The International Challenge of Drug Abuse: The Mexican Experience


The extreme complexity of drug addiction and the implacable organization of drug traffic are today, more than ever, a challenge that demands solidary action from all the nations of the Earth. Few other issues are so revealing of the close interrelationship between countries and of the extent to which anything one of them achieves or fails to achieve has a bearing on the others.

This paper undertakes the task of briefly weighing past actions, analyzing the present situation, and predicting future trends in the Mexican struggle against drug addiction and drug traffic, in terms both of internal measures and international collaboration actions.

International Cooperation

Participation in international meetings

Long before the problem reached large proportions internally, Mexico chose the path of active participation in those international forums which have stated the need for energetic action against the traffic in drugs of abuse, Mexico first took part in the 1912 The Hague Convention which established cooperation on narcotic control as a matter of International Law. Our country thereafter participated in the 1925, 1931 and 1936 Conferences held in Geneva.

On February 16, 1946, the United Nations Economic and Social Council adopted the resolution creating the Commission on Narcotics. Mexico was one of the fifteen countries that composed the Commission.

Subsequently, in Paris and New York City, the 1948 and 1953 Protocols respectively were agreed upon. In 1961 New York City was host to the Sole Convention, and in 1971 the Convention on Psychotropic Substances was signed in Vienna. Mexico has adhered to all these instruments of international control ().

Cooperation with the United States

Parallel to its participation in international forums, Mexico has reached bi-national cooperation agreements with other countries. Owing to geographical proximity, joint actions with the United States — dating back more than four decades — are outstanding.

Juan Barona-Lobato (), a prominent scholar on the subject, has divided the history of cooperation between Mexico and the United States into several phases. Phase one began in 1930 with an exchange of diplomatic notes through which both governments reached an administrative agreement on mutual police aid to prosecute those involved in drug traffic.

Phase two started around 1959. At the proposal of the United States, where the number of drug addicts showed an alarming upward trend, a series of informal and friendly talks were held which tended to reinforce operations against international drug traffic. In 1960, the U. S. Government for the first time provided at low cost air and land equipment to be used in the search and destruction of papaver somniferum and cannabis plantations. Subsequently, in May 1969, Mexico City was host to a new series of meetings which resulted in a report stressing the need for cooperation between both countries. Three months later, however, on September 21, 1969, American authorities ordered, on a unilateral basis and without previous consultation, severe measures of inspection of people, luggage, and vehicles crossing the border and arriving at U.S. ports of entry, thus generating complaints and inconveniences. These measures of inspection, known as “Operation Intercept,” impaired relations between the two countries and hindered daily transactions between border towns on both sides, which initiated a so-called “Operation Dignity,” emphasizing greater respect for the individual.

Diplomatic relations between Mexico and the United States could have come to an end but for the swift negotiation Mexican and American commissioners at the highest level carried out in Washington, thanks to which the inefficient “Operation Intercept,” launched with complete disregard for Mexico’s dignity, was replaced by “Operation Cooperation.” This decision was made public through the October 11, 1969, joint communique marking the beginning of phase three.

Several meetings of the task forces presided by the Assistant Attorneys General of Mexico and the United States were held during the third phase of cooperation. Their duty was to submit a report to the Attorneys General who, in turn, assembled to discuss recommendations and dictate measures for their implementation. Achievements within the framework of “Operation Cooperation” have been highly rewarding.

Yet, in spite of efforts by both countries leading to a decline in international drug traffic in 1972 and 1973, in the following years — 1974 and 1975 — the United States registered a substantial increase in confiscations of heroin produced from clandestine cultivations of poppy in Mexico, and of cocaine finding its way from South America through Mexico. Both drugs were designed to meet the demands of more than a half million U.S. cocaine and heroin addicts.

Under these circumstances, former President Gerald Ford asked the Domestic Council Drug Abuse Task Force to undertake a study to determine the extent of the problem and to offer recommendations. As a result, a report entitled White Paper on Drug Abuse was issued. On the basis of data included in the above-mentioned report, President Ford called an urgent meeting on December 22, 1975, to discuss the drug traffic problem, with special emphasis on the Mexican and Latin American situations.

In 1976, from January 6 through 18, Congressmen Lester L. Wolff and Benjamin A. Gilman, with the purpose of gathering information on international drug traffic, made a tour of Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia, exchanging views with their respective Presidents and searching for adequate cooperation formulas.

It was around that time that the fourth phase of cooperation between Mexico and the United States against drug traffic and drug addiction began to develop. The outstanding feature of this phase is the high priority both governments have placed on such actions. It has certainly been a period of fruitful achievements during which vigorous pronouncements, exchange of friendly letters between Presidents, and programs for collaboration have been followed by effective and determined action ().

Fight Against Production

The past few years have been witness to activities carried out by Mexico which are virtually unprecedented in the history of the battle against drug addiction and drug traffic.

