Is Mexico's Drug War Worth The Cost?

President Obama met with Mexican President Felipe Calderon Monday, and praised him for his courage to stand up to his country's drug cartels. But former Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda tells host Michel Martin that his country's president has produced few results from a deadly war that has killed nearly 50,000 people.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, it's National Poetry Month, and just as we did last year, we want the celebration to include you, so once again we're inviting you to send us your poems via Twitter. Poet Holly Bass kicks off our month-long tweet poetry series. We call it Muses and Metaphor. That's in just a few minutes.

But first, a very different subject. We want to focus on a key nation in America's foreign policy, Mexico. President Obama held a North American Leaders Summit Monday at the White House with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Mexican President Felipe Calderon.

At a Rose Garden press conference, President Obama praised Mr. Calderon's efforts to combat the drug trade in Mexico.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: In Mexico, President Calderon has shown great courage in standing up to the traffickers and cartels and we've sped up the delivery of equipment and assistance to support those efforts.

MARTIN: Despite the praise from Mr. Obama, the Mexican president faces ongoing criticism over the drug-related carnage that has become the defining issue of his presidency. Since Mr. Calderon came into office in 2006, almost 50,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence.

And as Mr. Calderon finishes his term, we wanted to take a look at his presidency and what it means for the U.S. relationship with Mexico, so we've called on Jorge Castaneda. He served as the foreign minister of Mexico from 2000 to 2003. He's also the author of "Manana Forever? Mexico and the Mexicans." And he's with us once again.

Welcome back to the program. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

JORGE CASTANEDA: Thank you for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: I do want to mention that you voted for President Calderon. You campaigned on his behalf. You've supported many of his policies in the past, but now you've become a vocal critic of his approach to the drug war. Now, I know that it's a complicated topic, but as briefly as you can, can you tell us what changed your mind?

CASTANEDA: I actually changed my mind as early as 2007, when President Calderon decided to make his war on drugs the signature issue of his administration, and I was simply not convinced then and I'm much less convinced now with the arguments he made for making that decision. One argument was consumption in Mexico of drugs had been rising, what turns out not to be true.

Another argument was that violence had been increasing and something had to be done about it. In fact, violence in Mexico had been declining from the early '90s through 2007, so I didn't see the point of declaring this war which even then looked like it was going to be pretty bloody.

But of course now it's far bloodier than anybody could have ever imagined, including President Calderon himself, who I'm sure never expected this to get out of control so much. As you said, Michel, by the time he ends his term in December, there will probably have been over 60,000 drug war-related deaths in Mexico, more than the number of Americans who died in Vietnam. It's hard to see any results compatible with those kinds of costs.

MARTIN: Is it your view that his efforts have been ineffectual or that his efforts have, in fact, increased the death toll?

CASTANEDA: Well, there's no question that they have increased the violence and the death toll. Mexico had about eight willful homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in 2007. 2011 closed with around 25. In other words, three times as many willful homicides per inhabitant as before. So there - the kidnappings, extortion, everything is up.

The discussion is whether it's worth it. Some people say this was the cost to pay to bring the drug cartels under control, control that had been lost because of the lackadaisical policies of previous presidents.

I, frankly, think that there's very few things worth paying 60,000 deaths for.

MARTIN: Mexican presidents are limited to a six year term, so Mr. Calderon will not stand for reelection in July. The campaign is underway now. How do you think these policies and all this that we're talking about here is influencing the campaign?

CASTANEDA: It's hard to say right now if the campaign will end up being a referendum on President Calderon, but it certainly seems likely right now, not so much because the policies themselves in the abstract are unpopular. He retains a certain amount of popularity and, for example, the military's involvement in the war on drugs continues to have broad support from the Mexican people.

But as of today, the leading opposition candidate has a 15 to 20 point advantage over the candidate of President Calderon's party, over President Calderon's - I wouldn't say hand-picked successor, but the person from his party who he is supporting. So you know, a 15 to 20 point disadvantage three months before the election is not exactly a triumphant mandate for the outgoing president.

MARTIN: We're speaking with the former foreign minister of Mexico, Jorge Castaneda. We're talking about the fact that the current president, Felipe Calderon, is nearing the end of his term. He just met with President Obama and the prime minister of Canada earlier this week at the so-called North American Leaders Summit. We're talking about Mr. Calderon's term and also current issues facing the country.

How do you feel the so-called war on drugs has affected relations with the United States?

CASTANEDA: It's affected them in several ways, Michel. One is, of course, that although the violence is concentrated in some areas of Mexico - it's not everywhere in the country - and although given the number of Americans who either live in Mexico or travel to Mexico every year is so enormous, the incidents are few, nonetheless the incidents have increased enormously. There are a much higher number of Americans killed in Mexico or kidnapped in Mexico or held up in Mexico last year than in the previous years. It's still a small minority, but the numbers are rising very quickly.

Secondly, there have been more and more issues at the border, either by American forces or American operations, such as Fast and Furious, of smuggling weapons into Mexico, supposedly to follow them all the way to the drug cartels' leadership, from that to the Mexican cartels apparently trying to take over some distribution networks inside the United States.

And then there's been this ongoing issue, which is valid - President Calderon made the point again in Washington, meeting with President Obama and Prime Minister Harper of Canada, that as long as the United States does not control the flow of weapons from the U.S. to Mexico, violence in Mexico will continue. It's a valid point, up to a point, because even before the assault weapons ban was established by President Clinton in 1994, there was less violence in Mexico before then and the violence in Mexico didn't really start until 2008, four years after the assault weapons ban expired in 2004.

I think there's a point to be made that guns or weapons are a fungible commodity in today's world. If you don't buy them in one place, you buy them in another. They may be a little bit more expensive, but not that much either.

MARTIN: As Mexico enters this campaign season, could you assess the mood of the electorate there? Do they believe that this problem is fixable?

CASTANEDA: Polls tend to show, Michel, that they believe that the government is losing the war on drugs. They tend to say that the cost is too high. Now, the alternative that most people have in mind but do not verbalize is in fact rather simple. It is to let the drugs go through from South America through Mexico to the United States and have the Americans worry about it one way or the other, either by legalizing drugs or by penalizing drugs or doing whatever Americans want to do about it, but that it does not seem reasonable or logical for Mexico to put up more than 60,000 deaths in six years for the exclusive purpose of reducing the supply of drugs to American consumers who are not really reducing their consumption of drugs overall. So most Mexicans would say, why in the world are we worrying about this?

MARTIN: Jorge Castaneda is the former foreign minister of Mexico. He served from 2000 to 2003 in that post. He's author of the book "Manana Forever? Mexico and the Mexicans." And we caught up with him in Miami, Florida.

Mr. Castaneda, thank you so much for speaking with us.

CASTANEDA: Thank you, Michel, again, for having me.

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