Mexican drug war a losing proposition

Egged on by the United States, Mexico is waging an ill-conceived war on drugs that has led to an explosion of violence.

On March 27, 10 young people between the ages of 8 and 21 were gunned down in Durango.

Just two weeks earlier, on March 13, three U.S. consular employees were murdered in Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso, Texas.

On Jan. 31, 15 teenagers at a party in Ciudad Juarez were murdered by drug dealers.

These are just a few of the incidents. The drug violence killed 2,600 people last year in Ciudad Juarez, and has taken a toll of 600 already this year.

More than 19,000 Mexicans have died in this failed war, almost four times as many casualties as the United States has lost in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined.

Soon after narrowly winning a controversial election in 2006, Mexican President Felipe Calderon launched his war on the drug cartels. But over the past decades, the drug mafias have penetrated every aspect of Mexican society, gaining influence in the political and social arena, controlling municipal, state and even federal police forces.

As the government invested less and less on the social front, drug lords such as Joaquin (el Chapo) Guzman and Osiel Cardenas started to give generously to the poor, thereby achieving Robin Hood- like status. Their actions even spawned "narcocorrido," a musical genre that celebrates their exploits. And much to the chagrin of the Calderon administration, for two years Guzman has been listed on the Forbes billionaire list.

Drug cartels have evolved from local gangs into transnational enterprises with intricate power structures that reach into every corner of Mexico and beyond. The drug cartels represent a state within a state, controlling vast swaths of territory with significant social and military resources at their disposal.

With full U.S. support, Calderon has mistakenly relied on a military strategy, deploying the army to key battleground states such as Chihuahua, Michoacan, Baja California and Tamaulipas. The cartels regroup and initiate operations elsewhere so that increasingly all of Mexico feels the pain. Calderon's strategy of relying on the military exposes it to the same factors that have corrupted the Mexican police force. As a possible sign that the cartels have made inroads in the military, Calderon has increasingly relied on the navy to carry out operations.

As the government prosecutes the war on the cartels, many Mexicans see their conditions worsen. A World Bank report underscored the social cost of Calderon's policies: Between 2006 and 2008, 5.9 million Mexicans joined the ranks of the poor, and since then their numbers have swelled by an additional 4.2 million. In total, 51 percent of the Mexican population lives in poverty.

The drug war will not be won on the battlefield. Instead, the government must adopt a multipronged approach that grapples with social inequality, directs investments to rebuild the devastated countryside and engages in a aimed at curtailing the influence of the drug traffickers.

Likewise, the U.S. cannot continue to be the largest market for illegal drugs in the world. Contact Tinker Salas, a professor of history and Latin American studies at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., at pmproj@progressive.org.