A Drug War on Auto-Pilot

THE HAGUE – The war in Afghanistan, now approaching its tenth year, may seem to many to have no end in sight, but Latin America has endured an even longer fight, one that has recently become much more bloody: the “war” against drug trafficking. So rote – and so violent – has that war become that many people in Latin America now wonder which side is suffering the more pathological addiction.

The new strategy that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been promoting to staunch the upward trend of narco-trafficking-related murders – which leaked Mexican government reports put at more than 22,000 since late 2006 – is to build “stronger, more resilient communities.” Ciudad Juárez, a sprawling Mexican border town that is now the homicide capital of the world, would have to be high on the list.

Four bridges and innumerable tunnels and drainage canals connect Ciudad Juárez and El Paso, Texas. Rival cartels sparring for control of a plaza, the name given to any trafficking route, butcher each other and the security forces. There is apparently no shortage of young, unemployed men willing to join the carnage.

Addressing the deep-seated social and economic problems of a city like Juárez, however, is a lot harder than flooding its streets with 8,000 soldiers carrying assault rifles. Mexican President Felipe Calderón has, in this respect, remained faithful to the script written in previous theaters in the drug war, whether in Bolivia, Colombia, or Peru, where governments have used military force and extradition to placate the US and punish those with the least voice and influence.