The Drug War Corrupts Absolutely

Eva Bertram, a policy analyst, and Kenneth Sharpe, professor of political science at Swarthmore College, are coauthors of "Drug War Politics: The Price of Denial."

'Progress" and "cooperation" are the official watchwords Washington likes to use to describe the U.S.-backed drug war in Mexico. The cheery rhetoric is essential to protecting relations with Mexico. When reality intrudes and the official drug-war story threatens to unravel, the story is revised. Just how deeply corrupting the drug war is on Mexico's political institutions and, ultimately, on U.S.-Mexican interests is glossed over, if mentioned at all.

The most recent need for damage control came with news that top investigators in a new, U.S.-trained antidrug unit in the Mexican attorney general's office may have ties to powerful drug cartels. Some senior officials of the elite unit failed lie-detector tests, giving rise to concerns that high-level drug investigations, and sensitive intelligence shared by U.S. agents, may have been compromised.

It's a too-familiar story. The unit was created, with great fanfare and talk about progress and cooperation, 18 months ago, after the chief of its predecessor, Gen. Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, was arrested in February 1997 for selling protection to one of the country's most powerful drug lords. Ironically, Gutierrez had been packaged as a step forward. U.S. drug-policy director Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey called him a man of great "integrity . . . patriotic, honest, dedicated." Gutierrez had been brought in to rebuild the previous antidrug agency, which also had been created to replace a corrupted predecessor.

Gutierrez's appointment was part of a much-trumpeted move by President Ernesto Zedillo to draft the military into antidrug enforcement, after the ineffectiveness and corruption of the civilian police force became overwhelming. Despite warnings from critics on both sides of the border about involving the military in a civilian law-enforcement mission, U.S. officials shamelessly pushed Zedillo to call in the troops. The military would get tough with the drug traffickers, and its more professional image would play well in the United States.

But now the drug war is corrupting the military. Last year, information gleaned from Mexican defense-ministry files indicated that 10 generals and 22 other military officers were under investigation for alleged ties to traffickers. In early September, 40 soldiers, all trained by elite U.S. Special Forces, were removed from duty at the Mexico City airport after investigators alleged that the soldiers had helped smuggle cocaine-filled suitcases into the United States.

Despite the shadow cast by all this negative news on the drug war, the United States and Mexico continue to spin stories about bilateral cooperation, because painting Mexico as an unreliable ally in our drug war threatens other U.S. interests. Good-neighbor relations with Mexico are essential to protect the commerce created by free trade and the steady flow of investments, loans, tourists, oil and immigrant labor between the two countries. These relations so deeply affect the economies, environment, labor and stock markets, banking systems and human rights in both countries, and demand such constant goodwill in negotiations, that neither government can allow Mexico to be branded a bad neighbor in drug control.

So both sides repeatedly invent "bold new initiatives" in the drug war: new antidrug units, new screening mechanisms, new training programs. Both sides publicize arrests of corrupt officials and drug busts. The initiatives and announcements are then trumpeted as evidence of progress and cooperation. When reality blows the cover stories apart, U.S. officials wring their hands in dismay, shake their fingers at the Mexicans, then invent another bold new initiative to show that all is still cooperation and progress.

But these official stories do more than mislead. They conceal a second, more dangerous myth: If only the Mexicans and other Latin governments would seriously fight the U.S.-sponsored drug war, we could ameliorate abuse and addiction in the United States. This reassuring fairy tale blinds us to the ways in which high profits and porous borders doom the war on drug traffickers from the outset.

By driving up and sustaining prices, the drug war ensures the trade's high profits. For example, a gram of cocaine would probably fetch around $15 a gram in the absence of a drug war; it currently commands approximately $150. Yet, the war on supply will never drive the price high enough to lower addiction in the United States. Rather, it will maintain profits at levels sufficient to ensure a seemingly endless supply of traffickers and to generate the estimated $6 billion a year these traffickers spend on bribes in Mexico alone, bribes used to corrupt police and military officers, judges and politicians.

Drugs also are so easy to smuggle that there are always new ways to elude border controls. McCaffrey reported that U.S. border inspectors searched more than 1 million railway cars and commercial trucks entering from Mexico last year. They found cocaine on six occasions. Growing border traffic, promoted by U.S. free-trade policies, makes the interdiction task even more daunting: In 1996, 75 million cars and 3.5 million trucks and railway cars entered the United States from Mexico. Even with the best cooperation and minimum corruption, interdiction as a strategy is not going to produce much progress on drug problems in the U.S.

On another level, a dogged pursuit of the drug war tends to undermine many important interests we share with Mexico. U.S. pressure on Mexico to get its military involved in the drug war is at crosscurrents with the democratization of Mexico, a goal central to U.S. policy. The Mexican military is increasingly charged with abusing human rights, a problem that may worsen. As U.S. training and resources make soldiers better able to track and apprehend drug traffickers, they become more efficient at extracting higher payoffs for nonenforcement. The more we unwittingly encourage this corruption and turn a blind eye to human rights abuses, the more difficult it will be to build and sustain democratically accountable security forces in Mexico.

The drug war already has poisoned U.S. relations with Mexico. When the United States conducted Operation Casablanca, an undercover sting on Mexican soil, earlier this year, it did not inform the Mexican government of the operation on the ground that Mexicans couldn't be trusted with the information. After 26 Mexican bankers were indicted for money laundering as a result of the sting, the Mexican government reacted angrily. Zedillo urged, "We must all respect the sovereignty of each nation so that no one can become the judge of others and no one feels entitled to violate other countries' laws for the sake of enforcing its own." U.S. officials claimed they had alerted Mexican authorities of the sting, but the operation left relations strained.

Regrettably, stories to protect Mexico's image as a loyal drug-war ally will continue to be told and retold, and they will continue to be dashed by reality. But as debate focuses on how much progress we are making against the widening corruption in Mexico, we risk missing a deeper truth. Fighting drug abuse at home through a war on supply abroad is not good policy, and it will make us both bad neighbors.

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