MEXICO CITY - Mexico finally is fighting the war on drugs that the U.S. government has demanded for decades: a frontal assault on drug barons, their organizations and their merchandise, using the police and military in concert with U.S. intelligence.
The results, Mexican and U.S. authorities say, have been impressive. Forty-six thousand people jailed on drug charges, President Vicente Fox said in a recent speech, 97 tons of cocaine seized, more than a million marijuana plants destroyed. It's been four years, Mr. Fox and U.S. officials said, of steady progress.
But a rising chorus of voices in Mexico and the U.S. says the real results are record levels of violence, instability and corruption in Mexico, resurgent drug cartels, nearly 200 dead police officers and soldiers, along with millions of wasted dollars in a country where half the population of 105 million is poor. Mexico receives almost no aid from the U.S. government.
And the result in the U.S.? No noticeable drop in the supply of cheap drugs - and an actual decline in the price of cocaine, according to a new U.N. report.
Some analysts say Mexico's approach has not only failed to stanch the flow of drugs but is also destabilizing the young democracy. Mexico needs to turn back now, they say.
"The Americans pressure us to carry out a head-on drug war, and when the situation starts to get out of control, the Americans complain that there is violence on the border," said political commentator Jose Antonio Crespo. "There is no way of making them happy because they always have some reason not to be."
Before the violence spirals out of control, as it has in Colombia as a result of similar policies, Mr. Crespo said, Mexico should go back to pretending to fight an unwinnable war rather than fighting it in earnest.
"If the United States is not going to legalize drugs, then Mexico has to come to terms with the narcos," he said. "There were agreements in the past to let 80 percent of the drugs through, to allow some seizures for the Americans and for the media, and there was a lot less violence."
Mr. Fox said recently that is not an option.
"We have the strength, the capacity, the moral integrity to win this battle," Mr. Fox said June 24 to mark the international day on fighting drug abuse and trafficking. "What is at stake here is the future of our girls, boys and young people."
Dave Murray, a policy analyst with the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, said Washington understands the sacrifice being made by Mexico, but that it also is in Mexico's interest to fight the traffickers vigorously.
"It's been a horrendous fight for them. We have to salute their willingness to take on this fight," said Mr. Murray. But turning a blind eye is not an option.
"If drugs transit through your country and you think, 'Well it's just for those norteamericanos. The money comes to us, the drugs to them. What's the problem?' They soon discover drugs are left behind as payment in kind for services provided. And local traffickers soon become drug dealers. And to whom do they sell? To local kids," said Mr. Murray.
"The problems will become worse and worse as narcotraffickers corrode the system ... and you will find them growing into a power within the nation that can actually threaten the legitimacy and viability of democratic governments."
But that, critics say, is just what is happening now with the stepped-up war.
Northern border cities such as Nuevo Laredo essentially have slipped out of the government's control despite increasing deployment of soldiers and federal police, some analysts say.
More drugs are getting left behind because of the drug fight, they say, and addiction is up at home.
The nightly accounting of deaths associated with the drug fight has made public security the No. 1 issue among Mexicans in recent months, overtaking unemployment and the lackluster economy, according to a public opinion survey by the Televisa TV network.
Tourism to the Texas-Mexico border is down. For Mexican critics of the policy, an upside is hard to find.
Even the U.S. State Department acknowledges that not much has changed.
"Despite its intense law enforcement efforts, Mexico is the leading transit country for cocaine and a major producer of heroin, methamphetamine, and marijuana destined for U.S. markets," said the 2005 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report.
Further, it acknowledged: "As a result of the huge traffic in drugs, Mexican criminal organizations dominate operations, controlling most of the thirteen primary drug distribution centers in the U.S. The violence of warring Mexican cartels has spilled over the border from Mexico to U.S. sites on the other side."
Some critics say the two countries need a more comprehensive anti-drug policy that focuses on demand as well as supply.
"The policy is working in part, in the sense that we are catching and arresting the drug lords," said Sigrid Arzt of the nongovernmental organization Democracy, Human Rights and Security. "The problem is that the policy has focused on beheading the cartels without additional strategies to deal with consumption and things the U.S. should do in its own territory, such as decreasing the market.
"There will always be someone in line to succeed these drug kingpins. I mean, this is a huge economic business."
Mexico's anti-drug policy should incorporate "prevention, education and information," said Ms. Arzt, founder and partner in the organization. She said the government must do a better job of explaining to Mexicans why the drug problem is such a serious issue.
"People hear that drugs is a national security problem," she said, "but no one truly grasps the dimensions of tolerating this. We need to have a culture of understanding. And the government must work on building confidence in the actions it is doing."
A State Department official expressed a similar reservation.
"One of the things that the Mexican government could do a better job of is coming to the public [and saying], 'We have to stay in this for the long haul, for our survival. Do you want your kids to grow up in a violent and dysfunctional place?' Maybe that's what's lacking," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
U.S.-inspired drug policies have been "a negative in terms of cost" to such countries as Mexico and Colombia, said Gary S. Becker, economics professor at the University of Chicago. He said the drug war has hindered Colombia's economic growth rate and "the preoccupation with cartels has hurt the country."
"Mexico may be moving in that direction," said Dr. Becker, who won the Nobel Prize for economics in 1992. "This is a very expensive process for the U.S. and other countries, and there's little bang for the buck, as it were.
"My conclusion is that we have to look at more radical solutions such as legalization of drugs."
Dr. Becker acknowledged, however, that such a development is unlikely any time soon, noting that "the vast majority of politicians are unwilling to take on legalization in any serious way."
The State Department official said neither Mexico nor the U.S. can afford to let up despite the prospect of "a long, vicious, difficult struggle."
"What's the alternative? Just let them do whatever they want and we won't have the violence? No, because then you'll end up with complete control by criminal elements. I certainly don't want to belittle the sacrifices ... but do you really want organized crime running your country?"
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