Many in the U.S., especially the U.S. government, were mystified with Mexico’s recent decriminalization of small quantities of drugs for personal use. Some have even suggested that this shows that Mexico is seeking to legalize drugs in order to solve the pervasive drug problems the country faces both from a consumption and production standpoint. For those who can fully appreciate the differing points of view each country has, this recent action by Mexico makes perfect sense and does not signify a premise that legalizing drugs is the way to solve the drug issues.

Although we are neighbors and in many ways we share a common culture, we are nonetheless two different peoples approaching a shared problem from two very distinct perspectives. As tempting as it may be to think that Mexico is seriously considering legalizing drugs as a solution to the drug problem, this assumption ignores Mexico’s psyche when dealing with security issues. The differences in Mexican and U.S. points of view also make it highly unlikely that both countries would ever agree to a unified drug policy.

Two different points of view

In order to understand the drug policy of the Mexican government it is first important to understand how Mexicans interpret the world around them. Mexico and the U.S. started out as two different countries with two very different perspectives. The U.S. launched its independence as a spring board towards the future. Unlike Mexico, the United States has always seen itself as the leader in defining the way people should live and act across the nation and across the world. From its inception, the American psyche has been one of establishing a new norm of life, from politics to the economy.

Mexico, on the other hand, sees itself from a very different point of view. Mexicans, for the most part, identify themselves as a continuation of a long history of a conquered people. As Mexicans, we don’t see our independence from Spain as a new start, rather we see ourselves as having liberated ourselves from the Spanish conquest of our land. As soon as we liberated ourselves from Spain we were forced to defend ourselves again and again from other countries, including the United States, intent on annexing us. Octavio Paz defines this psyche as Mexican tradition and history being the center of the Mexican universe. America, on the other hand, he writes, sees its independence as a new beginning.

In short, we Mexicans see ourselves as a conquered people struggling to overcome our own sense of insecurity constantly wondering when the next shoe will fall. This is the underlining Mexican psyche and the one that governs our foreign policy and the use of our military.

Mexican foreign policy

U.S. and Mexican foreign policy can best be described as polar opposites. U.S. foreign policy is dictated by an outward world view while Mexican foreign policy can best be described as inward-looking. These two differing vantage points on how to deal with external and internal threats are the cornerstones as to why Mexico and the U.S. have such a differing point of view when dealing with transnational issues, especially security ones.

The nexus of U.S. foreign policy is Manifest Destiny and although it has gone through many historical alterations it nonetheless comes down to the notion that the country’s destiny is based on controlling the actions of other countries. The most recent example of this is George W. Bush’s “One Percent Doctrine”.
The Bush government’s One Percent Doctrine is based on the notion that to keep America safe it must act if there is at least a one-percent chance that a foreign country or entity has the capability to hurt the United States. Under this doctrine, the United States has the right to militarily and/or economically intervene to neutralize that threat whether it has been proven or not. In other words, if the American state perceives that a group, either governmental or non-governmental has the “one-percent” probability of hurting the United States than the government has the right and, some would argue, the obligation to destroy that threat with or without the world’s consent.

On the other hand, Mexico’s foreign policy is dictated by the Estrada Doctrine. The Estrada Doctrine has been the basis of Mexico’s foreign policy since the 1930’s. The Estrada Doctrine is based on the notion that each country has the right to self-determination based on the needs and wants of its people rather than the needs or wants of other countries. Under the Estrada Doctrine no country has the right to intervene in the internal affairs of other countries.

These two opposing views are the basis for the appearance of differing policies on the drug war. From the 1970’s through the 1990’s, Mexico’s response to the threat of the drug cartels was based on two important factors. The first was that the threat of drug use within Mexico was small or nonexistent. Coupled with limited governmental resources, Mexico saw the drug problem as an issue which the United States needed to deal with internally, not in Mexico. It was not until 1988 that the Mexican government begins to acknowledge that the drug cartels are a threat to Mexican national security. Outgoing president Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado declared drug trafficking as a threat to national security. This was affirmed by incoming President Carlos Salinas de Gortari and subsequent presidents. Initially, this action did little to enhance Mexico’s active participation in drug interdiction and was limited for the most part to drug eradication programs. Nonetheless, it set the legal framework from which Mexico would respond to the threat going forward.

Mexico initially saw the problem as a small external threat to the Mexican state and one that from Mexico’s point of view needed to be addressed by the U.S. within its borders not in Mexico. As such, Mexico’s solution to the problem was very Mexican and perplexing to the Americans. More importantly, the limited deployment of Mexican security forces further perplexed the U.S. because it seemed inadequate for the perceived threat. Understanding the limited resources Mexico has for its security forces and the limits imposed upon the military by history, governmental policy and institutions brings the Mexican action into clarity.

Military differences

Unlike the U.S. military which has the technology and resources to project policy beyond its borders, the Mexican military is governed by strong restrictions imposed on it by the realities of its geographic borders, its governing Constitutional limits, and the fact that Mexico borders the largest economy in the world.

