Archie Bland: It makes sense to wind down the war on drugs

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Wars on abstract nouns and inanimate objects are always a bit tricky to define, since it's difficult for the other side to definitively admit defeat. Terror can't put its hands up. Illiteracy is never going to wave the white flag. Drugs are in no position to negotiate a peaceful resolution.

Understandable, then, that the man who appears most likely to win the forthcoming Mexican presidential election – Enrique Peña Nieto, of the long-unpopular Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) – appears to be ready to wind that war down himself. Peña and his supporters, pointing out that the confrontational approach taken by the incumbent Felipe Calderó* has led to years of bloodshed and left whole swathes of the country terrorised by the cartels, want to refocus their energies elsewhere.

Taking on the leaders of these criminal gangs will no longer be a priority: instead, Peña will deploy large numbers of police in crime hotspots and leave the drugs themselves to one side. "The Calderó* strategy has not worked," a spokesman says. "When you chop off the high heads you get the hydra effect, and suddenly you have seven new heads."

Anyone who has paid even the most cursory attention to the appalling violence meted out in the violence that has ravaged Mexico for so long could understand the impulse to try a new approach. And a slightly more commonsense attitude seems like cause for optimism. Mexicans might hope that this time their leader will stick to his guns: many there feel that Calderó*, who campaigned as the "jobs president", allowed the war on drugs to overshadow his priorities. If everyone in Mexico could stop thinking about drugs, some of the country's other deeply entrenched problems might finally come into focus.

Yet it's hard to see things really changing. The problem is, the drugs war isn't just a Mexican civil war: it's a Colombian war, an Afghan war, an American war, a European war, prosecuted everywhere on different terms, by every general according to the politics of his own country. Hard to think of many military victors who have marched to the beat of so many drums.

In Mexico, the salient case is the American one. Neither President Obama nor would-be President Romney is likely to admit that the war on drugs can't be won; America will take a dim view of any adjustment in the current gung-ho approach. With that American support, Mexico has failed to win the war on drugs. Without it, it is impossible to see how it will even be able to manage a dignified retreat.