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Hillary Clinton and the Drug Cartel Violence in Mexico

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At the end of March, Hillary Clinton will be heading to Mexico to address the escalation of drug related violence and the expansion of the drug cartels, which are an increasing threat also to the United States. In preparation for her trip, Clinton should call to mind the visit that in 1999 she paid as first lady to the city of Palermo in Sicily. At the time mayor of the city, Leoluca Orlando had showed to her how his administration had effectively fought against the mafia by promoting a culture of lawfulness and human rights. A few years ago, in an interview with an Italian newspaper, Hillary Clinton suggested Orlando for the peace nobel prize.

The Secretary of State's upcoming trip emphasizes the urgency of the matter for the United States. About 90 per cent of all the cocaine consumed in our country transits through Mexico. The drug trade generates for the cartels an estimated 13 to 15 billion dollars earning per year. Some 150 thousand people are directly involved in the narcotics business. There are worrying spill over effects; members of the Mexican cartels are already present in 230 American cities.

Violence is rampant. In 2008, there were more then six thousand drug cartel related homicides in Mexico, and in the first months of this year they already exceed more then 1,000. Beside violence, another dangerous feature of narcotrafficking is widespread corruption, a means to assure impunity and territorial control.

What can the Palermo model suggest to the Mexican case? In the living room of his house, Leoluca Orlando showed to Hillary Clinton a reproduction of the traditional two-wheeled Sicilian cart; a metaphor for his strategy. One wheel, he explained to the first lady, is the state, with law enforcement and a working judiciary; jailing mafia bosses, fighting corruption and money laundering. The second wheel is a vibrant civil society. If only one wheel rolls, the cart goes around in circles. For the cart to move forward both wheels need to spin at the same pace.

The key component of Orlando's model, is the empowerment of civil society. In a society where the mafia had absolutely occupied and corroded the public sphere, the effort of the mayor of Palermo lied in giving back the city to its citizens. He proposed a definition of security, which was not rooted in a zero-tolerance approach, but in the empowerment of civic leaders. This meant improving the general quality of life in the city and convincing ordinary citizens that the Mafia was not an evil they were inevitably obliged to live with. Orlando's model was not a counterinsurgency strategy, but one that strengthened governance and participatory democracy.

The model proved successful. The homicide rate in Palermo decreased dramatically and Moody assigned a AAA rating to Orlando's administration. It was not by chance that the United Nations chose Palermo for its 2000 conference on transnational crime. Studying the Palermo case, and with the initial advise of Leoluca Orlando, Roy Godson, president of the National Strategy Information Center, elaborated a policy model to promote in different parts of the world the Culture of Lawfulness approach. Leoluca Orlando, who in the past few years has been traveling extensively to Mexico, has also advised the mayor of Medellín Sergio Fajardo, now a presidential candidate in Colombia. Medellín is another success story, in which civic participation played a decisive role in reducing violence.

If the savvy combination of a working judiciary with an active civil society has proven to be an effective strategy in fighting organized crime and endemic corruption, then the strategy implemented so far by the government of Mexico with the aid of the United States is still insufficient. In light of a weak and often corrupted police, the Mexican government has so far embraced a primarily military approach to the phenomena, sending almost 30,000 troops to patrol urban centers. This strategy is rising serious human rights concerns. The most recent State Department's Human Rights Report cites an increasing number of arbitrary killings of civilians by the armed forces. This only adds to the horrors committed by the drug cartels.

What the Mexican citizens need are positive encounters with the state. This is the meaning of promoting a Culture of Lawfulness. Fighting impunity, strengthening the judiciary system, while at the same time promoting civic participation should become a priority for the Obama administration in supporting Mexico's efforts to curb the drug cartels. Providing mainly military aid and better border surveillance (or even its militarization) - that is an exclusive emphasis on repression and law enforcement - will not do it. If this administration is about change, then a more creative and constructive approach to the narcotrafficking problem should be explored and tested. With Palermo in mind.