Mexico Drug Control in the Age of Free Trade
Peter Andreas

More than half the cocaine and a substantial percentage of the heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamines consumed in the United States enters the country through Mexico. U.S. and Mexican efforts to police these drug flows have sharply escalated during the past decade.

Though failing to pose a serious deterrent, escalation has helped to project an image of a shared cross-border commitment to drug control. Such image-projection has been an important ingredient in creating and sustaining a new and more intimate cross-border economic relationship. In other words, building more formidable drug control barriers has been an integral part of the process of dismantling economic barriers between the two countries.

However, the persistent failures of drug control have made managing the border and bilateral relations over the drug issue increasingly difficult in the post-NAFTA era. And this, in turn, has further reinforced political pressures to escalate. The seemingly paradoxical result has been to build both a borderless economy and a barricaded border.

Creating the Problem

Historically, the illegal drug business across the U.S.-Mexico border was dominated by the smuggling of heroin and marijuana. Given that both drugs were domestically produced, Mexican drug trafficking remained primarily a locally and regionally based activity. However, this began to change in the 1980s with the development of a strategic alliance between Colombian cocaine exporters and Mexico-based smuggling organizations. Intense U.S. interdiction pressure on cocaine trafficking routes through the Caribbean and South Florida created incentives for Colombian traffickers to turn to their Mexican counterparts, who had long been enmeshed in a variety of smuggling activities.

Thus, while the percentage of cocaine entering the U.S. from Mexico was negligible in the early 1980s, by the early 1990s over half of cocaine exports were routed through Mexican territory. This shift dramatically elevated Mexicoĺ─˘s position in the international drug trade and vastly increased the power and influence of the countryĺ─˘s major trafficking organizations.

The U.S. interdiction campaign in the Caribbean provided a politically costless mechanism for lawmakers and law enforcers to display their anti-drug resolve at a time when domestic anxiety about drugs was at an all-time high. Focused on their narrow and compartmentalized task of deterring drugs in the southeast, U.S. anti-drug strategists apparently paid little attention to the potential repercussions for Mexico, the border region, and U.S.-Mexico relations. While U.S. law enforcement agencies celebrated the apparent success of their interdiction efforts in the Caribbean, Mexican smugglers celebrated their rising position in the drug trade. Mexicoĺ─˘s growing stake in the cocaine trade sparked the rise of more sophisticated and organized smuggling organizations along the borderĺ─˘s transportation hubs, the most prominent of which were the so-called Gulf, Tijuana, and Juł░rez cartels.

Awkwardly, however, this shift in cocaine flows from the Southeast to the Southwest came at exactly the same time that the U.S. and Mexico were beginning to forge a new and more intimate economic relationship. As part of the effort to secure the smooth passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), U.S. and Mexican officials collaborated in a law enforcement build-up across the border that signaled a shared commitment to drug control and an enhanced image of drug control progress.

This included new bilateral agreements, rising drug enforcement budgets, and an expanded military role in interdiction. Highly visible but misleading indicators of government resolve--increased arrests, seizures, and so on--helped sustain this image and obscured the failings and flaws of the enforcement effort.

The image of cross-border commitment and progress on the drug war front was sustained long enough for the free trade accord to pass, but the feedback effects of both enhanced law enforcement and NAFTA itself soon generated a new and larger set of problems that threatened to undermine the bilateral relationship. First, a perverse consequence of increased Mexican drug enforcement was to create more opportunities for corruption and increased incentives for smugglers to buy off those doing the enforcing, which in turn attracted more intensive U.S. media attention and congressional scrutiny.

Second, the implementation of NAFTA simultaneously drew more political attention to the border and made the task of border drug interdiction more complicated. Pressured by law enforcement, smugglers increasingly turned to commercial trucking as a cover, and the sharp post-NAFTA rise in the volume of trucks crossing the border made the difficulty of weeding out such drug shipments increasingly apparent. The enforcement challenge was the equivalent of looking for a needle in a haystackĺ─ţand in this case the haystack kept getting bigger and the needle kept getting better at hiding.

The Policy Response in the Post-NAFTA Era

The U.S. and Mexican response to the continued failures of interdiction has been to further escalations rather than reevaluation. On the Mexican side this has taken the form of a much greater militarization of drug control. In reaction to pervasive corruption within the federal police forces and heightened U.S. pressure and expectations, the Zedillo government has placed the Mexican military in charge of drug control operations in many areas, especially in the northern border region. One result of this, warn activists in Mexico, has been an increase in human rights violations being attributed to members of the armed forces. But despite growing concerns over corruption within the military, the militarization trend in Mexico has been applauded by Washington and has nurtured closer cross-border military links.

On the U.S. side of the border, escalation has primarily translated into more enforcement personnel and new surveillance and detection equipment to harden the border ports of entry. This involves an increased reliance on high-tech interdiction techniques designed to filter out drug shipments without significantly impeding the boom in cross-border commerce. The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) and the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) are especially enthusiastic promoters of increased reliance on new interdiction technologies.

