Photo Jonathan Blair

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.