The Mexican drug trade has vast tentacles into other forms of organized crime, and its participants have recently grown increasingly brazen in the use of violence against rivals as well as against government officials and civilians. It is a story with roots and impact on both sides of the US-Mexico border.
The Mexican Drug Trade
The rise of Mexican drug production and trafficking reflects success on another front in the global war on drugs. Ironically, US and Colombian efforts to eradicate the cocaine cartels of Colombia in the 1980s and 1990s had the effect of moving the lucrative trade north. Newly emboldened Mexican cartels assumed control of the trade in not only cocaine, but also marijuana, heroin, and methamphetamines. What cannot be grown or produced in Mexico is now trafficked north from Central and South America by five to six major Mexican cartels and hundreds of lower level criminal organizations.
US consumers constitute the majority of demand for illicit Mexican drugs; US banks in American border towns often house drug profits; cartels recruit in US jails; and some cartel members live in US cities and direct their gangs from places as far away as Miami and Atlanta.
Mexico is seen as an ideal place for such criminal enterprises to flourish for several reasons.
- First, its proximity to the United States encourages the drug trade. American consumers are among the highest users of illegal drugs worldwide. In addition to its domestic drug market, the US also serves as a corridor for the transportation of drugs from Mexico to another high-user country, Canada. High quality US transportation infrastructure facilitates drug transit; US banks hold drug money; US weapons arm drug soldiers. The 2000 mile US-Mexico border is the busiest single land transit border in the world, complemented by numerous seaports which provide multiple access points for legal and illegal commerce. The Justice Department has estimated that Mexican drug cartels now have a presence in 230 US cities.
- When Mexico’s 70-year one-party rule by the often authoritarian PRI ended with the election of 2000, many believe a power vacuum was created that has been exploited by criminal elements. Multi-party states in transition are often messy and less effective at keeping a firm lid on negative influences. Others would say that PRI dominance led to a culture of corruption that fuels the drug trade today.
- Regardless of politics at the national level, Mexico’s cities have been described as mini-failed states. As LA Times reporter Sam Quinones has noted, Mexican urban areas, especially those along the US border, are ripe for dominance by drug cartels. Mayors may only serve one term, leading to high turnover in local governments. Urban authorities possess weak taxing power, and command little authority. Incompetence and corruption are commonplace. Resources for fighting the cartels are scarce.
- The drug cartels have made impressive inroads with government officials, and also with the Mexican military, who have been recruited to fight the drug war in some of the most dangerous cities, such as Juarez. The mayor of Juarez has recently begun firing up to 2000 corrupt police and drug enforcement officials. Whether he will be able to sustain this initiative or find suitable replacements is unknown. The resignation of the police chief, under threat by cartel members after he began a similar housecleaning program, does not bode well for the initiative.
- Mexican legal institutions and the rule of law generally are seen as weak. Impunity for drug crimes is not uncommon as courts are overburdened and justice officials compromised by connections with cartels.
- The widespread poverty that plagues much of Mexico’s population contributes to the recruitment of foot soldiers into the drug trade. There are few alternatives for employment in a country with a mediocre education system and little economic development.
The Drug War
As the drug trade has flourished, the stakes have increased for the cartels involved. Many of these cartels are linked to organized crime networks generally, and competition for turf is commonplace. The term “war” as associated with drugs, has come to mean both inter-cartel violence and warfare between the cartels and the Mexican government. In both cases, recent years have seen an escalation in bloody violence, murder, and kidnappings.
- One reason for this is the influx of sophisticated weaponry, largely from the United States. Cartel members have been known to possess the most technologically advanced military-grade hardware available in the world today, conducting business with the help of hand grenades, rocket launchers, night vision goggles, advanced machine guns, expensive intelligence equipment, even helicopters and small submarines. The tools of war have become more deadly and easier to obtain. There are upwards of 6000 gun shops located along the US side of the US-Mexico border.
- To combat the sophistication of the cartels’ arsenals, Mexican government officials have militarized the fight on their side. Mexican army units now routinely police cities and engage drug traffickers in street battles. President Calderon has plans to mobilize up to 45,000 soldiers to fight the drug war, 7000 of them in the city of Juarez alone. The deployment of the military, first undertaken in 2006, has contributed to the escalation of violence.
- Success breeds imitation. The violence has taken on a self-perpetuating nature as law enforcement efforts fail, cities host turf battles, and perpetrators go unpunished.
- The development of a narcoculture has fed this trend. In a perversion of populism, some residents of Mexico’s cities have been known to cheer, celebrate, and even support cartel members in their battle against the government. Some communities are becoming desensitized to violence as the drug lords are glorified.
What To Do?
As the violence has escalated over the past year (6000 deaths in 2008), the Mexican government has ramped up its efforts to deal with the situation militarily, including turning to the US for help. In 2008, the Merida Initiative was launched, laying out a commitment of $1.4 billion from the US to aid the Calderon Administration to fight the drug war. Critics of the program cite the following concerns:
- Some fear the initiative will not be adequately funded by the US Congress. The money has not been fully disbursed and could be renegotiated; even if fully disbursed, $1.4 billion may be inadequate.
- Merida’s focus on a military and law enforcement solution is troubling to many. They feel that funds also need to be directed toward bolstering Mexican civil society, institutions, and the rule of law; combating corruption that supports the drug trade; and providing alternatives to employment in the cartels. There is a strong sense that sophisticated weaponry, such as that promised by Merida in the form of helicopters and surveillance planes, is not the solution. In fact, increased militarization could lead to increased violence as well as to human rights abuses.
- Even with high-tech weapons, urban combat is exceedingly difficult. Drug traffickers often function like terrorist groups, seeking haven among the civilian population.
- Given the baggage of US-Mexico relations, even those civilians weary of the violence may see something nefarious in US involvement, especially when it comes in the form of military hardware. This could lead to more civilians siding with the cartels in a show of nationalism.
- Critically, Merida does nothing to address the demand side of the equation: the market for illicit drugs that exists in the US. Many believe that failure to incorporate drug prevention and treatment programs for American consumers into drug war efforts is both hypocritical and naive.
- Similarly, Merida does not address the flow of weapons from the US into Mexico. Some estimates put the percentage of weapons used in Mexico originating in the US as 90%.
- Merida also does not attempt to interdict raw materials from the US used in methamphetamine production in Mexico.
Alternatives strategies include general economic development aid and assistance in building up the rule of law in Mexico. A hot-button alternative that is often discussed is legalizing some forms of illicit drugs in the US to remove some of the incentives that drive the drug war. Some experts believe that if drugs were made legal, they could not only be regulated, but could also be taxed, leading to more funds available for drug treatment and prevention. Their increased availability would drop the price and the risk that attracts organized crime. This option has yet to gain traction in policy circles in the US or Mexico, and most agree that legalization is unlikely.
Going After the Root Causes
The bottom line is that the drug war in Mexico has its roots in many of Mexico’s other problems – lack of economic development, Mexico’s authoritarian past, its celebration of machismo, and its weak civil society and compromised rule of law. Interdiction (the process of stopping the transit of drugs), and eradication (destruction of drug crops and other inputs) do not address these underlying issues.
The global recession may slow the traffic across borders, as fewer legitimate deliveries translate into fewer opportunities to smuggle illegitimate goods, but it may also increase the cartels’ desperation to protect their livelihoods in difficult economic times.
See more detail on the drug war in places like Juarez in 2009 articles appearing in the LA Times, Newsweek, and Time.
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