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Mexico's New Drug Policy Focuses on Small Picture

President touts gains against cartels but declares substance abuse a destructive problem.

November 05, 2002|Chris Kraul | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — Boasting success in fighting "big fish" drug traffickers and high-level government corruption, President Vicente Fox is now targeting small-time dealers in order to combat drug consumption in Mexico, a problem that officials say is spiraling out of control.

In an address Monday unveiling his anti-drug program and in his weekly radio address Saturday, Fox said he would soon ask Mexico's Congress to pass laws allowing municipal and state police to arrest drug dealers, a power that currently resides only with federal law enforcement officials.

Mexican anti-drug efforts have focused on breaking up international drug trafficking rings, including the Arellano Felix cartel of Tijuana and the Carrillo Fuentes gang of Ciudad Juarez. Citing 40 arrests of cartel leaders since he took office two years ago, Fox pronounced Mexico's three biggest gangs "dismantled."

But recent studies indicate that consumption among Mexicans of cocaine, heroin, marijuana and methamphetamines is on the rise, a trend that Fox said is threatening the social fabric by tearing apart families and fueling a wave of kidnappings, murders and robberies.

"This is a war we have to fight on all fronts, and it's not enough to attack the supply. We have to keep demand from growing," Fox said Monday at a gathering that included federal legislators and several of his Cabinet members. "Together, the federal government, the states and the cities will raise a wall to stop crime."

The initiative comes as the Fox administration as a whole is pointing to successes in its fight against drugs and corruption, including the arrest of trafficker Benjamin Arellano Felix in March and the confiscation of thousands of tons of marijuana, cocaine and heroin in recent months.

Investigators arrested 22 federal officials last month for allegedly feeding law enforcement information to drug mafias. Also in October, the army disbanded its 65th Battalion in Sinaloa state. Instead of combating the drug trade, the unit was helping traffickers transport drugs.

On Friday, a military tribunal convicted two army generals, Francisco Quiros Hermosillo and Mario Arturo Acosta Chaparro, of helping the Juarez cartel transport drugs to the U.S.-Mexican border.

Although the amount of drugs that Mexico has confiscated since Fox took office is roughly equal to seizures of recent years, UC San Diego professor Peter H. Smith believes it may represent a greater percentage of the overall flow. Drug shipments from Mexico are probably down over the last year or two, with much of it now diverted through the Caribbean, he said.

"With the persistence of drug demand in the United States, there are real limits to what authorities in drug-producing and in-transit countries can do, other than raise the cost of doing business," Smith said. "But within the constraints that Mexico faces, Fox is probably doing as well as we could possibly hope for."

Although he said he doubts that Fox's plan to cut consumption and production will work, Jorge Chabat, a professor at Mexico City's Center for Economic Research and Teaching, gave the president credit for the arrests of top traffickers.

"It certainly improves Mexico's image vis-a-vis the United States, and that's not minor," he said.

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