Three primary doctrines govern Mexico’s military. They are DN-I, DN-II and DN-III. (DN stands for Defensa Nacional, or National Defense). Because of history and national policy, the Mexican military is severely limited in taking unilateral action and the government is limited in its ability to use it to enforce policy beyond its borders. DN-I and DN-II are defined as protecting the sovereignty of Mexico’s borders from external and internal threats respectively. DN-III ensures the use of the Mexican military for national relief efforts such as earthquake recovery response and is where the military was most active prior to President Calderon’s use of it against the cartels.

What changed?

Although past presidents have declared drug traffickers a threat to national security, the Mexican government had given the military limited authority to engage the cartels because of limited resources and the notion that the drug problem should be dealt with by the countries suffering from its effects and not by the country used as a transit point. Two things happened that forced the Calderon government to refocus the military’s engagement. First was the September 11 bombings of the Twin Towers which effectively (and unintentionally) made the crossing of drugs into the United States much more difficult. The second was Colombia’s mostly effective drug interdiction program that transformed Mexican cartels from subservient transporters of the illicit material to equal and active competitors for the immensely lucrative drug trade.

To the Mexican government, this turned the Mexican drug cartels from a passive perceived danger to a clear and present danger for two reasons: one being an economic one and the other a social one. With billions of dollars suddenly engorging drug cartel coffers, the drug organizations’ ability to destabilize the central government became a serious reality. This, coupled with the prospect that Mexican citizens, especially children, would eventually become active consumers of the drug trade and not simply casual observers, gave the government all the support it needed from the Mexican citizenry.

However, this created a problem for the Mexican government. Mexico’s funding of its military has traditionally been tempered with the realities of its national security. Mexico has no immediate threats bordering its national boundaries. To the south lies Guatemala and Belize. Although Guatemala and Mexico have had a tumultuous international relationship, for the most part Guatemala does not have the military capacity to violate Mexican sovereignty over an extended period of time. The last major diplomatic trouble between the two countries was the strafing of Mexican fishing boats by the Guatemalan Air Force in 1958. That event was settled with a Guatemalan apology within a few days. Belize and Mexico, on the other hand, have generally enjoyed a friendly relationship and therefore Belize posed no perceivable threat.

To the north, Mexico shares a border with the United States. The U.S./Mexico relationship at the governmental level can best be described as an uneasy friendship based on geographic and economic necessities rather than true friendship, although from a population level most Mexicans see Americans as friends and neighbors. The inter-governmental relationship is based on the country’s psyche and doctrines previously discussed as well as the six unprovoked military interventions in Mexico by the U.S. military (for a complete list, click here). Because Mexico accepts that it cannot militarily compete with the United States and sees no immediate threat to its sovereignty from the south, the Mexican government has focused itself on arming the military in support of DN-II’s goal of protecting internal security, rather than on external threats.

Meanwhile, the ongoing terrorist threat to the U.S. has forced Mexico to reevaluate this notion of its ability to defend against an external threat. This is not because Mexico feels directly threatened by terrorist action, but rather because based on Mexico’s close economic ties to the United States any threat to the steady flow of Mexican oil to its northern neighbor amounts to an economic threat to the U.S. economy itself. And it is this potential threat to Mexican oil production that makes Mexico a target for anyone attempting to destabilize the United States.

Key among these is the Campeche oil fields. The Cantarell Complex is the second most productive oil field in the world. Disrupting this petroleum operation would have serious repercussions for the world economy not to mention the U.S. economy. Because of its vulnerability to aerial attack, Mexico has been forced to reevaluate its military’s force projection capability. Although the Mexican navy has recently undergone a re-modernization program designed to protect against surface threats, the Mexican air force is limited by both equipment and personnel in its ability to effectively counter a multiple terrorist air strike against the oil fields. Mexico’s air force is heavy on counterinsurgency (COIN) tools for internal security and relies on a small fleet of eight, Northrop F5e, and two F5f Tiger II’s for national air defense.

The supersonic F5’s, although capable of mounting a credible air interdiction mission, are limited by their age. They were deployed twenty-seven years ago and are based on 1970’s technology. Their limited numbers restricts their ability to answer a threat by simultaneous multiple attacks. Also, because of limited resources and diminished upward-mobility for its pilots, the FAM (Fuerza Aérea Mexicana or Mexican Air Force) has recently experienced a difficult time providing effective aircrews for its air force fleet. This has put Mexico in a difficult quandary: either recruit the U.S. to protect its oil fields or upgrade its own air defense capability.

The ongoing difficult world economy, combined with the political and economic stress of the war on drugs and the realities of this external threat, is essentially forcing Mexico to choose between spending limited resources in upgrading its military capacity or bringing U.S./Mexico military ties much closer than they are currently. The Mexican military has traditionally viewed the U.S. military with a mix of envy for its seemingly unlimited access to advanced weapon systems and distrust based on their differing missions and past unprovoked military interventions. At the same time the Mexican population, and by default the government, is distrustful of publicly giving U.S. military access to Mexican sovereignty duties either directly or indirectly.