The Drug War by the Numbers

Percentage of international drug shipments needed to be intercepted in order

to reduce the trade's profitability 75% Percentage currently being intercepted 30% Cost of one kilo of raw opium in Pakistan $90 Sale price in the U.S $290,000 Cost of achieving a one percent reduction in drug use via treatment programs $34 million Cost to do so via programs in drug producing countries $783 million Percentage increase in federal spending on drug treatment, 1981-1997 +4.3% Percentage increase in federal spending on overseas drug programs, 1981-1998 +6.5% Percentage increase in drug spending, criminal justice system, 1981-1997 +17.4% Total cost of incarcerating drug law violators in 1998 $8.6 billion U.S. counter-drug aid to Mexico, 1995 $10 million U.S. counter-drug aid to Mexico, 1997 $78 million Acreage sprayed with herbicides each year by the Colombian government 100,000 Number of acres in Colombia dedicated to coca production in 1994 111,000 Number in 1998 195,000+ Percentage of U.S. 12th graders who reported marijuana as 'easyĺ to obtain in 1985 85.5% Percentage who did in 1995 89.6%

Sources: Drug War Facts, Common Sense for Drug Policy website (www.csdp.org); U.S. Department of State; White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Innovative border management methods are creating both a superhighway for business and a more intensive border surveillance system. For example, rather than manually unloading and inspecting cargo containers (a labor- and time-intensive process), there has been a turn toward the use of non-intrusive inspection technologies. This is reflected by the installation of giant x-ray machines resembling a car-wash capable of scanning entire truck cargoes, at each of the 39 official ports of entry by the year 2003. Currently, these machines, which cost $3.5 million each, are in place at only a handful of the border ports. The U.S. Customs Service is also testing other non-intrusive devices that can detect cocaine vapors. These improvements in interdiction technologies, in turn, will no doubt prompt further improvements in the methods of drug smuggling. One result is that the least skilled smugglers are the most likely to be weeded out, increasing the market share of the most sophisticated smuggling groups.

The heightened reliance on state-of-the-art, high-tech equipment is also evident between the ports of entry, such as the use of more night-vision goggles, motion sensors, and low-light TV cameras. Reflecting this trend, there has been a five-fold increase since 1995 in the number of heat-detecting infrared scopes along the border, and the number of seismic ground sensors has nearly doubled since 1994. Much of this enhanced enforcement has been directed at immigration control, but it overlaps with the drug control mission as well.

The high-tech escalation option is also increasingly evident on the Mexican side. For example, in February 1999, Mexican officials announced a new $400-million, three-year anti-drug plan. Much of the funding will be used for new equipment such as infrared cameras for airplane surveillance, x-ray machines at border ports of entry, and encrypted satellite-communications gear. New helicopters, airplanes, and speedboats will also be bought. The February announcement followed an earlier announcement in October 1998 that new resources and technologies would be channeled to cut off drug trafficking routes across the southern borders with Guatemala and Belize and along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.

Meanwhile, domestic measures (treatment, education, and prevention) to curb the enormous American appetite for illegal drugs continue to take a distant back seat to supply-focused law enforcement efforts. Of the nearly $18 billion the U.S. federal government spends to combat drugs, about two-thirds focuses on supply reduction and only one-third on demand. This is certainly not based on cost-effectiveness. A 1994 RAND study found that $34 million invested in treatment reduces domestic cocaine use to the same degree that $366 million spent on border interdiction or $783 million spent on overseas programs does. Efforts to cut off supply have had little impact on the domestic price and availability of drugs, and even dramatic improvements in interdiction are unlikely to change this. The overabundance of supply and the high profits of the illicit trade make drug seizures a relatively small cost of doing business for smugglers.

The heart of the nationĺ─˘s drug problem is chronic drug use; this is first and foremost a public health rather than a law enforcement problem. Roughly four million people in the United States are hard-core drug users. Although representing only about 20% of the drug using population, this user group consumes the bulk of the drug supply. Washingtonĺ─˘s approach to demand reduction is driven by punitive measures: large numbers of drug users are locked up on drug possession charges, only to find that drugs are easily available in the nationĺ─˘s vast prison system.

Further militarization?

At least in the short and medium terms, it is difficult to envision a de-escalation of drug control across the U.S.-Mexico border. Even if Mexicoĺ─˘s role in the drug trade is reduced or U.S. consumption of imported drugs sharply declines, the Southwest border will likely remain a major smuggling corridor. Continued U.S. media and congressional scrutiny of Mexico and the border region, as well as bureaucratic incentives within the drug control apparatus, inhibit a significant policy shift. Regardless of the fact that current policy continues to fail, any appearance of retreat risks projecting an image of being 'softĺ─¨ on drugs. With the political rewards of a major policy change uncertain and the potential political risks of such a move extremely high, most Washington policymakers are unwilling to publicly promote de-escalation.

