a human rights-based and public health-centered approach will allow the government to bring alternative perspectives to form a better policy.
Barrett, Damon. (2011). (Ed.). Children of the Drug War: Perspectives on the Impact of Drug Policies on Young People. NY: International Debate Education Association.
Barrett, Damon and Nowak, Manfred (2009). The United Nations and Drug Policy: Towards a Human Rights-Based Approach (August 25). The Diversity Of International Law: Essays in Honour of Professor Kalliopi K. Koufa, pp. 449-477, Aristotle Constantinides and Nikos Zaikos, eds., Brill/Martinus Nijhoff. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1461445.
Boddiger, David. (2010). “World Report: Mexico Eager to Reduce Demand for Illicit Drugs”. The Lancet. 2 January, Vol.375: 15-6.
Campos, Isaac. (2010). Degeneration and the Origins of Mexico’s War on Drugs. Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos Summer. 26(2): 379-408.
Counting the Costs. (2011). “The War on Drugs: Undermining Human Rights”, Human Rights Brief. Available at http://www.countthecosts.org/seven-costs/undermining-human-rights.
Dávalos, Carlos. (2011). “Salvation or Tragedy: The Dichotomy of Drug Rehab in Mexico City”. Blog article posted at http://bit.ly/MYN60j.
Human Rights Watch (HRW). (2011). Neither Rights Nor Security: Killings, Torture, and Disappearances in Mexico’s “War on Drugs”. NY: Human Rights Watch. November.
Mariner, Wendy K. (2003). “Public Health and Law: Past and Future Visions”. Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law, April 28(2-3): 525-552.
Takahashi, Saul. (2009). Drug Control, Human Rights, and the Right to the Highest Attainable Standard of Health: By No Means Straightforward Issues. Human Rights Quarterly, August 31(3): 748-776.
Wood, Evan; Werb, Daniel; Marshall, Brandon D.L.; Montaner, Julio S.G.; and Kerr, Thomas. (2009). “The War on Drugs: A Devastating Public-Policy Disaster”. The Lancet. 21 March, Vol.373: 989-90.
Zedillo, Ernesto. and Wheeler, Haynie. (2012). (Eds.). Rethinking the “War on Drugs” Through the US-Mexico Prism. Yale Center for the Study of Globalization.
 Quoted in Rory Carroll, “Mexico Drug War: The New Filling Fields,” Guardian, 3 September 2010.
 There are numerous reports and films regarding Mexico’s drug war. Mexico’s Drug War, BBC This World (http://bit.ly/I9HFIf); Drug War Timeline, TIME (http://ti.me/nnFcf); a series of in-depth coverage by NPR (http://n.pr/cXt7gV); Courtney Farrell, The Mexican Drug War, 2012 are some of the examples.
 Karla Zabludovsky, “Police Find 49 Bodies by a Highway in Mexico”, New York Times, 13 May 2012.
 Mexico’s Drug War: Some Advice for the Next President, World Crunch, 15 May 2012. Original article in Spanish appeared in América economia on 10 May 2012.
 It is called “Operation Michoacán”, a joint operation by Federal Police and the Mexican military to eliminate drug plantations and to combat drug trafficking, initiated on 11 December 2006. See, Sara Miller Llana, “With Calder-n in, a new war on Mexico’s mighty drug cartels”, Christian Science Monitor, 22 January 2007.
 On the current Mexican government’s response to drug-related crime, in his article, “An Assessment of Illegal Protection Markets in Mexico” in Zedillo and Wheeler (2012), Eduardo Guerrero Gutiérrez provides useful information.
 Daniela Pastrana, “Four-Day March against Violence Calls for Social Pact”, Inter Press Service (IPS), 9 May 2011.
 Entered into force in 1964, The 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs was amended by its 1972 protocol. The Convention currently has 61 Signatories and 153 Parties. Mexico ratified on 18 Apr 1967. See, http://bit.ly/M3HNxr.
 Entered into force in 1990, the 1988 United Nations Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances current has 87 Signatories and 186 Parties. Mexico ratified on 11 April 1990. See, http://bit.ly/L2kRtw.
 1961 Single Convention, Preamble.
 1988 Convention, Preamble.
 Adriana G-mez Lic-n, “Juárez Violence Leaves Thousands of Children Orphaned, Traumatized,” El Paso Times, 10 October 2010. Quoted in Barrett 2011.
