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Beyond the War on Drugs

Gema Kloppe-Santamaría

This essay is part of the Reimagining the Future of U.S.-Mexico Security Cooperation Roundtable. Read the other essays here.

Cooperation between Mexico and the United States on matters of security is facing one of its most challenging moments. Under the Mérida Initiative, launched in 2007, the two countries were able to build mutual trust, reach a greater level of alignment in their security agenda, and work towards a model of cooperation that acknowledged each of these countries’ responsibility in the creation of security threats. Today, security cooperation between these countries is significantly undermined by mistrust, mutual accusations, and lack of agreement regarding the security priorities and strategies that should be pushed forward in order to create more peaceful and inclusive societies on both sides of the border.

Although not new, several of the contemporary challenges in US-Mexico security cooperation were heightened under the Trump administration (2016-2020), which privileged a unilateralist and defensive understanding of security that focused for the most part on militarizing the US-Mexico border, stepping up the control and criminalization of undocumented migrants, and combating transnational criminal organizations through the kingpin strategy. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), who came to power over two years ago with the promise of ending Mexico’s war on drugs and transitioning from an all-out-war approach to one focused on the economic and institutional determinants of criminal violence, responded to Trump’s demands by sending the newly created National Guard to prevent the entrance of undocumented migrants, mostly from Central America, into the country. As previous administrations, he also continued to target and extradite top criminal leaders, despite extensive evidence demonstrating the pitfalls and detrimental consequences of these measures for citizens’ security on the ground. At the same time, AMLO has continued to use the military in public security operations, an approach that has over the last ten years resulted in an increase on levels of lethal violence, extrajudicial killings, and human rights violations.

As the recent arrest and consecutive release by US authorities of Mexican general and former minister of defense, Salvador Cienfuegos, under the pressure of Mexico’s government, the emphasis on militarized and short-term approaches is not solely the result of US pressure. It also follows from Mexico’s own decision to privilege reactive and repressive responses to criminal violence, as well as to defer the adoption of much-needed institutional reforms to strengthen the transparency, accountability, and efficiency of its justice and security institutions.

The arrival of President Joseph Biden to power this past January, however, offers the opportunity to shift security cooperation efforts from a defensive and all-out-war approach to one focused on targeted integral responses that address the institutional and social determinants of criminal violence. President Biden has expressed his willingness to enhance more respectful and coordinated forms of cooperation between the two countries and to advance a security cooperation agenda that incorporates more humane and integral responses to the drug problem and to the humanitarian challenges posed by undocumented migration. AMLO has thus the opportunity to go back to some of his initial promises and demonstrate the extent to which his government is willing to go beyond a vague rhetoric of “abrazos, no balazos” (hugs, not bullets) as well as beyond a defensive and nationalist position, in order to push for concrete strategies to address the several threats impacting citizens’ security and wellbeing.

There are three specific areas that should inform US-Mexico security cooperation during the next four years in order to move beyond the current “war-on-drugs” and militarized approach that captures most cooperation efforts.

First, both countries should foster a better understanding of the many security threats that, beyond the drug-problem, impact citizen’s physical and material integrity. US-Mexico security cooperation has, for too long, revolved almost exclusively around the illicit trafficking of drugs. This vision is shortsighted and outdated. Mexican TCOs have, for several years now, diversified their criminal activities beyond drug-related activities and incorporate instead oil theft, extortions, kidnappings, and human trafficking. Having a better and more accurate diagnosis of how insecurity is experienced and perceived on the ground by citizens is central to promoting more effective and more legitimate security responses. For various individuals and communities in Mexico, it is not the presence of drug-trafficking what impacts their daily life, but the extortions and kidnappings carried out by TCOs or by more domestic criminal groups, next to robberies, femicides, and other inter-personal forms of violence that escape the war on drugs narrative. Both countries should invest in the creation of more local and bottom-up diagnosis that, in conjunction with local stakeholders –including state actors and community leaders – can create a roadmap of what types of policy interventions would be most effective for creating more resilient and peaceful communities.

Second, while both countries should move beyond an exclusive focus on the drug problem, drugs are certainly still a key area of concern for both countries, both in terms of the different forms of violence triggered by the drug business as well as in terms of the levels of harm produced by drug abuse not only in the United States but also in Mexico. According to the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention, close to 450, 000 people died from an overdose that involved opioids, either from commercial or illicit sources, from 1999 to 2018. Mexican criminal organizations, including the Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG) and the Sinaloa Cartel, have increasingly got involved in the production and smuggling of fentanyl to the United States. Law enforcement and security cooperation efforts should thus prioritize the targeting of TCOs involved in trafficking of fentanyl. However, rather than reproducing the highly-ineffective kingpin strategies, cooperation efforts should involve concerted efforts to identify and arrest mid-level members of these criminal organizations, and to undermine the financial sources that make these criminal organizations’ activities possible. Only then will law enforcement efforts have a more long-lasting impact in debilitating TCOs criminal structure. Moreover, these strategies should go hand in hand with policies that address the drug problem from a health perspective. Biden has expressed his willingness to decriminalize drugs and favor instead medical regulation and assisting citizens’ access to substance abuse treatments. AMLO should take Biden’s position as an opportunity to materialize some of his initial promises to move beyond a war on drugs approach towards a strategy centered on harm reduction and the legalization of certain drugs.

Lastly, both governments should work towards cooperation initiatives that address the socioeconomic and institutional drivers informing Central America’s current refugee and migration crisis. Just this past January, an estimated 7,000 Central American migrants, many of them from Honduras, tried to cross the Guatemalan border in order to continue their trip to Mexico and eventually to the United States. In contrast to the Trump administration, President Biden has pledged to adopt a more humanitarian response to this crisis. Just as Mexican migration to the US, Central American migration is informed by lack of economic opportunities, high levels of impunity, as well as by the challenges of violence and insecurity impacting citizens. Prior to taking power, President López Obrador had also promised to address questions of migration from a more integral perspective. In light of Biden’s position, both countries should then coordinate an assistance strategy that combines targeted prevention efforts with the strengthening and professionalization of the security and justice sectors of Central American countries, particularly those of the so-called northern triangle.


Gema Kloppe-Santamaría is an assistant professor of Latin American history at Loyola University, Chicago. Her research analyzes the history of Latin American processes of state building across the 20th and 21st centuries, with a particular attention to questions of violence, crime, justice, and the rule of law.


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