Former Ambassador Anthony Quainton discusses the Mexican drug cartel crisis.
International Affairs Forum:
The US government recently released a travel advisory for Mexico. What do you think of the recent increase in violence in that country?
Professor Anthony Quainton:
The dangerous areas are along the border, of course, where not too many spring breakers go, and in Mexico City, which is clearly a very dangerous city. I don’t think they specifically said it was very dangerous in Cancun. There have been a lot of stories, for example on 60 Minutes recently, Janet Napolitano talked about the problem of increasing violence in Mexico, and the Mexican Interior Ministry acknowledges that corruption is a serious problem and violence is a serious problem. Part of the problem is that the arms and the money come from this side of the border.
The increase in violence, however, suggests that the drug people are under increasing pressure and want to increase their intimidation of Mexican citizens and foreigners; but, I think you’re a long way from the collapse of the Mexican state. That’s unlikely to happen. This is not a failed state; this is a big and very sophisticated country. But it has very serious problems and we certainly have to help them in dealing with those problems.
How do you feel about the Mexican government’s current handling of the situation?
They obviously haven’t succeeded. That is the cartels are very active, very vigorous. They’re able to corrupt the Mexican government at various levels, many levels, I think. On the other hand, the Calderon administration seems to be making a major effort to deal with this problem. Whether they’re going to be successful I don’t know, because there’s so much money involved, and money corrupts.
Mexico is a country which has had a long history of corruption, this isn’t something that just happened in the last few months or few years; but the culture of corruption has been in Mexico for a long time. On the other hand, the increase of violence, the flow of arms, the use of weapons against authorities of the state is a very serious problem and is a growing problem, I think. We, of course, are committed to helping very substantially under the Merida Initiative providing resources to the Mexican law enforcement community in order to deal with this problem. We’ll have to see if it works.
What did you think of the Bush administration’s approach to the conflict?
The Bush administration was clearly worried about the border, and the focus of the administration, I think, was on the flow of people across the border and beefing up security on our side in order to keep drugs and bad guys, and terrorists, out. That was certainly the Homeland Security philosophy, really thinking about protecting the American perimeter there. I think to some degree the Bush administration, like previous administrations, believed that economic assistance to Mexico’s economy would reduce the attractiveness of migration, and that didn’t seem to be the case. What’s reduced the attractiveness of migration is the collapse of the American economy. The Bush administration was very strong on drug control programs, the Merida Initiative was a Bush initiative designed to assure the Mexicans that we would provide resources to help them in the fight against drugs. But the real weakness under several administrations, and certainly under the Bush administration, was that not anything much was done about the southward movement of arms and so forth into the hands of drug cartels. Partly for Second Amendment reasons, the Bush administration was very reluctant to go after arms dealers in Texas and along the border. But, also because the priority was stopping things from coming in rather than stopping things from going out. That’s the Mexicans’ responsibility, to stop what comes into their country, that was the philosophy. But clearly, given the corruption and the limited capacity of the Mexicans, that philosophy wasn’t a good enough answer.
To what extent do you think the US is responsible for the current problem? Do you think it would be more effective to fund anti-drug campaigns in the US?
This has been the great debate with the Latin Americans. It is with the Mexicans, it is with the Colombians, the Peruvians, the Bolivians, the producer countries. Their argument is that the problem is not with us, the problem is with you. If there were no demand, there would be no supply. The market follows the demand and the demand is on the streets of America, and if you don’t have effective drug control programs, there’s only so much we can do by police and military action against the cartels. That certainly is the popular view with the Latin American public and, I suspect, the Mexican public. That having been said, I think the Colombians and the Mexicans, and the Peruvians to some degree as well, have also bought into the strategy of anti-cartel activity. All these governments have been willing to extradite their nationals to the United States, which is a quite remarkable thing to do. It puts their nationals inside the American court system, which is honest, but it’s fairly brutal in some respects.
