In May 2005, New York Times correspondent Ginger Thompson filed a harrowing dispatch from the Mexican city of Nuevo Laredo, “a fast-growing hub of drug smuggling that has been transformed from a tough but orderly border town into a war zone, where violent death has become a fact of life.” Throughout northern Mexico, she explained, the narcos were terrorizing ordinary citizens, exacerbating official corruption, and fostering a climate of fear. Just a few weeks after Thompson’s story appeared, the courageous Alejandro Domínguez was sworn in as police chief of Nuevo Laredo — and was gunned down the very same day.
Mind you, this horrific slaying occurred 18 months before the December 2006 inauguration of Pres. Felipe Calderón, whose aggressive anti-crime campaign is now blamed for triggering a volcanic eruption of gangland murders. After the Domínguez assassination, Washington Post reporters Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan noted that the “human cost” of Mexico’s drug war was “skyrocketing” amid the country’s “worst barrage of drug-related violence in years.” Even if Calderón had simply maintained the policies adopted by his predecessor, Vicente Fox, the number of killings would probably have continued to creep upward.
Without the historical context, we cannot fully understand the blood-drenched chaos currently plaguing our southern neighbor. In early 2001, Fox traveled to the narco-dominated city of Culiacán and championed a “great crusade” against drug-trafficking organizations (DTOs). But his vaunted crusade, which included army deployments, was small beer compared to the military offensive launched by President Calderón at the end of 2006.
That offensive unquestionably contributed to the subsequent explosion of DTO violence, and it has raised all manner of thorny human-rights concerns. There seems little doubt that Calderón underestimated the magnitude of the problem when he initiated his strategy. According to government data, Mexico experienced a staggering 15,273 organized-crime killings last year, up from 9,614 in 2009, 6,837 in 2008, and 2,826 in 2007. Previously calm municipalities — such as wealthy Monterrey, which the business magazine AméricaEconomía ranked as Latin America’s safest city in 2005 — suddenly witnessed a rash of bloodletting. In northeast Mexico, the state of Nuevo León (home to Monterrey) suffered 620 organized-crime murders in 2010, up from 112 in 2009. Next door in the Gulf-coast state of Tamaulipas, the number of killings ballooned to 1,209 from only 90 a year earlier. In the west-central state of Nayarit, the year-to-year jump was from 37 to 377.
To be sure, the victims of this violence were overwhelmingly DTO members and others tied to the drug trade. But they also included a frightening number of civilians — journalists, prosecutors, political candidates, elected officials, teenage partygoers. In two of the most prominent cases, DTO gunmen assassinated Rodolfo Torre, the frontrunner in the 2010 Tamaulipas gubernatorial race, and Silverio Cavazos, the former governor of Colima. They also massacred a U.S.-bound group of 72 Central and South American migrants, whose corpses were discovered at a Tamaulipas ranch last August. Earlier this month, Mexican authorities found new mass graves, containing scores and scores of bodies, in the same general section of Tamaulipas. It is believed that the Zetas — members of a particularly vicious DTO (created by elite Mexican soldiers) that is now warring with its onetime patrons in the Gulf Cartel — were responsible for the Torre murder, the slaughter of the migrants, and the grisly burial pits.
While the violence has clearly spread, it remains heavily concentrated in geographically important areas along the U.S. border (where drugs leave Mexico), the western coast (where drugs are produced and also enter Mexico from South America), and prime inland shipment routes. “It’s still incredibly narrowly targeted to certain regions,” says David Shirk, director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego. In a detailed report, Shirk and Harvard scholar Viridiana Ríos observe that five Mexican municipalities — Juárez, Culiacán, Tijuana, Chihuahua city, and Acapulco — generated 32 percent of all organized-crime killings last year. (Mexico has more than 2,400 municipalities in total.) Juárez alone accounted for 18 percent. In a country that effectively has 32 states (if we count the federal district of Mexico City as a state), 56 percent of the 2010 murders took place in just four: Chihuahua (home to Juárez and Chihuahua city), Sinaloa (home to Culiacán), Tamaulipas, and Guerrero (home to Acapulco). For that matter, nearly 70 percent of all organized-crime killings between December 2006 and December 2010 occurred in just seven states: Chihuahua, Sinaloa, Guerrero, Baja California (home to Tijuana), Michoacán, the state of Mexico, and Tamaulipas.
