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Strategies for Mexico's drug war

Crime, Law and JusticeCrimeHealthMexicoMedicineDrug TraffickingNational Security

At times, the fight against drug trafficking in Mexico seems hopeless. The body count grows steadily, each massacre seemingly more gruesome than the one before. The flow of drugs to America and Europe continues virtually unabated. The Times asked experts and public figures in the U.S., Mexico and other parts of Latin America for their views on the problem and what should be done about it. The comments, compiled by Mexico City Bureau Chief Tracy Wilkinson, have been edited for space or clarity.

Fernando Rospigliosi

Former interior minister of Peru

The U.S. approach to fighting drugs is, I think, the only program that works. The problem, however, is that the United States is pulling back.

How can we have success in this fight? Within the National Police of Peru, I know there are specialized people. They could begin capturing entire bands of traffickers. You must attack on all fronts. It is police work, judicial work; you have to be well equipped and, unfortunately, we aren't.

The narco-trafficking problem in Peru has gotten worse in all aspects: the production of cocaine, violence and the corruption that comes from that. One of the aggravating factors was the launching of the [U.S.-financed] Plan Colombia, which started to work in the last decade and that has unleashed greater demand for Peruvian coca and cocaine. In addition, you have the increasingly strong entrance of Mexican cartels into Peru, and they have brought a kind of violence never before seen here.

The state attaches very little importance to this fight. There was no political will in the previous government nor in the current one, for various reasons, including fear and the scourge of corruption that reaches the highest levels. What does the state do? Small arrests, small seizures, but there is no defined, broad policy for confronting the problem.

-- From an interview with special correspondent Adriana Leon

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Sergio Fajardo

Former mayor of Medellin, Colombia, a onetime drug- trafficking hub where violence has been reduced significantly

Colombia's experience is that you get rid of some narcos and others come in and take their place. Their weapons are destruction, death and the ability to corrupt many facets of the state. You can't leave the slightest space in our cities or legitimate society for them to occupy. That's very important.

The doors into the drug world are very wide for the unemployed and the youth living in the poor barrios. You have to close or reduce the size of that doorway. How do you do that? With opportunities, creating jobs in those barrios with education and by establishing the state's presence in each community. We learned that many who entered criminality because they had no opportunity will return to society if they can go to work.

From a distance, it seems to me that Mexico will pass through a painful stage. There is much ground left for them to cover. My advice is that the government should not wait until they win the war to look at what they can do in the communities that produce these people. They should be thinking about the poor boy standing on a street corner, looking at that narco doorway and thinking about entering.

-- From an interview with Times staff writer Chris Kraul

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Maria Elena Morera

President of Mexico United Against Crime. Her husband survived a kidnapping, but his captors severed three of his fingers to pressure the family for ransom.

We have been stripped of our freedom to live without fear, stripped by the criminal action of lawbreakers and by the omissions of the authorities. The moment has arrived to cry out: Enough already! Our demands can be summed up in one phrase: to have good laws and make those laws obeyed by reconstructing our institutions:

1. A true national crime prevention policy that contains programs, city by city, that diagnose the problems and set forth remedies with time limits and budgets.

2. A unified national criminal database that uses top technology to collect, analyze and exploit information on crimes and criminals throughout the country.

3. Reconstruct federal, municipal and state police forces.

4. Reform the penal justice system. We want to unify the penal code so that all crimes are punished and pursued in the same way in all the country.

5. We want a national strategy against kidnapping, which should include the following points: fortifying kidnap investigation units at the federal level, and the state prosecutors at all levels; swifter prosecution, because slow justice is no justice; monitoring of convicted or accused kidnappers in prison; better tracking of cellphone use to pinpoint locations of users and their identities; empower authorities to confiscate assets of alleged criminals and break their financial structures; establish a national registry based on fingerprints of all people residing in Mexico; creation of a citizen watchdog, who has authority to denounce corrupt and inefficient officials.

-- From a speech this year

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Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera

Roman Catholic archbishop of Mexico

To be a witness, like John the Baptist, is not easy. It can cost you your life, as it did him. "But we must obey God before obeying men." With this freedom, the first Christians spoke to their society and to the judges who imposed silence on them. In our circumstances today, the difficulties are truly enormous in attempting to fight narcotics trafficking, violence, injustice, the attacks on human life, and then to build peace.

The powers that have been implicated in these grave problems, as well as the feelings of rancor, confrontation and vengeance that the problems provoke, make finding a solution an arduous, urgent task. To remove people and human groups from confrontation and from violence requires dialogue that is respectful, loyal and free. It is the most dignified and recommendable form to overcome these difficulties of human coexistence. Those who are taking other paths are headed down the wrong road, and are mortgaging the future of our nation.

There are other routes to take to diminish violence in our country. It precisely does not involve making deals with criminals so that they can continue with their criminal conduct. For not one second would I allow that pacts be made with organized crime. You cannot make deals with evil. You cannot make deals with those who will use violence. Mexico will get out of this reality, but at the present moment we only see criminality growing. These moneys [from traffickers and other illicit sources] must not be allowed to enter the dynamic of power, because then we would have a state within a state.

-- Homily and Christmas message

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Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu

Mexican film director ("Babel," "21 Grams" and "Amores Perros")

I have always thought that the only possible way to eradicate this plague is to legalize drugs. While the United States keeps consuming these amounts of drugs and selling guns the way it does, there's no way our country will win this war.

Once the tons of drugs cross the border into the U.S., there has to be a huge web of people involved in distributing and selling all these drugs. Where are these people? Who are they? Where are these "American cartels" and their leaders?

The economic and gun power of the cartels has corrupted the entire Mexican country. Like humidity, it has permeated every level, and the economic benefits of it are so strong that it has become a national income. The war is lost. To legalize drugs would bring another set of problems, but at least those will be more transparent.

-- From an interview with Times staff writer Reed Johnson

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Terry Nelson

Federal agent for 30 years with the U.S. Border Patrol, the Customs Service and the Department of Homeland Security

Busting top traffickers doesn't work, since others just do battle to replace them. Despite the obvious failure of our drug control strategy, the public discourse surrounding this issue has focused primarily on continuing to wage the "drug war."

Mandatory prison sentences and interdiction efforts have very little effect on drug use. This year the World Health Organization found that the U.S. has the highest marijuana and cocaine use rates on the planet, despite having some of the harshest sentences.

We won't be able to expand treatment and prevention efforts until we stop spending so much money enforcing ineffective penalties, building new prisons and buying fancy cars and helicopters for law enforcement agencies. As we begin to treat problematic drug use as a public health issue, it will become much easier to prevent the death, disease and addiction that have expanded under the criminal justice mentality of prohibition.

But even with the best public health efforts, there will always be some who want to use drugs, and, as long as drugs are illegal, many willing to risk imprisonment or death to make huge profits supplying them. My years of experience as a federal agent tell me that legalizing and effectively regulating drugs will stop drug market crime and violence by putting major cartels and gangs out of business.

The Department of Justice reported [this month] that Mexican cartels are America's "greatest organized crime threat" because they "control drug distribution in most U.S. cities." If what we've been doing worked at all, we wouldn't be battling Mexican drug dealers in our own cities or anywhere else. There's one surefire way to bankrupt them, but when will our leaders talk about it?

-- Written comments submitted to The Times

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