 Fair trial and due process is guaranteed under Article 14(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political rights.
 For more information, see, Patrick Gallahue and Rick Lines, “The Death Penalty for Drug Offences: Global Overview 2010”, International Harm Reduction Association. Available at http://bit.ly/KZwQaq.
 There are some confusion regarding terminologies such as decriminalization, depenalization and legalization. There are no universally accepted definitions and thus interpretations frequently vary. Yet, in the most common English usage, ‘decriminalization’ is the elimination of a conduct or activity from the sphere of criminal law, while depenalization is simply the relaxation of the penal sanction provided for by law. ‘Legalization’ refers to the removal from the sphere of criminal law of all drug-related offences: use, possession, cultivation, production, trading, and so on. See, Martin Jelsma, “Lessons Learned and Strategic Challenges for the Future,” Series on Legislative Reform of Drug Policies10, February 2011.
 Currently, 16 US states (Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Vermont) and Washington D.C. have legalized medical use of Marijuana. See, http://bit.ly/9cwYW7.
 Takahashi (2009) provides detailed information about International Narcotics Control Board. See pages 752-3.
 In fact, just released 2012 National Drug Control Strategy still maintains the decades of US policy that has largely focused on prohibition and legal enforcement. Although some positive changes can be acknowledged such as new strategy and budget in terms of both rhetoric and substance, still there is much room to change. The report is available at http://1.usa.gov/HQkfZ7; also, see Analysis by International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC), entitled “Just How “new” is the 2012 US National Drug Control Strategy?” http://bit.ly/LVYdq6.
 Recently at the Summit of the Americas held in Colombia during 14-15 April 2012, the presidents of Guatemala, Colombia, Costa Rica, and El Salvador have voiced support for an end to the drug war; yet, Obama administration refused the growing call for drug legalization. Instead, he pledged more than #130 million in aid for increasing security and pursuing narco-traffickers and drug cartels in Latin America. See, news report by Democracy Now on 16 April 2012. http://bit.ly/IGouY6.
 For example, between 2003-6, the Commission received 691 complaints of human rights abuses committed by soldiers against civilians and the number increased to 4,803 complaints in the 2007-10 period. The response of the Commission is really disappointing: it issued five recommendations concluding federal authorities had committed torture from 2003-6, and it issued twenty-five from 2007-10. See, HRW 2011, p.7.
 According to C.-E. A. Winslow, , Public Health is the science and art of preventing disease, prolonging life, and promoting health and efficiency through organized community effort for the sanitation of the environment, the control of communicable infections, the education of the individual in personal hygiene, the organization of medical and nursing services for the early diagnosis and preventive treatment of disease, and the development of the social machinery to insure everyone a standard of living adequate for the maintenance of health, so organizing these benefits as to enable every citizen to realize his birthright of health and longevity. See, C.-E.A. Winslow (1920), “The Untilled Fields of Public Health”, Science, 51:23–33.Also worth mentioning is the definition in the influential 1988 Report of the Institute of Medicine entitled “The Future of Public health” which defined public health as “what we, as a society, do collectively to ensure the conditions in which people can be health”.
 See, Economic and Social Council, General Comment No.14, E/C.12/2000/4, 11 August 2000.
 1961 Single Convention, preamble and Article 2.
 Article 103 of the UN Charter states that “In the event of a conflict between the obligations of the Members of the United Nations under the present Charter and their obligations under any other international agreement, their obligations under the present Charter shall prevail”.
 The General Assembly has consistently adopted resolutions declaring that international drug control must be carried out in conformity with the Charter, and with full respect for human rights. See, GA Resolutions 62/176 and 63/197.
Harris, “Decriminalisation: Pushing the limits of drug control”, International Harm Reduction Association Conference, Liverpool, 27 April 2010. See also, a Report by Special Rapporteur on the right to health presented at the General Assembly on 6 August 2010 (A/65/255).
Hye Young Kim holds a Masters Degree from the Elliot School of International Affairs at George Washington University focusing on Conflict Resolution and International Development and is currently completing further graduate study in International Law and Human Rights at the University for Peace. Her research interest includes: 'Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict', 'International Humanitarian Law', 'Arms Trade Treaty', 'International Law and Justice', 'Civil Society and Social Movement'...etc. She has worked in several humanitarian and development organizations over the past 5 years.