Interpreting the significance of drug-related homicides can be tricky. An uptick in violence does not necessarily mean the Mexican government is “losing” to the DTOs, and a drop in violence does not necessarily mean the government is winning. “There are some parts of the country where the violence is probably a reflection of success,” says Andrew Selee, director of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute. In the Pacific-coast state of Guerrero, for example, much of the recent bloodshed stems from internecine fighting among rival factions of the Beltrán Leyva Cartel, which has been severely weakened by Mexican security forces.(A power vacuum ensued after Mexican marines killed drug capo Arturo Beltrán Leyva, the “boss of bosses,” in a December 2009 shootout.) And in neighboring Michoacán, Calderón’s home state, the government has hamstrung La Familia, whose founding leader (Nazario Moreno) died in a December 2010 gun battle with federal police.
In Juárez, unfortunately, Mexican officials seem all but helpless amid a barbaric turf war between competing DTOs (the Juárez Cartel and the Sinaloa Cartel) and their gangland affiliates. Long famous for its beer-soaked nightclubs and maquiladora factories, the once-prosperous border town — which a British investment magazine hailed in 2007 as North America’s top “large city of the future” — has been a veritable abattoir since 2008. It single-handedly produced more organized-crime killings in 2010 than did the drug-ravaged states of Tamaulipas and Guerrero combined. Last spring, a local trade publication editorialized that the savagery in Juárez was “pretty much like a war in the Middle East, perhaps worse.”
Tijuana presents a more hopeful case — sort of. After being convulsed by an orgy of drug-related atrocities in 2008, San Diego’s sister city was relatively quiet for most of 2009 — until November and December, when it exploded once again. By October 2010, the situation had improved so much that President Calderón touted Tijuana as a “clear example that the security challenge has a solution.” Alas, that same month brought yet another surge of violence. As in other Mexican municipalities, the brutality in Tijuana has been ferocious but spasmodic. While the city has taken steps to reform its notoriously corrupt police department, Tijuana’s murder rate is still contingent on the vagaries of DTO competition.
Which brings us to a major “root cause” of Mexico’s epidemic of drug violence: the long-term fragmentation of Mexican organized crime. During the 1980s and 1990s, the United States and its allies succeeded in cracking down on Caribbean drug-trafficking routes and weakening the Colombian cartels. As a result, Mexico became the new headquarters of the Latin American drug business. This development made Mexican DTOs fabulously rich and enormously powerful, but it also contributed to heightened tensions among their leaders. After 9/11, those tensions were exacerbated by tougher security at the U.S. border.
Meanwhile, Mexico was busy transforming itself from a one-party state to a genuine pluralist democracy. Back in the early 1980s, the DTOs benefited from crooked relationships with the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which had wielded authoritarian power since 1929. Ubiquitous corruption among PRI authorities protected the drug bosses from external pressure and militated against internal DTO strife. By the late 1990s, the PRI’s political monopoly was crumbling, and so were the sleazy arrangements that PRI officials had upheld. The Mexican government began taking a sterner approach to the drug mobs, especially after the PRI finally lost the presidency to the conservative National Action Party in 2000.
In other words, democratization has indirectly promoted fissures among the DTOs, and those fissures have led to increased violence. (Tijuana erupted in 2008 after a splintering of the Arellano Félix gang, also known as the Tijuana Cartel.) The violence, understandably, has tended to obscure Mexico’s very real progress. “The Mexico of today is not the Mexico of ten or 15 years ago,” says Selee. “It’s a qualitatively different place.”
For one thing, it boasts a significantly larger middle class. Moreover, as NYU sociologist Florencia Torche and World Bank economist Luis Felipe López-Calva have written, Mexico has “witnessed a remarkable educational upgrading of the middle class.” Since the mid-1990s, when it was pulverized by a currency meltdown and a nasty recession, the country has improved its economic management and dramatically bolstered its financial system. Indeed, its banking sector demonstrated impressive resilience during the recent global credit crisis. Mexican GDP shrank by 6.5 percent in 2009 — owing to the country’s heavy reliance on tourism, remittances, oil prices, and U.S. demand for exports — but it grew by 5.5 percent last year, despite the massive spike in drug-related violence. Between 2007 and 2010, Mexico’s ranking in the A. T. Kearney Foreign Direct Investment Confidence Index jumped from 19th to eighth. According to the World Bank, it is now easier to do business in Mexico than in any other Latin American country, including the free-market powerhouse Chile. Reuters correspondent Dave Graham points out that “Mexico has a growing body of supporters who believe it is closing the gap on the so-called BRIC nations as a driver of global growth.”
On the negative side of the ledger, Mexico is still hampered by monopolistic practices and other vestiges of its traditional corporatist economic model. Calderón has pushed through modest tax and energy reforms, but his more ambitious efforts at liberalization have been stymied. The World Economic Forum stresses that “further action is sorely required to reinforce Mexico’s competitiveness fundamentals.” Labor-market rigidity remains a stubborn impediment to faster growth, as does pervasive corruption. Transparency International’s latest Corruption Perceptions Index ranks Mexico behind Jamaica, Guatemala, and Swaziland.