Since World War II the U.S. has sought closer ties with the Mexican military going as far as suggesting the engagement of a hemispheric defense posture between Canada, Mexico and the U.S. Mexico has resisted these efforts because of the previously discussed reasons of doctrine and distrust. Mexico, nonetheless, simply cannot afford to unilaterally spend the necessary funds to upgrade its internal security mechanisms and, more importantly, its external defense posture without U.S. help. Deploying a new weapon system, such as interceptor aircraft, is not a simple thing of buying new aircraft. It requires a substantial investment in infrastructure such as airport facilities, air and support crew training, spare parts and munitions. Countries cannot simply buy aircraft without first investing in the necessary personnel training, parts and airport facilities to deploy them from.

At the same time, publicly acknowledging that the United States will defend Mexican national sovereignty would not only be destructive to the government but would be detrimental to U.S. interests as the Mexican population would likely rebel against such an initiative when made public. However, because of the American One Percent Doctrine it would be naïve not to assume that the United States is actively prepared to intervene should the need arise to protect Mexican oil fields but it is in neither countries’ interest to publicly acknowledge such a possibility. At the same time, for self-preservation purposes, Mexico must seem capable of protecting its own oil fields on its own whether it is a reality or not. How to solve the quagmire?

The Merida Initiative

The Merida Initiative is the opportunity for both countries to address their own foreign policy problems without “stepping” on each other toes and is most likely being used for such a purpose. For the U.S., drug interdiction at the source has been a matter of policy since the Nixon administration. The U.S. doctrine of dealing with the drug problem within Mexico has been stymied by Mexico’s reluctance to submit to a Columbia- or Peru-type plan that would allow U.S. military personnel to operate within its borders. Mexico, on the other hand, has had to face the reality that its foreign policy of allowing countries to solve their own problems may not be as easy now that the global economy has forced upon Mexico the need to proactively defend its national interests abroad. This does not mean that Mexico is ready or even willing to dramatically change its “inward” looking doctrine but it nonetheless has to prepare itself to deal with new threats to national sovereignty for national sake.

The Merida Initiative has given both countries an opportunity to coincide their diverse international policies without seeming to give in to each other’s diverse points of views. The Merida Initiative allows the United States the ability to effectively wage war in Mexico by addressing the drug problem for the United States on Mexican soil rather than on American soil, while simultaneously allowing Mexico the ability to address its own weapons needs.

For Mexico, the Merida Initiative addresses many issues at once. The first is upgrading the Mexican military capability on America’s dime. This “upgrade” is accomplished under Mexico’s inward looking requirement while at the same time allowing its policy of self-determination to remain intact. It also allows the Calderon administration to effectively deal with the national threat of the drug cartels all while seemingly maintaining the U.S. at an arm’s length. Thus, both countries get to keep their national doctrines intact while at the same time dealing with the hemispheric threat of the cartels. So does this signify a cohesive drug policy for both countries?

Although it may be tempting to think so, the reality is that both countries still look at the cartel problem from two distinct points of view. They each approach the problem with very individual solutions. For Mexico, the drug cartels are a national security threat because of the economic power they wield and, to a much lesser degree, because of their potential to create an entire generation of addicted individuals. For the U.S., the problem is one that needs to be controlled outside its borders and the only way to do so is through action in other countries. Although the drug policy actions of both countries may seem cohesive, the reality is that they are not, they just seem like they are.

Mexico’s recent decriminalization of small quantities of personal use drugs was not about a change in national policy but rather it was an exercise in political gamesmanship. The reality is that using resources to jail and prosecute small time drug dealers distracts the nation from the true threat: the cartels. The confusion among U.S. officials is based on the lack of understanding of the Mexican psyche. For those wondering if Mexico is about to embark on a national debate about legalizing drugs as a serious government initiative, the probability is that it will not happen anytime soon. Not because Mexico wants to be subservient to American interests, but because it cannot appear to be weak under the threat of cartel domination of the state, whether it is a reality or not. The added plus to the Merida Initiative is that it allows Mexico the ability to strengthen its security apparatus by using America’s own foreign policy framework to pay for it.

It is a dangerous game both countries are playing but it is one born of necessity. Could it backfire? Yes. But Mexico has always played this game effectively with the United States. Because the underlying doctrines of both countries are not about to change, the notion that Mexico and the U.S. will mount a cohesive policy is not possible. Although it may seem that both countries have a cohesive drug policy, the fact remains that it is cohesive so long as the policy serves the needs of each country independently but will change at a moment’s whim just as Mexico recently proved with the decriminalization of small quantities of dope. This change, also, does not signify a plan by Mexico to begin studying the issue of legalization.

Note: This paper was originally published in the Newspaper Tree as “U.S., Mexico uneasy allies in the Drug Wars” on September 28, 2009.

Martin Paredes

Martín Paredes is a Mexican immigrant who built his business on the U.S.-Mexican border. As an immigrant, Martín brings the perspective of someone who sees México as a native through the experience...