Photo Jonathan Blair

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

A measured take on the War on Drugs

Jimmy Carter has now added his bit to the clamor against the War on Drugs: bad idea, through and through, a cause of violence, not a solution, etc., etc.. He is joining another bunch of ex-Presidents, this time from Latin America, who along with a few private sector big shots are now calling for social and health measures, decriminalization and a more narrow focus on transnational networks and organized crime instead of small-time traffickers.

This line is almost as old as the War on Drugs itself, which Richard Nixon launched in the 1970s. There is much to commend it and, for what it is worth, I agree with most of it, feeling in fact that decriminalization does not go far enough. This is not the point of this post, however.

I am more interested in understanding the War on Drugs, its prospects, and its impact on Latin America. From that angle, Carter's contribution, like most of the critics', does not help at all because they see it as one big integrated entreprise.

It is more useful to look at the War on Drugs through three distinct lenses: drug consumption as a health issue (or, for security buffs, as a "human security" problem), drug violence as a public security challenge, and drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) as national security threats. If you then distinguish between North and Latin America and the Caribbean, you get six cells in which to give a mark of pass or fail. Doing so honestly, I would argue, should make you realize that the whole endeavour may not be as disastrous as it looks.

Let's start with North America: 1) Compared to the 1970s, drug consumption at first came down and then plateaued for about two decades, so on this one we are talking about a marginal pass or a marginal fail; 2) Drug violence as a public security challenge has been declining regularly throughout the United States and remains very low all over Canada. Cost has been high, but it is a bit difficult to argue that the effort has come to nought when homicide rates continue to decline year after year in the face of roughly stable levels of drug consumption; 3) The problem of drug trafficking organizations as national security threats was serious for a while in Colombia--South America's second-most populous country--when the FARC guerrilla, quite a significant military force, started to draw on drug revenues to sustain its activities. However, a policy of decapitation of the local DTOs and a massive military effort against the FARC have led to the destruction of the threat from the US' standpoint. A similar policy is being implemented with US support by the Calderon government and it is perfectly plausible to argue that soon enough, the possibility that Mexican DTOs could represent a national security threat to the United States, and even to Mexico, will vanish for good. Beyond Mexico, DTOs are unlikely to gain a degree of political influence in any major country of the region, except perhaps in Venezuela, although things are far from played out there. So, at least for now, we have an easy pass here. In other words, from a North-American standpoint and considering our three dimensions, the War on Drugs has been an expensive but largely successful endeavour...

The picture is less rosy in the rest of the hemisphere:. 1) Drug consumption is rising almost everywhere, although the levels remain much lower in most countries than in North America and Europe: fail. 2) Drug violence is a major challenge and in many places a growing public security threat: Colombia still has a murder rate that is higher than Mexico's and among the highest in the world; Brazil has seen homicide rates decline in the Sao Paulo and Rio area, but explode in the North and Northeast of the country. Meanwhile, Venezuela, the Caribbean and Central America's northern triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras) now rank among the most violent countries on the planet: fail again. Finally, 3) DTOs have respectively been eliminated and are in the process of being weakened as national security threats in Colombia and Mexico but the story is very different in the British Caribbean and in Central America, where the prospects of narco-states are real. All in all, the region fails again.

The picture drawn above, in sum, looks very different from the one we usually see, most recently in Carter's op-ed: the War on drugs has been quite effective at containing drug violence and at eliminating national security threats to the United States; for Latin America, it has been relatively successful in Colombia and Mexico, though strictly from a national security standpoint, and a disaster from a public and human security perspectives. Everywhere else, it has been disastrous however you look at it. This more measured picture helps one make sense of a number of apparent paradox: 1) how the US has been able to mobilize for so long huge amounts of money and why many of the people involved, in the US, in Colombia and now in Mexico, continue to claim that the strategy is the right one and that is it working; 2) why the US, now that the national security threat is receding, is cutting by half its overall military and police assistance to the region, particularly to Colombia and Mexico; and 3) why most of the action now appears to be moving to Central America, where the World Bank is investing $1.2 billion dollars, and the US $300 million.