Deterrent efforts against the supply of drugs have been paramount, especially in view of Mexico’s geographical, socioeconomic, and political characteristics, and the fact that the world’s greatest consumer market lies just north of its border. Figures describing this effort are highly eloquent. Between 1970 and 1976, Mexico destroyed more than 65,000 poppy plantations and more than 46,000 marihuana plantings, nearly two tons of opium, more than 1,000 kilograms of heroin, 35 kilograms of morphine, more than 1,000 kilograms of cocaine, 800 kilograms of hashish, 534 liters of cannabis liquid extract, 412 kilograms of poppy seed, more than six tons of cannabis seed, and more than 92 million tablets containing psychotropic substances. In addition, more than 18,000 persons were arrested, of whom some 2,000 were foreign citizens. More than 30 underground laboratories were dismantled, and many drug traffic gangs were broken up ().

The Mexican Experience: Fight Against Consumption

Present Policies

With tile change of federal administration in December 1976, certain structural modifications have been made which seem logical in an ever-changing social and political environment. While it is still too early to attempt an evaluation, at least four well-defined policies can be singled out:

1. The campaign against drug traffic continues. The Attorney General of the Republic’s Office and the Ministry of National Defense are multiplying their efforts to reduce drug production as well as domestic and international drug traffic.

2. Small consumers are granted amnesty. CEMEF has favored this measure in the past. Only recently, however, have solid steps been taken to treat individuals who obtain drugs for personal use as sick people rather than as criminals. This is encouraging, since it reveals a shift of emphasis from repression to prevention, treatment, and rehabilitation, even if repressive action is still taken against those who deserve it: drug traffic profiteers rather than consumers.

3. Official support for Juvenile Integration Centers is maintained. Another encouraging sign of the new policies is the fact that both state and federal governments — the latter through CEMEF —  have maintained their support of the private sector participating in the struggle against drug addiction. This is indicative of a continued eagerness to have the national community join in this all-important task.

4. A change in the political visibility of drug-combatting programs has been brought about. This fact reveals an historical trend which is not solely Mexican. When drug consumption became a serious public health problem, because it was a relatively recent problem towards which public opinion was not yet fully sensitized, it was necessary to create an organization with a high degree of political visibility, which would have its own budget and a wide margin of action. This explains CEMEF’s birth as a decentralized agency. Once the initial — and most difficult — steps have been taken to face this complex problem and to create public awareness, programs against drug addiction have been able to find their place among general public health actions. This principle has been implemented in practice through the new regime’s administrative reform, by virture of which decentralized agencies are integrated under a sector head represented by the corresponding ministry. Thus CEMEF has been integrated into the general mental health programs of the health sector. This need had already been considered in the formulation of the National Health Plan in 1974. The struggle against drug addiction is included in the Plan as a subprogram within the National Mental Health Program. Now this formulation has been carried into practice.

The time is past when it was politically necessary to emphasize CEMEF’s actions; they have now been brought to their actual level as part of a more general project contemplating integral improvement of mental health. CEMEF therefore no longer handles its budget in an autonomous fashion, but follows instead the guidelines of the health sector head: The Ministry of Health and Welfare. There is nothing new in such a change. Other countries have experienced similar changes. In the United States, for example, the shift has been from a special agency reporting directly to the President to the wider-reaching Alcohol, Drug Abuse, and Mental Health Administration.

Future Trends

Integral Strategy

Once the historical vision and an analysis of present policies have been put forth, it becomes necessary to expound the short term and long term trends that are likely to develop within the context of drug addiction in Mexico.

Firstly, the problem will almost certainly increase, at least in terms of absolute figures, as a function of population growth.

Secondly, a drug supply-combatting approach alone is unlikely to be successful. This has been found to be true in other countries as well as in Mexico. The time in which such an emphasis predominated is fortunately past. It is clear today that it is illegal demand for drugs that encourages supply and not the opposite, as was long believed. Supply and demand are dialectically interrelated factors, the reduction of the latter requiring a concomitant struggle against the former. The need for an integral strategy is therefore evident. While such a strategy may be difficult to implement during an initial state, it is certainly the only one that will yield positive long-range results.

Education and Employment

Two elements of increasing relevance to youth can be distinguished in the complex of factors that determine drug addiction: the lack of educational opportunities and unemployment.

Estimates are that only 1,800,000 Mexicans between 14 and 25 years of age attend some type of school, while another 12 million have completed their studies, cannot pursue them, or have never attended a school. Furthermore, only 9.4 percent of those between 20 and 24 years of age have access to higher education ().

Unemployment among young people is coming to represent a source of social conflict in many nations of the world. In Mexico, 17 percent of total unemployment occurs among the young. This is one of the major challenges the present administration has to face — the generation of more than 600,000 jobs or spiraling unemployment figures.

These two factors are closely linked with increased drug addiction amongst the young. Great effort must be made in the near future to improve educational and employment opportunities for the young, while simultaneously slowing down population growth and raising the general standards of living.

The answer to the complexity of drug addiction must be the implementation of an integral strategy that contemplates education and employment as first-line preventive measures, while pursuing treatment and rehabilitation programs, intensifying the struggle against drug traffic, and promoting international cooperation as an act of solidarity and respect among all the peoples of the world. Then, and only then, shall we be facing the challenge of drug abuse.


Selections from the book: “The International Challenge of Drug Abuse”. Robert C. Petersen, Ph.D., editor. A monograph based on papers presented at the World Psychiatric Association 1977 meeting in Honolulu. Emphasis is on emerging patterns of drug use, international aspects of research, and therapeutic issues of particular interest worldwide. National Institute on Drug Abuse Research Monograph 19, 1978.