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Moving Beyond Mérida? A tough fight. April 26, 2010

Posted by Rebecca Williams in Analysis.
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By Rebecca Williams and Mariah Quinn

The Mérida Initiative, a three-year, $1.5 billion counternarcotics assistance program to combat drug trafficking in Mexico and Central America, ends October 1.  The Obama Administration recently announced ‘next steps,’ continuing the counternarcotics and anticrime assistance to the region, particularly Mexico.

Despite significant increases in US assistance, this strategy is undermined by the fact that US counternarotic strategy centers on Latin American countries rather than tackling domestic consumption.  Equally as important, such efforts are only funded at a level to show intent but not adequately enough to truly succeed.

Frankly, curtailing illegal drug availability and use in the United States through foreign assistance is an uphill battle.  Funding for US coutnernarcotics assistance is dwarfed in comparison to the amount of money associated with drug trade and rarely succeeds in limiting drug availability in the US.  Mexico, for example, is the largest recipient of Mérida funding, receiving $1.3 billion in assistance from FY2008-FY2010, or roughly $430 million a year.  Both the Wilson Center and the Congressional Research Service put the annuals profits for Mexico’s drug cartels at between $15 and $25 billion (34 to 58 times greater than Mérida), though admittedly the actual value of the drug trade is difficult to determine.

An estimated $18 to $39 billion is generated, laundered, and moved by Mexican and Colombian drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) annually, a large portion of which is smuggled through the southwest border, according to the Justice Department’s National Drug Intelligence Center’s National Drug Threat Assessment 2009. According to the NDIC, Mexican DTOs control the largest share of production, transportation, and distribution; the assessment estimates $17.2 billion was smuggled into Mexico in bulk cash shipments between 2003 and 2004. The report noted, “The influence of Mexican DTOs, already the dominant wholesale drug traffickers in the United States, is still expanding, primarily in areas where the direct influence of Colombian DTOs is diminishing.”

Mexico’s crackdown on the drug cartels, coupled with the continuation of Mérida, may help the security situation in Mexico, yet it will likely have little impact on the supply of drugs flowing into the United States. Studies, including a 2005 RAND study entitled Controlling Cocaine Supply Versus Demand Programs, have found that treatment and prevention programs can be more cost effective than eradication and interdiction efforts. However, according to the Congressional Research Service, supply reduction efforts still account for two-thirds of the federal drug control budget and funding for such programs increased by 57% between FY2002 and FY2009, while demand-side programs increased by only three percent in the same period.

On the domestic side, the US has increased border security and beefed up Justice’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) efforts to disrupt the illegal flow of firearms to Mexico.  But, without addressing gun control laws in border states, gun sales remain a profitable business.  At a base level, viewing drug abuse as a public health concern and not primarily a law enforcement problem opens up a number of politically unpopular decisions regarding legality, sentencing, treatment, and the perception of being ‘soft’ on crime.  Few policymakers are eager to step and confront these often contradictory issues in order to curb domestic demand for illegal drugs.

And so, the fight continues.  The US government will continue to provide hardware and equipment for Mexico’s counternarcotics efforts and training for law enforcement, customs, and security officials.  US domestic drug demand remains high and Mexico continues to be a major supplier of heroin, methamphetamines, and marijuana to the United States.  Cross-border flows of money and guns into Mexico fuel the powerful, well-funded cartels who engage in violent activities; corruption and intimidation impede ongoing counternarcotics efforts.  A tough fight indeed.



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