The Mexican government's efforts to address drug-trafficking and violence in the country have been a major focus of attention by the media and in Washington. By comparison, there has been less attention to recent changes in Mexico's national drug laws and its efforts to grapple with growing domestic demand for drugs. In August 2009, Mexico adopted a new law against small-scale drug dealing, which decriminalizes the possession of small amounts of drugs for personal consumption, while also giving state-level police the authority to apprehend small-scale dealers and toughening sentences for street-level drug dealing. At the same time, the Mexican government has stepped up its efforts to address domestic drug consumption, including through programs supported by U.S. assistance.

On May 25, 2010, the Mexico Institute co-sponsored with the Washington Office on Latin America a meeting on Mexican domestic drug consumption and the country's new drug laws, featuring three experts affiliated with the Collective for an Integral Drug Policy in Mexico (CUPIHD). The meeting was moderated by Maureen Meyer of WOLA and Eric Olson of the Mexico Institute.

Ana Paula Hernández began by giving an overview of anti-drug policy in Mexico, noting that President Felipe Calderón had deployed 45,000 soldiers to patrol the nation's streets, yet the effectiveness of his policies have reached a "dead end." She noted that Mexico is now the most dangerous nation in the world to be a journalist, has had 22,700 drug-related killings since Calderón took office, and has seen a 600-percent increase in reports of human rights abuses between 2008 and 2009. Hernández welcomed the refocusing of the U.S.-Mexican strategy of anti-drug cooperation under the next stages of the Mérida Initiative, which places greater emphasis on building institutions to maintain the rule of law and on addressing the social problems that form the roots of the crisis. She then concluded by offering the following set of policy recommendations for Mexico:

• If the military must be used as a police force, then it must be held accountable in cases of abuse and violators must be tried in civilian courts.

• The 2008 criminal justice reform should be modified to eliminate the ability of the government to hold those suspected of involvement in organized crime for 80 days without due process.

• The federal government should invest more in law enforcement and judicial institutions at the local and state levels; reform only at the federal level is insufficient.

• While the new focus on public health and the building of resilient communities is welcome, there has previously been a lack of evidence-based programs that have worked to these ends, so it remains to be seen how effective the new approach will be.

Carlos Zamudio presented the results of ethnographic research that he did on small scale drug dealing in Mexico City. He found that there are two primary types of dealing, the first being a delivery system in which the dealer brings drugs to the consumer. This is common in wealthier neighborhoods, but in marginalized communities and some middle-class areas, where more of the phenomenon is focused, dealers sell their product from fixed locations. Normally, he said, a family that either has political connections or is from a part of a neighborhood that is known to be particularly violent begins the drug-dealing business. Zamudio described how the family offers the neighborhood a service by ridding the area of the previous common crime, gaining the support of the local community despite their illicit activities. Families involved in local dealing also often provide other services to the community, offering loans to residents and financing neighborhood festivals, he said. While drug consumption can often lead to disruptive behavior and further crime, Zamudio noted that dealers seek to minimize this problem by creating a designated space, also in the neighborhood, where consumers can use the drugs in a discrete environment. He also stressed that youth are at the center of this phenomenon, as both users and dealers. They also tend to experience the repercussions of such actions most directly, as the lowest level dealers are the first to be arrested when the police feel they need to show some sort of progress in relation to drug problems, Zamudio said.

Jorge Hernández Tinajero said that one should consider two objectives in the anti-drug efforts, citizen security and regulation of the drug-trafficking market. A recently passed law strengthened the government's powers to fight drug-trafficking, allowing local governments to pursue drug violations as violations of the health code, noted Hernández Tinajero. He went on to describe how, in theory, the new law goes after dealers while decriminalizing consumption. However, the fact that possession of relatively small quantities of drugs is considered evidence of intent to distribute has opened unhealthy opportunities for negotiation (corruption) with police as they determine the exact quantity of drugs a suspect is found to possess. Additionally, Hernández mentioned that the application of the law has been quite varied and that in many areas no changes in enforcement are visible. He sees Mexico's change in legal framework as much more modest than initially perceived and concluded by suggesting that the movement toward decriminalization of marijuana in many U.S. states could have a much more profound effect on drug laws and the drug market in Mexico.

Maureen Meyer described how, in recent years, Mexico has shifted from being primarily a transporting and producing nation to having a large and growing market for the domestic consumption of drugs. While some money has been dedicated to reducing consumption in Mexico under the Mérida Initiative, this is a problem that has received little attention in the United States, she said.

Drafted by Christopher Wilson, Graduate Intern, Mexico Institute
Andrew Selee, Director, Mexico Institute. Ph: (202) 691-4088