Yet while Mexico continues to suffer from weak and graft-ridden public institutions, those institutions are appreciably stronger today than they were under Presidents Carlos Salinas (1988–1994) and Ernesto Zedillo (1994–2000). The process of establishing a liberal, transparent criminal-justice system will take decades, but the adoption of a sweeping judicial-reform package in 2008 marked a watershed. Even though the implementation of that package has been sluggish, Mexico is finally tackling the culture of impunity that has long shielded gangsters and corrupt officials from prosecution. To Americans, Calderón’s accomplishments may seem trivial. In the context of Mexican history, they are quite substantial. Moving forward, judicial reform should be complemented by the political changes that Calderón proposed in late 2009, such as establishing a second round in presidential contests (if no candidate secures a majority on the first ballot), allowing for the reelection of federal legislators and local officials, and permitting citizen initiatives and independent candidacies.
As for Mexican relations with the United States, the two countries now enjoy unprecedented levels of security coordination. Recent squabbling over the WikiLeaks cables and the comments made by former U.S. ambassador Carlos Pascual should not distract us from the growth of bilateral intelligence sharing. The Obama administration has enhanced such collaboration, and it has carried out multiple large-scale operations aimed at damaging Mexican-linked DTO networks north of the border. Shortly after the February 15 murder of U.S. immigration agent Jaime Zapata in the central Mexican state of San Luis Potosí, American law-enforcement officials arrested hundreds of criminals with connections to traffickers in Mexico and other countries.
At the same time, Mexico is justifiably frustrated with America’s inability to (1) curb the cross-border flow of assault weapons and (2) curtail its domestic drug consumption. “The fundamental problem is the nature of the industry,” says Shirk. “Until we get really serious about dealing with the demand question, we’re not going to make any real measurable headway.” Right now, the United States both prohibits drugs and consumes a huge quantity of them — a recipe for mammoth DTO profits and violent struggles over key Mexican trafficking locations. Legalization should not be oversold as a magical silver bullet for ending the bloodshed. But if the U.S. ever did legalize (and regulate) drugs, the economics of the drug trade would be utterly transformed, to the financial detriment of gangsters throughout the Western Hemisphere. That’s why a slew of prominent figures — including former presidents Fox and Zedillo — have urged the United States and other countries to begin treating drug use as a public-health issue rather than a criminal matter.
Shirk predicts that U.S. opinion on legalization will shift considerably over the next decade, especially when it comes to marijuana. According to a Pew Research Center poll, 45 percent of Americans — including a majority (53 percent) of Democrats — now support legalizing pot. Small wonder: It is easily the least harmful of all illicit drugs, and its prohibition creates a sizable revenue stream for the DTOs while soaking up precious law-enforcement resources. In 2009, says Shirk, marijuana accounted for an astonishing 98 percent (in weight terms) of the illegal drugs that U.S. authorities interdicted at the Mexican border. Just think of the money and man-hours that were devoted to confiscating and dealing with that cannabis.
Drug seizures make for good photo-ops, but they rarely have a big impact on the DTOs. By contrast, killing or arresting senior drug lords can cripple their gangs. Over the past few years, Mexico has taken down a long list of kingpins. Alas, these victories have not yielded a sustained reduction in the violence. Calderón’s popularity has plunged, and a survey conducted on March 26 indicated that 59 percent of Mexicans believe the DTOs are winning the drug war.
What if the opposition PRI reclaims the presidency next year? Will that usher in a new government strategy for combatting organized crime? “I’m not sure that the policy will change dramatically,” says Arturo Alvarado, a sociologist at the College of Mexico in Mexico City. Indeed, there is a widespread sense that Mexico crossed the Rubicon under Calderón, and that even a PRI-led government would probably embrace an aggressive approach to the DTOs. “I don’t think you can put the genie back in the bottle,” says Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue.
When discussing the Mexican security crisis, U.S. officials should be careful to avoid hyperbole. Mexico is nowhere near being a “failed state,” and the DTO violence, however ghastly, is not a Colombian-style “insurgency.” State and local police forces remain dangerously weak and corrupt, but Calderón has done much to professionalize the federal police. Mexican drug mafias have expanded their presence in Central America, but that’s partly because the Mexican government has been squeezing and battering them at home.
Here’s the painful, inescapable reality: Unless the United States either legalizes drugs or radically reduces its consumption of them, Mexican DTOs will continue to reap gargantuan profits and exercise tremendous power. Whenever one gang is dismantled or pushed out of a given city, other traffickers will immediately seek to grab its former territory and market share. “That’s the thing that’s frustrating to me,” says Shirk. “Every step forward is really part of this never-ending fight in an unwinnable war.”
— Duncan Currie is a writer in Washington, D.C.