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Book takes Mexico drug war to task

The book by two former Mexican government officials criticizes President Felipe Calderon's campaign against the drug cartels. The authors say the focus should be on smaller-bore crimes.

January 01, 2010|By Ken Ellingwood
  • Soldiers at a Mexico City military school line up before leaving to aid in drug crop eradication. Two former top officials write in a recent book critical of the government's campaign against narcotics traffickers, "If what is good for us is decriminalization, that is what we should fight for."
Soldiers at a Mexico City military school line up before leaving to aid in… (Dario Lopez-Mills / Associated…)

Reporting from Mexico City — Almost everything to do with the Mexican government's war against drugs is wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

The threat from narco-trafficking is overblown. Fighting cartels won't stop the flow of illegal drugs or erase Mexican corruption. The real battle over drugs lies on the U.S. side of the border.

That's the gist of a provocative new book that challenges virtually every premise on which Mexican President Felipe Calderon has based his 3-year-old offensive against drug cartels.

"El Narco: La Guerra Fallida" ("Narco: The Failed War"), by two top officials under Calderon's predecessor, Vicente Fox, is one of the first book-length looks at the crackdown launched by Calderon when he took office in December 2006.

The Spanish-language book, which has sold well here, is controversial and stubbornly contrarian, to the point of suggesting that Mexico might be better off coming to terms with the drug capos and focusing on smaller-bore crimes that plague Mexicans.

"Calderon could have easily launched a major crusade against insecurity, violence and unorganized crime, on the type of minor misdemeanors that gave birth to Rudy Giuliani's zero tolerance stance in New York," the authors assert. "But that crusade would never have unleashed the passions, support or sense of danger that a full-fledged war on drugs actually did."

In "El Narco," former Fox spokesman Ruben Aguilar and former Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda attempt an end run past the usual debate over whether the Calderon anti-crime strategy is working. Instead, they maintain that the offensive was unnecessary, and they seek to poke holes in many of the reasons Calderon has offered for launching a campaign that has claimed more than 15,000 lives.

The president's assertion that Mexico faced a crisis of deepening drug consumption at home? They present figures showing that though domestic use has risen, it is minuscule compared with countries such as the United States.

Calderon's contention that drug violence had reached alarming levels when he decided to act? The authors quote studies showing that the nation's overall homicide rate had been in decline for years. (It has gone up since.)

"Why in the world was it necessary to declare an all-out war against the cartels because of growing violence, when violence was actually diminishing?" the authors ask.

The book argues that U.S. drug use -- the motor of the violent trafficking industry -- is largely unaffected by Mexico's enforcement actions. The answer for Mexico, it says, lies in swinging debate north of the border in favor of drug decriminalization or legalization.

"If what is good for us is decriminalization, that is what we should fight for," write Aguilar and Castaneda, a leftist intellectual and commentator who is the better known of the two.

The authors propose some public-safety measures, including creation of a national police force and a no-fly zone over southern Mexico. But rather than send troops to fight drug cartels, they argue, Mexico should focus on limiting the "collateral damage" that most aggrieves Mexicans: kidnappings, extortion, car theft and corruption.

This could mean "tacit quid pro quos" with gangs to get them to keep down criminal mayhem in Mexico's streets, the writers say, but it doesn't require a formal handshake.

"The narcos understand," they say. "If they were imbeciles, they wouldn't be rich."

Aguilar and Castaneda contend that in launching the drug offensive, the conservative Calderon sought to win legitimacy for his presidency after a disputed election victory in 2006. That thesis is heard often on the Mexican left.

Calderon hasn't directly referred to the authors, but he has sharply criticized those who he says would have Mexico run from the drug war or cut deals with traffickers. He says such approaches would "erode the foundations that support our society, as a state based on law."

Calderon has frequently characterized his crime crackdown as an attempt to clean and modernize a system that had become thoroughly corrupted through decades of official acceptance of the drug trade, or even outright collusion with it.

Last month, he urged Mexicans to "ignore those who naively want the government to just walk away from the fight, as if the problems would solve themselves by magic."

The outspoken authors of "El Narco" are uncharacteristically spare when it comes to solving Mexico's graft problem. They agree that drug-related corruption has long been part of the Mexican landscape, especially in small towns, but are skeptical of reports that traffickers' penetration of the system had hit grave new depths when Calderon sent troops into the streets.

"This is Mexico, not Norway," they write. "Narcos' complicity with municipal, state and federal authorities wasn't born yesterday."

ken.ellingwood@latimes.com

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