Last week, former Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo, former Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso and former Colombian president Cesar Gavira, co-published an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times declaring the War on Drugs an “unmitigated disaster.” Zedillo and his co-authors, who are themselves hardly progressives, pointed to the spiraling violence and corruption in the region and the weakening of judicial systems and democratic institutions as evidence that prohibitionist, militarized approaches to drug control have failed. They make a compelling argument, one that could be even stronger given a little more historical context. In Mexico, as in much of the rest of Latin America, the disastrous War on Drugs both resembles and grew out of an earlier conflict: the Cold War.
Mexico’s War on Drugs shares a number of characteristics with the Cold War. Both are “intermestic” conflicts, or, to quote Campbell Craig and Fredrik Logevall, conflicts in which the international and domestic aspects are “dynamically intertwined.” During the Cold War in Mexico, as in the rest of the world, it was frequently impossible to untangle the links between international and domestic politics. Foreign events like the Cuban Revolution had local repercussions, while Mexican citizens interpreted their own historical and current conditions through the lens of international affairs. Events within Mexico, like the famous 1968 student movement, drew inspiration from both domestic and international sources. Mexico’s Drug War presents similar intermestic characteristics. The drug trade itself is an extremely international (and transnational) affair with local repercussions. The current situation grew out of both Mexico’s own long tradition of illicit production and smuggling, as well as changes in the international narcotics system that made Mexico an ideal bridge and producer country.