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Mexico: can the war on drugs be won?


The Mexican President has made the war on drugs a priority yet, behind the hype, the powerful drug cartels seem as invincible as ever.

By Javier Farje, LAB writer

altWhen Vicente Calderón (pictured left with Hilary Clinton) took office in December 2006, he reiterated his campaign promise: fighting the drug cartels that had taken control of entire communities would be a priority for his government He went in to this war with all guns blazing. He deployed the army and the police in the most violent cities in the land, including Ciudad Juarez, the border town where death is a daily occurrence. The army, he stated, would add fire power and ruthlessness to the police’s drug trafficking offensive.

Calderón believed that the support of the people who elected him and his use of the army would do the trick. However, he was facing two powerful enemies: the drug cartels and a corrupt police force. A lethal combination, especially as the cartels are probably the most powerful drug gangs in Latin America. One of them, Gulf Cartel, recruited almost its entire armed wing from an elite police force, called Los Zetas, which was trained by the Americans and is equipped with the most modern weaponry. A rival gang, the Sinaloa Cartel, also has its own armed group, known as Los Negros. Both groups and their armies control marked territories and have money, lots of it.

Each cartel controls its own clearly defined territory in Mexico. The Sinaloa Cartel prevails in Baja California, Durango, Sonora and Chihuahua, while the Gulf Cartel controls Matamoros, Tamaulipas, Nuevo Laredo, Nuevo León and Michoacán. Another gang – the Juarez Cartel – controls Ciudad Juárez and parts of Chihuahua, while the Tijuana Cartel dominates parts of Tijuana, Baja California and competes with the Juarez Cartel for control of Chihuahua, Navojoa and Sonora. Finally, the Beltrán Leyva Cartel is an ally of the Sinaloa Cartel and La Familia Michoacana controls Michoacán. According to an investigation by Mexican paper El Universal, the cartels have also recruited 5,000 maras, as Central American criminal gangs are known.

The Mexican cartels owe their success to the relative demise of the Colombian cartels, especially after the killing of Pablo Escobar, the head of the Medellín Cartel, in 1993. Escobar had, at some point, been responsible for 85% of the global cocaine market. But, after his death, the Mexican started gradually to take control of the profitable North American and European markets.


It is difficult to asses the real economic worth of the cartels, due to the complex web of “investment” and laundering they run. But we are talking about billions of dollars: Forbes magazine put the wealth of a single drugs trafficker – Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán, the leader of the Sinaloa Cartel – at US$1 billion. According to General Barry McCaffrey, the former US drugs czar, the US market for illegal substances provides the Mexican cartels with an annual income of US$25 billion. The money buys the cooperation of a vast web of people from judges and officials and bent police officers, who join the cartel armed groups, to poor shanty-town dwellers and impoverished workers.

Their wealth has enabled the cartels to build a sophisticated infrastructure, which would be the envy of any US financial institution. In the last five years, for instance, the Mexican authorities have captured 500 planes. As a result, the cartels are very mobile, able to transfer very rapidly operations and manpower to areas where the Mexican army can’t get them. Central America has become not only a route for drugs but also an operation base. Whenever there is a threat of a major operation by the army’s special forces or the elite police forces, the cartels move to remote places in Guatemala or El Salvador, where they can function with impunity.

altThere is no doubt that the amount of drugs being taken into North America is growing. Earlier this year, the Guatemalan Ambassador in Mexico, José Luis Chea Urruela, reported a big increase in the activities of Mexican drug cartels in his country. Chea Urruela believes that the problem has been exacerbated by the absence of the state in some departments in Guatemala, near the border with Mexico, where mayors and police officer have been bought by the drug cartels. And the trade is diversifying into other drugs, particularly heroin. According to the International Narcotics Control Board, a UN agency, “Most of the heroin found on the illicit market in the United States originated in Colombia and Mexico”.

Given the huge amount of money involved, it is scarcely surprising that rivalry between drug cartels is fierce, as they fight for control over the profitable US drugs market via its routes in Central America and the Caribbean. Members kill each other with alarming frequency and great cruelty but they are prepared, albeit reluctantly, to combine forces to fight the state. Then they are particularly ruthless: the latest trend is to assassinate relatives of policemen involved in combating drug-trafficking in a clear attempt to intimidate them. The traffickers also decapitate and mutilate their victims and leave them in front police stations, to make sure that the security forces know what to expect.

More 11,000 people than have been killed in criminal violence in Mexico since Calderón took office in 2006. According to the Office of the State Prosecutor, 90% of the deaths were related to drugs, with a high level of casualties in the joint operations conducted by the army and the police.

