MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexico’s hopes of crushing the country’s drug cartels through sheer military force appear doomed unless it ramps up defense spending, currently one of the weakest in Latin America.
President Felipe Calderon broke with tradition by sending in the army to crack down on drug gangs in late 2006, but pressure is growing from a resurgent opposition to spend more.
The army-led offensive on the cartels has cost nearly 40,000 lives and battered support for Calderon’s conservative National Action Party (PAN), which now faces an uphill struggle to retain power in next year’s presidential election.
Although Calderon has increased defense spending by some 25 percent over the past four years, the death toll in the drug war has steadily accelerated.
“It’s a total embarrassment what we’re spending on the army with the problems it’s got right now,” said opposition politician Rogelio Cerda, who chairs the defense committee in the lower house of Congress.
“The army definitely needs additional resources.”
At present soldiers in Mexico earn just two thirds of what their counterparts in Colombia do, even though Mexican gross domestic product (GDP) per capita is some 50 percent higher.
The plans for the 2011 budget foresee Mexico spending over 40 percent more on salaries for staff at state oil firm Pemex, which employs roughly half as many people.
Low wages are blamed for fomenting corruption in the security forces, as some soldiers boost their income by working for drug traffickers. One of Mexico’s most notorious cartels, Los Zetas, was even founded by renegade troops from the army’s special forces.
Critics of Calderon’s strategy say sending in the army has only increased the violence in Mexico and exposed the troops to the full force of corruption at the hands of the cartels.
However, security analysts say the defense ministry, which did not respond to requests for an interview, must beef up its ability to track and intercept traffickers with helicopters and patrol boats to have any chance of success.
Cerda’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) leads the PAN in opinion polls, which also show security is a growing concern in Mexico. The PRI already dominates the lower house, and Cerda said its deputies firmly backed higher spending.
In 2010, Mexico spent $4.86 billion on its armed forces, or some 0.4 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) show.
Brazil spends four times the amount Mexico does as a share of GDP, while the figure in Chile is over eight times higher.
Only in Guatemala, often cited as the main central American transit point for drugs between South America and Mexico, is government spending on the military equally modest.
Mexico’s defense outlays are low partly due to its traditional doctrine of non-alignment and rejection of military intervention after decades of post-colonial warring that culminated in its bloody revolution of 1910-1920.
Today, faced with the growing financial clout of criminal groups like top trafficker Joaquin Guzman’s Sinaloa cartel, Mexico is struggling to secure its 2,000 mile border with the United States with the resources it deploys.
“They have to raise the budget to at least 1 percent of GDP but above all make better use of it,” said Alberto Islas, a security expert at consultancy Risk Evaluation. “That means the army and navy must be dedicated to protecting the borders.”
Drug war violence has stirred up tensions with the United States and put investment and tourism revenues at risk in Mexico, suggesting that a move to bolster military spending could ultimately reap rewards for the next government.
Analysts argue Mexico ought to emulate Colombia, where the government sent in the army to curb the power of cartels and opponents like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas who have also profited from the drug trade.
Its success has come at a price, with Colombia tripling its military budget since 1991 to 3.7 percent of its GDP.
Although Mexican servicemen earn almost twice what they did six years ago — around $800 a month — wages in Colombia are 50 percent higher, at some $1,200, according to official data.
“While Colombia has enjoyed very significant success ... the power of the drug traffickers is growing in Mexico, just as the threat to the state and its citizens is,” Colombian military analyst Alfredo Rangel told Reuters.
Colombia’s war against traffickers has benefited from several billion dollars worth of aid from Washington, a sum that has so far dwarfed U.S. pledges to Mexico to help tackle the drug trade made under the so-called Merida Initiative.
PRI lawmaker Cerda said the $1.4 billion Washington had offered would not change Mexico, which is not short of cash and has a lower debt burden than Colombia and the United States. Mexico needed to take matters into its own hands, he said.
“The Merida initiative is an expression of good will from the Americans that we’re grateful for, but it in absolute terms it’s not going to achieve much,” Cerda said.
Writing by Dave Graham; Editing by Kieran Murray