Given this political context, it might be tempting to conclude that the escalation of drug control on the U.S.-Mexico border inevitably leads to further militarization. Indeed, anti-drug operations on the Mexican side are already largely in the hands of the military. And this, in turn, may provide further political ammunition and legitimacy for those who advocate a greater military role on the U.S. side. So far, administration officials and key congressional voices have been able to fend off calls to send in the troopsĺ─ţpartly by promising and promoting more law enforcement.

Proposals to deploy the military are especially popular during election season, when the border often becomes a political stage. For example, during the 1996 presidential race, Bob Dole pledged to significantly expand the National Guardĺ─˘s drug interdiction role along the Southwest border, and promised that, if such measures proved inadequate, he would turn to the military as the lead anti-drug agency on the border. Republican presidential candidate Lamar Alexander even proposed creating a fifth branch of the military that would focus on border control tasks.

Adding to the militarization urge, some military voices have advocated taking on new and expanded law enforcement duties in the post-Cold War era. Writing in the military journal Parameters, Major Ralph Peters argues that the 'domestic employment of the military appears an inevitable part of our own future, at least on our borders and in some urban environments...ĺ─¨ We are living in a 'terribly changed and rapidly changing world,ĺ─¨ he writes, where illegal immigrants, terrorists, drug lords, and organized crime are among the most serious threats. 'The U.S. armed forces,ĺ─¨ he urges, 'must change with that world, and must change in ways that are fundamental.ĺ─¨

Some prominent security analysts have even advised that the United States should prepare for full-scale military action not only along but across the border in the not-too-distant future. In his coauthored book, The Next War, former U.S. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger provides an account of key potential future conflicts that U.S. national security strategists should be ready for. In the war scenario closest to home, 60,000 U.S. troops are deployed to the Southwest border after a radical nationalist leader has taken power in Mexico with the help of powerful drug trafficking interests. The resulting chaotic situation in Mexico has turned the northward flow of people and drugs into a flood. Unable to plug the border holes, Washington launches a full-scale military invasion. Some six months later, law and order have been restored south of the border. The State Departmentĺ─˘s post-war strategic assessment of the conflict criticizes the failure of U.S. intelligence to foresee the crisis, but praises the militaryĺ─˘s readiness to intervene. Fortunately, U.S. and Mexican political leadersĺ─ţas well as Mexicoĺ─˘s drug trafficking organizationsĺ─ţshare an interest in keeping this scenario in the realm of fiction.

A full militarization of the border is inhibited by a number of factors. Importantly, a much more expansive U.S. military role is strongly opposed by the law enforcement community. While certainly welcoming various forms of military assistance in a support role (fence construction, road maintenance, surveillance assistance), law enforcement bureaucracies jealously guard their turf. A significantly greater border role for the military is also widely opposed by mainstream political elites and by much of the military establishment itself. Indeed, after a teenage goat herder was fatally shot by U.S. soldiers on a patrol mission along the border in Texas in May 1997, the Pentagon indefinitely suspended such operations and indicated an interest in scaling back some of its border duties.

At the diplomatic level, a more extensive and visible U.S. military presence on the border would have poisonous consequences for cross-border tiesĺ─ţboth in terms of Washington-Mexico City relations as well as for relations between local communities along the border. Full-scale militarization would have a disastrous impact on human rights and would significantly impede the booming cross-border commerce that both countries have so enthusiastically encouraged. Sealing the border by military means may be technically feasible, but is incompatible with maintaining an open, democratic society and sustaining the nationĺ─˘s second-largest trading relationship. It would also be highly destabilizing for Mexico, helping to create the very crisis situations that U.S. national security planners hope to avoid.

Despite the 'Fortress Americaĺ─¨ dreams of some conservative isolationists, the enormous investment that the United States and Mexico have made in the economic integration process necessitates that the border remain highly porous. Trying to tighten controls over the cross-border flow of drugs while loosening controls over the flow of legal commerce will no doubt continue to be a formula for policy frustration. How this frustration is politically managed will significantly shape the future of the border region and the bilateral relationship.

The enduring political challenge is to reduce domestic expectations regarding the effectiveness of drug interdiction efforts along the border. Stepped up interdiction can influence the methods, organization, and location of smuggling but has (and will most likely continue to have) only a minimal impact in terms of curbing the foreign drug supply. The border is ultimately neither the underlying source of the nationĺ─˘s drug problem nor the most cost-effective location of the policy solution. Recognizing rather than denying this fact is needed to minimize the role of the border as a source of tension and conflict in the U.S.-Mexico relationship.

Peter Andreas is an Academy Scholar at Harvard University. This article was adapted with permission from research conducted for Professor Andreasĺ─˘s forthcoming book, Border Games: Policing the U.S.-Mexico Divide, which will be published by Cornell University Press in September, 2000. For more information about Professor Andreas's forthcoming book, visit http://www.cornellpress.cornell.edu/ or call (607) 277-2211.

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