Calderon’s strategy

Calderón believes the only way to fight the war on drugs is to use the army while the police forces and the judiciary are reformed and corruption is uprooted. The government seems to believe that the army is incorruptible, but this may well turn out to be a naive belief. Government officials and police officers were vulnerable to bribes from the cash-rich cartels and there is no guarantee that the same will not happen to army officers and poorly paid soldiers.

The president is well aware that his war on drugs cannot be won without the cooperation of the main cocaine market, the USA. In 2007, Calderón signed the so-called Merida Initiative, a joint Mexican-American undertaking with Central American participation. The plan includes training of the security forces and exchange of intelligence information. The US congress approved an initial budget of US$65 million, part of a US$400 million financial plan.

Since Calderón took office, he has deployed 45,000 soldiers in the fight against drugs and he has claimed some victories. The government says that, partly as a result of the Merida Initiative, the security forces confiscated between 2006 and 2009 some 90 tonnes of cocaine, 6,500 tonnes of marihuana and 70,000 weapons of all types. A few top gang leaders, like the brothers Eduardo and Benjamin Arellano Felix and Alfredo Beltran Leyva, have also been arrested.

Pyrrhic victories?

Not everybody agrees that the victories are significant. David Shirk, the director of the Trans-Border Institute of the University of San Diego, says that “there has been an enormous expenditure and a heavy deployment of military forces, and to have only a 5 percent drop in recorded levels of violence doesn’t really sound like success.”

Recent killings in Ciudad Juárez seem to confirm this. Innocent party-goers and students have been killed in a city which is supposed to be under the control of the army. President Calderón, himself, visited the city a few times to limit the political damage, but to no avail. People are angry and wonder how it is possible that an armed gang can act with such impunity in a city taken over by the state.

But why does a government that has devoted so much money and so many resources to fighting the drug gangs seem to be failing so dramatically?

Mónica Serrano, senior research Associate at Oxford University, believes that changes in the political system in Mexico may help to explain this failure. She says that Mexico, like Turkey, managed to fight illicit drug activities when it had a strong centralised government. “[The state] had the monopoly of violence (…) It was a solid central authority [that] enjoyed relatively good health and economic independence”.

Serrano believes that “political openness brought a weakening of the Executive” while at the same time the country has suffered from “a weaker economy which, in three decades has failed to provide opportunities and alternatives to the economically active population and those who want to be part of [this population]”.

Furthermore, the Mexican government has admitted that it has not managed to eradicate corruption, an atmosphere in which drug trafficking thrives. In a report published in 2008, the government stated that “the justice system needs to be cleansed, modernised and made more professional in all aspects of its activities: prevention, prosecution and administration of justice, as well as in the rehabilitation and social reintegration of prisoners.”

In the same report, Calderón’s government admits that the use of the army in the fight against the drug cartels was a “temporary measure”. He is aware that the more members of the army are exposed to corrupting influences, the more likely they are to be bought and corrupted.

What about the Americans?

altDuring the Bush years, the so-called “war on terror” meant that the US administration neglected its relations with Latin America and counter-narcotic operations suffered as a result (except in Colombia, where combating drugs became a pretext for combating the guerrillas). For many on the left in Latin America, Bush’s neglect of the US “backyard” was, in fact, a blessing in disguise. This may be so, but the lack of resources to patrol the border meant that most of the weapons used by the drug gangs were bought in the USA and transported to Mexico with total impunity. And the controversial vigilante approach adopted by some border US inhabitants was more a desperate endeavour to stop illegal immigrants rather than part of the fight against the drug cartels.

It took the murder of US diplomat in Juarez for the Obama administration to send a high-ranking delegation to Mexico, led by US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton. She admitted that the struggle against drug cartels was “a shared responsibility” and warned that drug trafficking was “a threat to economic development”, something Mexicans have known all along. Clinton also admitted that “the demand for drugs in the USA and the sale of weapons” promote violence in Mexico.

During Clinton’s visit to Mexico, both governments announced a study on drug consumption in both countries and a “pilot plan” against violence in Juarez and Tijuana, the most violent border cities in Mexico. Mexico’s foreign minister, Patricia Espinosa (pictured left with Clinton), said that the joint venture would cover the dismantling of criminal organisations, joint cooperation between security forces and trade along the border.

Barack Obama may perhaps have more time now to deal with this issue. He has managed to sort out some of his domestic priorities, like the long-debated health care plan. The question now is: how will the drug cartels react to this new atmosphere of cooperation and mutual support? Many fear that they will respond with more intimidation and more brutality.

Photo credits: Portal of the Presidency of Mexico.

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