The really twisted implication of the success of the War from a national security standpoint is that as an option, it will remain part of the US policy repertoire, in spite of its massive negative implications for Latin American countries: the Americans will soon cut their financial support for Mexico's war effort, as they are doing for Colombia, and leave local governments to deal with the public and human security consequences of the strategy. In addition, as Eduardo Guerrero Gutiérrez recently suggested, a similar process is taking place within Mexico, where the federal government, having decapitated the large cartels that threaten national security, will now leave the public security problem, i.e. the management of the fragmented and possibly more violent remaining organizations, to states and municipalities, whose capacity to deal with them is limited.

In other words: the War on Drugs has been mostly bad, but too good for the US and not bad enough for Colombia and Mexico, to be doomed. Bet on it to survive the current onslaught.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

In context: Canada and drug violence in Central America

Big news from the Department of Foreign Affairs: Canada is getting serious about drug-related violence in Central America: "The Honourable Diane Ablonczy, Minister of State of Foreign Affairs (Americas and Consular Affairs), today announced that the Government of Canada is contributing over $5.2 million to help address security challenges and implement institutional reforms in Central America."

Looks good, no?

Well, let's get a bit of context here, from the very same conference in Guatemala where Ablonczy has made the announcement:

The World Bank pledged... U$1billion, in addition to the $200 million it is already providing. The US meanwhile, is increasing its support from U$ 260 million to 300 million.

In other words, parse things as you wish, Canada's involvement is window dressing, which, as I have argued recently, is perfectly understandable.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Thinking clearly about Canada and drug violence in Mexico

From the Globe and Mail to Policy Options, the cheerleaders for Latin America are out again: Canada must do something about drug violence in Mexico, we have strong interests in that country, and we can make a difference. On all three counts, the cheerleaders are wrong.

The basic problem was and continues to be that Canada does not have much at stake in Mexico, and consequently lacks the political drive to engage it sustainably on a significant scale. A big fuss is being made over Canadian investments and the 2500 Canadian companies that have operations in Mexico. A stop at Statscan's website tells another story: in 2010, investments in Mexico represented 0.74% of the total stock of Canadian investments abroad. Leaving the US out of the figures doesn't help much: Mexico reaches barely 2.5% of this much smaller total, 32% less than in 2000. On average, our vaunted 2500 companies have assets of less than $2 million each: take out Scotia Bank, Bombardier and a few other big players and you realize that most of those companies are tiny outfits with very small operations on the ground.

Wait, wait, sing the cheerleaders, investments may be low, but trade is high: Mexico is now our third largest trade partner! Which is true: at 3.5% of total trade (1.3% of exports, 5.5% of imports), Mexico indeed ranks third in our amazingly undiversified trade matrix. Yet, what matters for the domestic politics of foreign releations are absolute numbers, and not many jobs, careers or pensions depend on what happens down there.

Well, we are now told, trade and investments are only parts of the picture and probably not the most important ones: what truly matters are those Mexican drug "cartels" who are waging a war in Mexico, gaining ground on US drug markets, and whose reach is felt "in the streets of Vancouver" and soon, no doubt, in Chicoutimi. Let's carefully assess this one.

A horrible war is indeed being fought in Mexico, one that has claimed more than 30,000 lives since President Calderon took power in 2006. It is also true that Mexican "cartels" have a very significant presence on US drug markets and that, given their hold on hemispheric drug routes, they probably play a role somewhere along the chain that takes drugs from the Andes to our streets, and they may eventually become major players in the bulk or detail market here.

Before concluding that this calls for Canadian involvement in Mexico's war, four questions need to be addressed: 1) Is trafficking per se the cause of Mexico's drug violence? 2) Does violence follow drugs? 3) Are Mexican "cartels" more violent than the organizations that currently control these activities? And 4) Can we do something about it? The answers are no, no, no, and not much, and the conclusion is that the war in Mexico is not Canada's business. Let's take these issues one by one.

