"We face a defining moment," Mexican president Felipe Calderón said earlier this month in his third state of the union address. While he was talking about more than just the war on drugs, that is clearly the paramount security challenge facing Mexican authorities. Calderón has taken unprecedented actions against the drug cartels, starting with his decision, upon assuming office in December 2006, to battle the cartels with Mexican army units. Over the past three years, drug-related violence has claimed thousands of lives and turned cities such as Ciudad Juárez (which sits right across the border from El Paso, Texas) into bloody war zones.
But despite the continuing violence--in a particularly vicious attack on September 2, 18 people were killed execution style at a Juárez drug-rehabilitation center--Calderón's efforts have not been in vain. A new report from the U.S. State Department observes that "more than 43,000 individuals connected with the major cartels were arrested between December 2006 and February 2009," including senior members of the cartels. Mexican authorities confiscated 4,220 weapons in 2006 and 9,500 a year later; all told, they have seized "more than 27,000 since the beginning of 2008." Since January 2007, they have also confiscated some 65 metric tons of cocaine, nearly 1,250 kilos of methamphetamine, and roughly 4.2 million kilos of marijuana. These achievements are not insignificant.
Yet as the State Department report acknowledges, waging war on the drug cartels has been a costly enterprise. Between January 2008 and early May 2009, drug-related violence in Mexico caused around 7,500 deaths, "including members of the police and military personnel." In 2008 alone, 495 Mexican police and 27 Mexican military members died in drug-related violence. During the first half of this year, the violence claimed the lives of another 187 police and 16 military members.
These numbers send mixed signals about Calderón's progress in suppressing the cartels. Levels of violence remain dangerously high, and political corruption is a huge problem. Earlier this month, Calderón announced the resignation of his scandal-tainted attorney general, Eduardo Medina-Mora, and declared his intention to replace Medina-Mora with Arturo Chávez, the former attorney general of Chihuahua, the violence-plagued border state that contains Ciudad Juárez. As the AP noted, one of Medina-Mora's erstwhile subordinates, former Mexican drug czar Noe Ramirez, "was arrested for allegedly taking at least $450,000 from a member of a drug cartel in exchange for passing on information about police operations."
Calderón insisted that Chávez "has the necessary knowledge and experience to carry out the delicate task of attorney general, especially in these times when Mexico is building its future by decisively facing organized crime." Yet critics of Chávez complain that he failed to address human-rights violations in Chihuahua. Critics of Calderón, meanwhile, point to human-rights abuses committed by the Mexican army in the course of fighting the drug war.
The army's record raises legitimate concerns. But Calderón has taken steps to prevent human-rights abuses and resolve accusations of misconduct against the military. He has worked hard to strengthen his country's legal institutions and reduce corruption. The State Department report observes that, in addition to increasing its security budget and directing army operations against the narco-traffickers, the Mexican government has "replaced numerous high-ranking federal officers in an anti-corruption campaign," and Calderón has "signed into law major judicial reform legislation designed to make the Mexican justice system more transparent, expeditious, and fair."
The U.S. is now aiding Mexican security officials through the Mérida Initiative, a three-year, $1.6 billion aid package designed to curb drug trafficking. Mérida began under the Bush administration in 2008. The State Department believes it will "improve the accountability and transparency of Mexican security forces" and also promote a better human-rights environment in Mexico. On September 1, the U.S. assistant secretary for international narcotics and law enforcement, David Johnson, announced that $214 million of the Mérida funds had been released. Johnson told reporters that the Mexican government has displayed "a clear commitment" to confront the cartels.
Indeed, Calderón's struggle against the drug lords is without precedent in recent Mexican history. Prior Mexican administrations sought an accommodation with the cartels. Calderón has declared war. The success or failure of that war will have a profound impact on the U.S. security. For both moral and practical reasons, Mexico deserves strong American support.
Jaime Daremblum, who served as Costa Rica's ambassador to the United States from 1998 to 2004, is director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the Hudson Institute.