Relationships with countries racked by drug violence and organized crime should focus more on economic development and less on the endless battles against drug traffickers and organized crime capos that have left few clear victors. The countries, Mexico in particular, need to set their own course on security, with the United States playing more of a backing role. That approach runs the risk of being seen as kowtowing to governments more concerned about their public image than the underlying problems tarnishing it.
There was a lot of drug-war hand-wringing in the U.S. leading up to President Obama’s visit to Mexico. That’s because Mexican President Peña Nieto is in change-the-conversation mode: he wants Washington to focus less on his country’s awful drug violence – some 60,000 narco-related murders in the past seven years, with little sign of abating – and more on its robust economic potential. The fear in some Washington circles is that Peña Nieto's Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which in its dictatorial 20th-century heyday was every drug lord’s cuate, or best buddy, is putting the fight against Mexico’s vicious cartels on the back burner.
Latin America has emerged at the vanguard of efforts to promote debate on drug policy reform. For decades, Latin American governments largely followed the drug control policies and programs of Washington’s so-called war on drugs. Yet two parallel trends have resulted in a dramatic change in course: the emergence of left-wing governments that have challenged Washington’s historic patterns of unilateralism and interventionism and growing frustration with the failure of the prohibitionist drug control model put forward by the US government.