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The campaign to save Mexico’s vaquita porpoise faces the same problems as the War on Drugs

The campaign to save Mexico’s vaquita porpoise faces the same problems as the War on Drugs

Actor Leonardo DiCaprio recently took to social media to demand action to protect the endangered vaquita porpoise, a species native to the Gulf of California in Mexico that is on the verge of extinction. A week later, the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) joined the fray by releasing a document with ten policy suggestions that the Mexican government should implement to protect the mammal.

The Mexican government has spent ten years and more than US$60m trying to clamp down on the illegal killing of vaquita, with no success. The message from critics is “double your efforts”.

Yet little is being done to reduce the reason the porpoises are killed in the first place. Vaquita are commonly caught up in the gillnets used to catch the Mexican totoaba fish, which is is highly prized as a culinary delicacy in countries such as China. Focusing attention and condemnation on the supply side of this illegal trade without addressing the demand is reminiscent of the War on Drugs that Mexico has also been fighting for a decade – and has about as much chance of succeeding in.

Mexico has implemented several programmes to prevent the illegal killing of the vaquita – with tragic results. These have included a two-year ban on gillnets and the creation of a natural park in the Gulf of California. Despite these efforts, the population of the vaquita has diminished by more than 90% in the last six years and only around 30 specimens are left.

Following the recommendations of the WWF and others would mean more money and policies to fight the fisheries and illegal supply of vaquita. But the demand driving the killing is coming from countries such as China, where there is minimal regulation and a growing elite willing to pay as much as for US$20,000 for exotic seafood dishes.

This situation is all too similar to the so-called War on Drugs. Since 2006, the Mexican Government has fought drug production, trafficking and organised crime mainly through a law and order enforcement approach. This has involved mobilising military forces inside the country, as well as intelligence, weaponry and monetary cooperation with the US via the Mérida Initiative.

However, drug-related violence is rising yet again in Mexico. The costs are overwhelming both in social and economic terms. Over the last four years, crime related deaths have reached 44,000 and the violence costs the Mexican economy approximately 13% of its GDP.

Taking the War on Drugs literally. Arturo Pena-Romano/EPA

Despite the appalling outcome, the Mexican government cannot be accused of not investing and fighting. Over the last ten years, the country’s defence and security budget has more than doubled, with annual spend totalling more than US$7 billion. Exact figures for the War on Drugs are difficult to calculate but over the period 2006-2012 expenses on drug policies amounted to US$48 billion, with 97% of that assigned to law and order related efforts.

And yet the US government is insisting on more. Recently, the US Ambassador to Mexico said that the government should redouble its efforts – much like the WWF’s recommendations on the vaquita. Nevertheless, there is no indication that the US government is willing to continue bearing the same law enforcement approach, as their policy efforts are shifting towards public health, demand reduction, and regulating the consumption and production of soft drugs like marijuana, which is now legal in several states.

Global challenge

South of the border, the number of dead is rising, violence is increasing and production is not diminishing. While in the north, many consumers are enjoying a joint or a line “peacefully”. The percentage of Americans using illegal drugs is increasing, reaching 9.4% – 24.6m people – in 2013. In particular, marijuana and amphetamine consumption has been increasing, which is significant because 40-80% of all marijuana consumed in the US comes from Mexico. And while cocaine use has been slightly decreasing, the US market remains worth around US$35 billion and is one of the main sources of revenue for Mexican drug cartels.

Just like climate change and wildlife conservation, drugs and violence are a global challenge, where responsibilities must be shared and where the demand that drives consumption is the key to illegal trade. Globalisation has created interdependence between countries at many levels. But an enormous sea separates China from Mexico and therefore Chinese consumers have the luxury of ignoring the consequences of their actions.

US consumers would not have that luxury since they share a border with Mexico and their actions would have social and humanitarian consequences. As an example, only 1% of the revenues related to cocaine reach farmers in developing countries, but illegal trade and increasing demand generates violence that affects local economies. While Mexico has the 15th largest economy in the world, the ingredients for a disaster are looming: rising poverty, corruption and violence. If this leads to social and economic breakdown, Mexicans will knock on the US’s door.

It can’t be denied that the Mexican government has a systemic problem when it comes to enforcing the rule of law. But it also needs to reevaluate the international recommendations and policies that it applies with broad consequences.

Shortly after Leonardo DiCaprio made his plea, President Peña quickly responded with a commitment that Mexico was already working hard. Unfortunately, it is not a simple matter of resources. If Mexico keeps following the same road, the same outcome will emerge: Mexico puts in the effort, gets the international blame and ultimately carries the corpses.

This article was amended to clarify that the vaquita porpoise is killed as a bycatch of the totoaba fish.