So in the best of all possible worlds, you continue programs which go to the eradication of the actual production, measures against the cartels and their money, their money laundering, going after the trafficking and transportation networks, drugs getting into the United States by boat and across the border, and you go after a very vigorous program inside the US dealing with the problems of drug availability. That’s the Drug Enforcement Administration’s responsibility: to find the people who are dealing the drugs here. The question mark, about which there is a fairly vigorous debate, is how you really reduce demand. Do you have better treatment and rehabilitation programs? Methadone programs? Legalization of marijuana? There are a lot of things you could do to reduce the attractiveness of the drug business. And we’ve tried some of these. But these programs are sporadic; I don’t think they got enormous priority in the last administration. They had a higher priority in the Clinton administration. But I have no idea how Obama will proceed, he’s got a lot on his plate.
When the drug war was launched under Bush 41 in 1989, there was a perception that this was a major national, social problem, drugs. I think that perception has declined. I think we’ve gotten used to the drug culture or it has in fact declined. So the urgency of doing things here in the US, in my perception, has declined significantly. And I think that’s the general feeling of the Americans. “Don’t beat up on us here, we’re the innocent victims in all of this, of your incapacity to deal with your national problem.”
How do you feel about the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy’s suggestion that the US consider decriminalizing marijuana? What would you recommend for future policy?
It would be helpful, but it wouldn’t solve the problem. The drug dealers are making their big money on heroine and cocaine. And nobody, or very few people, advocates for legalizing hard drugs. So then you’re forced back on a strategy which focuses on where these hard drugs are produced and how you can reduce the production. There are two ways of doing that, and I think this will be on the Obama agenda.
One is how you reduce poppy production in Afghanistan. That’s the principle source of raw material for heroine, though it’s not the only source. But finding an alternative economic basis for Afghan peasants will, I think, very shortly show up as part of a larger Afghanistan strategy. And the same has been true in the Andes, trying to find alternative crops and alternative development for the producers of coca, which becomes cocaine. I would go on with efforts to deal with the economic context within which the raw material is produced.
The second thing is you have to go after the cartels. These are criminals. These are people who are disrupting societies, whether it’s Colombia or Mexico. And that means supporting law enforcement organizations in those two countries and in others. The challenge there is to make sure this is done without abuse of human rights. Criticism applied to Colombia, which is the other piece of the puzzle in the hemisphere, is that the Colombian Uribe government and the governments before it have tolerated paramilitaries, and that our aid has been siphoned off for purposes which aren’t directly related to the drug war. And that I think will be a challenge for the Obama administration, because the Democrats have historically been very critical of the aid to Colombia and Colombia’s military police, arguing that it hasn’t been effective and that in fact it has led to abusive treatment. The same kinds of arguments I think are always possible with regard to the Mexicans, that the Mexican police are corrupt and abusive, that we’re putting money into the hands of bad guys to deal with other bad guys. But I don’t think that you have any choice but to try to improve the quality of law enforcement, because otherwise you abandon the power of the state to the criminal elements.
Finally, you have to have a policy that deals with the consumption side in the United States. Not necessarily leading to legalization, I think that’s a big stretch for the Obama administration. But, certainly a much more active program of education and rehabilitation. A lot of it is education, and trying to persuade people that drugs are a bad way to go.
Ambassador Anthony Quainton has been Diplomat in Residence at American University since fall 2003. Before joining the SIS faculty in the U.S. Foreign Policy program, Ambassador Quainton was President and CEO of the National Policy Association. During 199798 he was Executive Director of the Una Chapman Cox Foundation.
Ambassador Quainton was a member of the United States Foreign Service from 1959 to 1997. His early postings included Sydney, Karachi, Rawalpindi, New Delhi, Paris, and Kathmandu. In 1976 he was named Ambassador to the Central African Republic. His subsequent posts included Ambassadorships in Nicaragua, Kuwait, and Peru. In Washington he served as Coordinator for Counter Terrorism, Deputy Inspector General, Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security and Director General of the Foreign Service.
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