One: trafficking and Mexico's violence. Before Calderon launched his offensive in 2006 and especially after 2008, violence had been declining for more than a decade. Up to 2008 Mexico had been making slow but regular progress on a number of fronts: GDP per capita and the human development index were up, democracy was slowly consolidating, and corruption—as assessed by Transparency International—was diminishing albeit even more slowly. With global drug prices down and consumption relatively stable, the relative value of the drug trade in the Mexican economy was diminishing. The country, in spite of a serious problem with organized crime, was slowly evolving towards a kind of middle class society, with significant but not overwhelming problems. It is quite likely that it was the Mexican government's new war on drugs that changed all this for the worse. Before 2008 the drug traffickers seemed quite happy to put their money in the banks instead of fighting over turf.

Second: drugs and violence. Neither drug production nor trafficking or consumption are directly connected to violence. Bolivia and Peru, where cocaine production is up, are not particularly violent. In Mexico in the 1990s and early 2000s, as local cartels were establishing their dominance over the hemispheric drug trade, levels of violence were diminishing. The largest per capita drug consuming countries in the world are in North America and Western Europe, both regions where, by global standards, levels of violence are respectively low and ridiculously low. Even more telling, while the Mexican cities that lie on the border with the US now rank among the most violent in the world, their US "sisters," just across the border, are among the safest in the United States. As drugs move across the border, and most of what is sent does, it stops killing! Clearly, what matters is the management of the drug trade, not the drug trade per se. And the war on drugs looks increasingly like the worst way to manage it.

Third: the terrible Mexican drug lords. The quickly growing presence of Mexican cartels on US soil shows that they make their sums: using violence would doom them in that environment and they know it, hence the calm at the border and in most areas that they are "invading." As for Canada, there is no reason whatsoever to think that Mexican cartels would be more violent than our native biker gangs or ethnic mafias. Finally, and sensational press reports notwithstanding, Vancoucer remains one of the safest global cities on the planet.

Four, "Our time to lead?" The scope of the problem in Mexico is staggering. The country has three times Canada's population, 2500 police forces, and one of the most complex and unwieldy political system in the whole world. Greater Mexico City, whose population is about 25 million people, has three relevant governments, each with their own police forces. In 2010, public security spending in Mexico was about $16bn, with $2.5bn for policing along. Meanwhile in Canada, Mexico is too rich to qualify for CIDA funds, National Defense is about to engage in deep cuts, and the largest envelope at Foreign Affairs for the kind of activities contemplated by the cheerleaders is the Stabilization and Reconstruction Task Force's $75 million fund, an envelope, that also finances a whole range of acitivities in "fragile and failing states," among others Afghanistan and Haiti.

Does all this mean that Canada should do nothing or that our help, with training and institutional reform, for instance in the judiciary, is doomed to be irrelevant? Not necessarily, though we need to be careful, especially with training, which is quickly becoming Canada's trademark contribution to international quagmires, from Afghanistan to Haiti, Central America, and now Mexico. Leaving aside the unfathomable naivete of the idea that those situations are technical matters that can be settled through some kind of capacity-building (who trains the Taliban?), Afghanistan should have taught us that it can backfire: Jorge Chabat, one of Mexico's foremost expert on drug violence, points out that the only thing worse than a corrupt and violent policeman is a well-trained and well-equipped corrupt and violent policeman...

The keys to any initiative has to be modesty and sustainability: the thinness of Canada's interests in Mexico implies that resources will be sparse and domestic constituencies, both within and outside government, small and narrow. What effort is made should be small enough to be easy to sustain over time. Working with local partners not engaged in confrontational policies is possibly most promising. Judicial reform is in Mexico to stay, as is police reform, and Canada can help those that are engaged in this process. A better understanding, through local research, of the specific linkages between policing and violence on the ground could help to better manage drug trafficking. Working in one city for a long period may be most helpful. In the end, however, what appetite and money there is here for fighting drug violence may find better use and have a bigger impact in Central America and especially the Caribbean. On this file, as with any policy towards the Americas, we need above all to avoid facile and poorly informed frenzies.