The killings have become so routine that most Mexicans don’t bat an eyelid when they are reported. TV stations broadcast the stories at the tail-end of their news programs, and newspapers bury any reference deep inside their pages. It was 2006 when Mexico’s newly-elected President Felipe Calderón sent 6,500 troops to the southwestern state of Michoacán, declaring war on drugs and embarking on an interminable battle that so far has killed over 11,000 people.

There are three principal factors that have made Mexico a battleground in the global War on Drugs. Mexico has long been used as a transit point for drugs that are smuggled from South America to North America. The demise of many Colombian cartels in the 1990s led to an increased dependency on Mexican cartels. Whereas the Colombian cartels previously paid their Mexican mules in cash, crackdowns and desperate circumstances meant that many Mexicans began to be paid in drugs. Through time, the dynamic of the relationship changed and Mexican mules began to be less dependent on their Colombian counterparts, becoming traffickers in their own right. The second factor was a change of government in Mexico, with the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) losing power after more than 70 years of leading the country. The PRI had implicit agreements with all the major cartels, which meant that the drugs could flow in exchange for peace and bribes. Third, the U.S. government began to crack down on methamphetamine at the end of the 80s, curbing the production of the drug in homemade laboratories. As a result, many of these labs packed up and relocated south of the border and began producing and trafficking methamphetamine with much less scrutiny, making Mexico a major methamphetamine supplier.

The Merida Initiative was introduced in 2007 as a joint effort by the U.S. and Mexican government to combat Mexico’s drug problem. The initiative involves the U.S. providing $1.6bn in funding in the name of security cooperation. The initiative has been an unmitigated disaster. It focuses almost entirely on security, providing Mexican law enforcement officers with equipment and training. It backs President Calderon’s all-out war on cartels, without including any plan to combat drug use or tackle the cartels’ intricate financial structures that bankroll the trafficking. Many Mexicans were outraged when, in 2008, a video emerged showing a U.S. security firm teaching Mexican police officers torture techniques as part of the initiative.

President Calderón’s military response to a civilian problem has had similarly disastrous consequences. The Mexican Army has been deployed in small towns and villages throughout the country, ostensibly because the police are too corrupt to deal with the cartels. The results have been predictably horrific, as innocent people are killed and human rights abuses rampant, with the military employing a gung-ho attitude to “win” the War. Worse still, under Mexican law, the military are immune from civilian prosecution, meaning that many of the military’s offences go unpunished.

There has been no sign of progress in the War on Drugs. Calderón’s violent response has been met with heightened violence, as the cartels fight fire with fire. Two weeks ago, a cartel skinned the face off a rival gang member and stitched it onto a football as a warning to other cartels – an incident that underscores the brutality of this futile fight. The Mexican government must not follow the cartels’ macabre example. Instead, it must realize that by pursuing its current militaristic policy it wins nothing and simply sends the country into a vicious circle of death and destruction.

Michael Collins, January 2010