Commentary: The drug war next door shouldn't be ignored

The Miami HeraldJanuary 27, 2012 

In his State of the Union address on Tuesday, President Barack Obama talked about the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, but didn't say a word about a war that is taking place next door, and that is killing more people than the others: the drug-related war in Mexico and Central America.

Was it a careless omission? Or is Obama — and, to be fair, his Republican critics as well — deliberately overlooking one of the world’s bloodiest wars because they don’t have a clue what to do about it?

According to the Jan. 11 official report by Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office, the death toll in Mexico’s war against the drug cartels over the past five years has risen to 47,515. That’s slightly more than the casualties in Iraq over the same period, and nearly twice the number of victims in Afghanistan, according to human rights groups.

And that is without counting Central America. The drug war has turned Honduras into the country with the world’s highest homicide rate, with 82 deaths per 100,000 residents a year, followed by El Salvador with 66 deaths per 100,000 residents, according to United Nations figures. By comparison, the U.S. annual homicide rate is fewer than five deaths per 100,000 residents.

The morning after Obama’s speech, I asked former Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda why he thinks Obama omitted the Mexico and Central American drug wars. He offered three possible explanations.

First, it may be because Mexican President Felipe Calderón doesn’t want anybody to portray Mexico’s fight against the drug cartels as a “war,” even if its death toll is higher than that of other world conflicts, he said. The “W” word discourages foreign investments and badly hurts Mexico’s key tourism industry.

Second, Washington is not so enthusiastic about Calderón anymore, Castaneda said. The Obama administration resents Calderón’s increasingly stronger statements about the lack of U.S. actions to reduce U.S. drug consumption, and about the U.S. failure to curb the flow of weapons to the drug cartels in Mexico and Central America, he said.

“They are fed up with him, because every time he gives an interview in the United States he complains about why the United States doesn’t stop drug consumption and weapons smuggling, which everybody knows is not going to happen,” Castaneda said. “They want to support him, but they don’t want to be as expressive in their support as they used to be.”

Third, while Washington is actively supporting Mexico’s military offensive against the drug cartels, there is growing concern about possible human rights abuses, he said. A recent report by the Human Rights Watch advocacy group says that “Mexico’s military and police have committed widespread human rights violations in efforts to combat organized crime, virtually none of which are being adequately investigated.”

Asked about Obama’s omission, a White House official told me that “the president has made clear on numerous occasions the unprecedented partnerships we have formed with Mexico and Central America’s efforts against transnational organized crime.”

My opinion: The United States is emerging from the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, and from a very deep recession, and Obama is trying to create a sense of normalcy, in which — as he stressed in his State of the Union address — “America is back.” Raising public attention to the war next door does not play into that narrative, especially in an election year. But living in denial won’t help solve the economic and trans-national crime problems brought about by the Mexico and Central American drug wars. As former presidents of Mexico, Brazil and Colombia have repeatedly requested, it’s time to open a discussion about legalizing marijuana, and using the savings to fund education and rehabilitation programs to slow down the U.S. demand for harder drugs.

What’s more, I was amazed that in a State of the Union speech centered on creating jobs in America, Obama made only one fleeting reference to “the Americas,” one of the world regions that is growing fastest, offers a golden opportunity to expand U.S. exports, and is right next door.

Granted, Obama has in general a better grasp of Latin American and world affairs than his Republican critics, as we have often noted in this column. But ignoring the war next door, and failing to come up with an ambitious plan to increase U.S. economic ties with Mexico and the rest of Latin America, will not help his goal of creating more jobs at home.


Andres Oppenheimer is a Miami Herald syndicated columnist and a member of The Miami Herald team that won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize. He also won the 1999 Maria Moors Cabot Award, the 2001 King of Spain prize, and the 2005 Emmy Suncoast award. He is the author of Castro's Final Hour; Bordering on Chaos, on Mexico's crisis; Cronicas de heroes y bandidos, Ojos vendados, Cuentos Chinos and most recently of Saving the Americas. E-mail Andres at Live chat with Oppenheimer every Thursday at 1 p.m. at The Miami Herald.

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