01/23/2012 07:52 am ET Updated Mar 24, 2012

Is Mexico Winning the War on Drugs?

It is not easy to measure the results of a war. With no razed land or without the unconditional surrender of the enemy, the signs of victory become blurry. Even more if the objectives of the war are not clear enough. What was the objective with, for example, the Iraq war? Was it to depose Saddam Hussein? Was it to bring democracy into the country where modern civilization was born? Was it to debilitate terrorism? If it was the first one, victory is quite clear. If it was the second one, there are still many questions to be answered. If it was the third one, our present doubts are even greater.

And we must not forget the cost, in human lives, in destroyed families, and in the country's image. Examples like the case of Abu Ghraib, or the most recent one of the marines peeing over their enemies' bodies in Afghanistan -- another war with similar consequences -- help little to erase the image of imperial force that the United States has in a great part of the third world. Not to mention the thousands of millions invested in the war and its impact in today's repudiated increment in federal spending.

If it is difficult to evaluate the results of a conventional war, what can be said of an irregular one as that led by Mexico against drugs (although now many US politicians believe that what is happening in Mexico is clear cut insurgency that must be dealt with by similar means as those used in the Iraq war, as is evident in a bill proposed and running its course in the House of Representatives).

In this war the main objective is to exterminate the criminal gangs associated to the drug cartels and reduce as much as possible the flow of drugs towards the US. Perceived this way, things would seem to not be going so badly. According to data from the Secretary of Defense (Sedena) between December 1st of 2006 (when Felipe Calderon's six year government term began) and the 31st of December of 2011, the authorities had arrested 41,222 people with crime ties, confiscated 106,070 guns and 40,080 vehicles, confiscated 35 tons of cocaine and 9,287 tons of marihuana, and (to August 5 last year) had extradited 464 criminals to the US.

The "Chapo Guzmán", the great drug lord, is still a fugitive. But the army, the marines, and the police have struck terrible blows to the leaders of the sanguinary cartels that operate in the country. And even if is not easy to establish a clear relation between what is happening in Mexico and drug consumption in the US (and existent data is not updated), the World Drug Report 2010 by UNODC -- the United Nations agency responsible of the drug issue -- states that the consumption of cocaine in the US has diminished during the last few years and the use of marijuana has stagnated.

Even so, very few analysts believe that the war is being won or that it can be won. The drug trafficking network seems infinite and every time a head is chopped -- in some cases literally -- dozens more sprout willing to take the risks associated with this activity that, above all, is disproportionally profitable compared to any normal business. Moreover, the costs that this war has brought upon Mexico are believed to be even higher than the costs for the United States for the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Starting with the cost in human lives. After a short confrontation with the media because they were refusing to reveal the most recent data, the Procuraduría General de la República (PGR) of Mexico admitted that during the last five years 47,515 people have been murdered in the country (most of which had close ties to the war on drugs). Of this total, according to Sedena (and based on information of June 2011) 249 of the dead belonged to the armed forces, especially the army, that has seen itself being dragged into an informal war that has deeply eroded its prestige.

Mexico's image has been terribly tarnished and is now not only perceived as an unsafe country, but one that violates human rights. A recent report of Human Rights Watch presented 170 cases with credible evidence of torture practiced by the armed forces in this war, 39 forced disappearances and 24 extra judiciary executions. Most of these cases are still not being investigated, and similar luck has followed the cases of 14 journalists that have been murdered during the same period of time, as reported by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an organization that seeks the protection of journalists and has its base in New York.

The numerous cases of police officers that have been connected to drug traffickers have increased, adding to the perception of Mexico as a corrupt country. The index of Corruption Perception of 2011 published each year by National Transparency -- an index that runs from least corrupt to most corrupt -- shows Mexico occupying the 100th place. In 2006, before the beginning of the war on drugs, Mexico occupied the 70th place.

No one doubts the good intentions that have motivated this war. President Calderon may be criticized for having begun it without having the elements to manage it -- among those being a unified and honest police force, and an efficient justice system -- but not for wanting to rid Mexico of the organized crime. Deep down the big question is if this is a worthless war. Mexico's case demonstrates, once again, that the strategy of the war on drugs decided nearly half a century ago by the United States was a wrong one.

Many analysts believe that the time has come to make a serious evaluation of other options such as decriminalizing drug use as was proposed by the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, composed by international figures such as the former presidents of Colombia, Cesar Gaviria, of Brazil, Fernando Henrique Cardozo, and of Mexico, Ernesto Zedillo. They, and many other people, agree that this war may not be won with the current strategy. And Mexico is not winning it.