Drug fighter’s timing is off

Times Staff Writer

The U.S. war on drugs has seldom seen a more willing recruit than Mexican President Felipe Calderon.

Since taking office last month, Calderon has sent thousands of soldiers to half a dozen states, where they have pulled up pot plants and opium poppies by the hectare and searched thousands of vehicles at military roadblocks. He also has fast-tracked the extradition of men reputed to be among the hemisphere’s biggest kingpins.

But unfortunately for the Mexican leader, who put the drug-trafficking battle at the top of his nation’s domestic agenda, the issue that once was a staple of U.S. political speeches has fallen so far off the radar that for the first time in years it didn’t warrant a mention in President Bush’s State of the Union address.

Drug-related violence, meanwhile, has gone from bad to gruesome in Mexico, where traffickers have tossed hand grenades at enemies and left severed heads as messages. More than 2,000 Mexicans died in such carnage last year, according to media tallies.


Calderon has signaled that he’ll ask for millions of dollars in U.S. aid to continue his campaign and extend it nationwide.

“The Mexican people are demanding that their parks, their streets, their schools, their neighborhoods be safe places for their families, where their children can live and grow up in peace,” Calderon told a meeting of Mexico’s governors last week.

The war against drug criminals, he added, “is a permanent fight.”

But the U.S. war on drugs has been overshadowed by the war in Iraq, and its urgency has been tempered by historically low crime rates domestically and statistics that indicate declining drug use among American teenagers. The Times reported last week that the U.S. military had cut aerial surveillance over Pacific and Gulf Coast smuggling routes by more than half and Navy patrols by a third since 2002.

“Mexico is sending a clear message to the U.S., saying, ‘We’re doing everything we can, even more than you,’ ” Mexico historian Lorenzo Meyer said. “The U.S. ambassador won’t be able to moan about Mexico not fighting crime.”

Calderon must find a way to turn U.S. attention back to his advantage, Meyer said.

Calderon has no such challenge at home, where his crackdown enjoys broad support, despite the shaky legal ground of his military roadblocks. Mexicans have the same protections against unwarranted government searches as Americans do, said John M. Ackerman, a law professor at the Institute for Legal Research at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. “The whole thing is of questionable constitutionality,” he said.

Yet no lawmaker in the Mexican Congress, even among opposition parties, has raised a legal challenge. The newspaper El Universal published a poll last week showing a third of respondents, spread equally among all three major parties, approved of Calderon’s actions; a third said it was too early to judge; and fewer than a fifth were opposed.

But without more U.S. help, Mexico stands little chance of winning a direct confrontation with sophisticated and brutal traffickers who have established a near monopoly in the estimated $65-billion U.S. drug market, analysts say.

Several Texas lawmakers are sponsoring a bill that would pay Mexico $850 million in federal funds over five years for training police and prosecutors. It would more than double the $69 million a year Mexico gets now.

“The stars are finally aligned with Calderon, who is willing to work with the United States, who’s extraditing criminals, and who’s willing to send troops into hot spots and take on organized crime,” U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) said. “U.S. leaders have always said Mexico needs to do more, and now we have a Mexican president doing more.”

Under pressure from the United States, nearly all new Mexican presidents over the last three decades have taken office with promises to crack down on smugglers and the government corruption that keeps them in business. But ties between Mexican officials and drug lords -- some proven, others not -- have scandalized every Mexican administration since the 1960s.

Calderon’s campaign against Mexico’s continuing drug violence, which makes daily headlines here, has not gone unnoticed north of the border.

Bush telephoned Calderon on Wednesday to commend him. And the U.S. government’s drug czar, John P. Walters, said last week that “the boldness of the Mexican response here obviously calls upon us to continue, and to match that with our own boldness at home.”

Despite the praise, the U.S. drug war “is nowhere on the political agenda,” said Mark Kleiman, a professor and director of UCLA’s Drug Policy Analysis Program. Kleiman argues that lack of political attention to drug policy is a good thing. “Politicians are incapable of dealing with it,” he said.

Despite high-profile arrests and record annual seizures, he said, a steady supply of cocaine, marijuana, heroin and methamphetamine has been available in the U.S. since President Nixon famously declared drugs to be America’s “public enemy No. 1.”

Common sense, Kleiman said, suggests that Mexican law enforcement ought to attack “the side effects of trafficking” -- the violent dealers and organizations. Calderon has the right idea, to put pressure on competing drug cartels until they stop assassinating police officers, bystanders and one another’s members, Kleiman said. “Make the bad guys keep their head down.”

Carlos Martinez and Cecilia Sanchez of The Times’ Mexico City Bureau contributed to this report.