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28/06/2007 01:00:00

Mexico's Drug War


Since taking office in December, Mexican President Felipe Calderon has
deployed thousands of federal troops in an aggressive crackdown on
drug-related violence. More than six months into the offensive, the
number of drug-related deaths this year is set to surpass last year’s
2,100 fatalities. But murders and street gun battles are only part of a
more entrenched problem that includes corrupt police forces and a
lackluster judiciary. Experts say police and judicial reforms, as well
as increased cooperation from the United States, are necessary to stem
drug-related violence in the long run.

How serious is the drug trafficking problem in Mexico?

About 90 percent of the cocaine that enters the United States is
trafficked through Mexico, according to the State Department’s 2007
International Narcotics Control Strategy Report. Mexico is also the
United States’ largest foreign supplier of marijuana, and 99 percent of
allmethamphetamine produced in the country is exported to the United
States, according to the 2007 UN World Drug Report (PDF).

Mexico’s extensive cocaine trade is controlled by cartels based in
border areas and along the southeast coast. Two groups—the Sinaloa
Cartel and the Gulf Cartel—have waged an increasingly violent turf war
over key trafficking routes and “plazas,” or border crossing areas.
Violence reached acute levels in 2006; decapitations became common and
cartels began disseminating videos documenting gruesome deaths—“narco
messages”—to threaten rival cartels or government officials. While the
majority of violence is between cartel members, police officers and
journalists have also been targeted. This spillover of violence as well
as the pervasive corruption in law enforcement agencies prompted new
federal action.

What are the details of Calderon’s counterdrug initiative?

Calderon has deployed roughly thirty thousand troops to work with the
federal police in nine states, including Michoacan, Guerrero, and the
so-called Golden Triangle of Sinaloa, Durango, and Chihuahua. These
troops eradicate crops, gather intelligence, conduct raids, interrogate
suspects, and seize contraband.

“How many of these proposals and initiatives will actually be
implemented?” asks Meyer.

The military has been used to combat drug cartels before, but the scope
of Calderon’s plan is larger than previous efforts. Former President
Vicente Fox sent hundreds of troops into the northern border city of
Nuevo Laredo in 2005, but these troops had a more limited role and
violence grew under their watch.

What else is the Mexican government doing to combat drug-related crime?

While the military offensive has captured public and media attention,
the Mexican government is pursuing other counterdrug initiatives, including:

* Extraditions. In January, Calderon handed over fifteen people
wanted in the United States on charges related to drugs and violence.
Four of these were considered major drug traffickers (one had been
running the Gulf cartel from a prison cell since his arrest in 2003).
* Eradication and interdiction. Mexico has intensified its efforts
to eradicate marijuana, dismantle meth labs, and interdict cocaine
shipments. The UN Drug Report notes that Mexico eliminated some 85
percent of the cannabis under cultivation in 2005 and dismantled some
thirty-four meth labs (up from ten in 2002).
* Combining federal security forces. Calderon created the United
Forces for Federal Support (CFAF) in a May presidential decree. The CFAF
will merge the Federal Preventive Police (PFP), a civil force under the
public-security ministry, and the Federal Agency of Investigation (AFI),
currently part of the attorney general’s office. AFI agents perform
intelligence gathering, while the PFP is a preventive force. The Mexican
Congress must approve this proposal before it goes forward.
* Public security reforms. Calderon proposed a package of public
security reforms, including internal affairs units for police forces and
ways to professionalize the police. One controversial measure would
allow wire tapping without a warrant. The focus on tracking flows of
information, money, and people is important, says John Bailey, professor
and director of the Mexico Project at Georgetown University. But “how
many of these proposals and initiatives will actually be implemented?”
asks Maureen Meyer, associate for Mexico and Central America at the
Washington Office on Latin America. She notes that Fox proposed a nearly
identical package during his presidency.
* Judicial reforms. Calderon is not pushing federal judicial
reform, but individual states are moving forward with changes. In
Chihuahua, the judiciary is experimenting with oral trials and
alternative dispute resolution mechanisms. Much of Mexico currently uses
a written trial procedure that can drag on for years. David A. Shirk,
director of the University of San Diego’s Trans-Border Institute and
editor of a recent book on judicial reform in Mexico, calls these
reforms “very innovative” and says they have the potential to transform
the rule of law in Mexico. Meyer agrees the reforms are a step in the
right direction but says it is too early to assess their effect.

Why did Calderon deploy the army instead of using the police?

Some experts say he didn’t have any other good options. Police
corruption is pervasive at the federal, state, and local levels, but the
army is regarded as well-trained and disciplined. Furthermore, the
Mexican public respects the military. “The military and the church are
the two most respected institutions in Mexico,” says Shirk. Since the
public outcry over a 1968 student protest that the army was sent in to
suppress, the military has shored up its reputation by maintaining
distance from the public. As a result, unlike in many Latin American
countries, the military abstained from political involvement in the
1970s and 1980s.

“The military and the church are the two most respected institutions in
Mexico,” says Shirk.

Some experts worry deploying the army to tackle drug violence will make
it vulnerable to the same corruption infecting the police. Further, the
army is trained in combat, not preventive action, and some wonder how
effective it can be in its current role. “Given the weakness of the
police system, involving the military was understandable,” says Meyer.
“But the police and the military aren’t interchangeable bodies.”

What have been the results of Calderon’s campaign so far?

Mexican officials say more than one thousand traffickers and armed
individuals have been arrested, but Mexico’s Reforma newspaper says this
averages nineteen arrests per day, which is lower than the daily arrest
rate in 2006. Violence is still on the rise; every week brings more news
of shootouts, beheadings, and the assassination of top police officials.
“We’re seeing a transition from the gangsterism of traditional hitmen to
paramilitary terrorism with guerrilla tactics,” Luis Astorga, a drug
trafficking expert at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, told
the Houston Chronicle in May. Astorga claims drug cartels have increased
their recruitment of army deserters who employ paramilitary killing
tactics (from 2000 to 2006, more than one hundred thousand soldiers
deserted). Calderon has tried to keep expectations low, repeatedly
announcing the fight against organized crime will be a long one.
How has the Mexican public responded to the military deployment?

Positively. According to a June 2007 poll in Reforma, 83 percent of
Mexicans back the use of military force. Support for Calderon’s
presidency is 65 percent, up from 58 percent in March. There are some
detractors, however. A May report from the National Human Rights
Commission documented serious human rights violations by the army in the
state of Michoacan. The newsmagazine Procero called the drug war
“Calderon’s Iraq.” Jorge Castaneda, former foreign minister of Mexico,
wrote in Newsweek that “Mexicans have never been told what we’re
fighting for. Do we want to defeat and banish the cartels, or just force
them back into their lairs?” He compares Calderon’s plan to an early
1970s crackdown in the state of Sinaloa, which ultimately just pushed
the drug lords to another state. “[Calderon’s] war on drugs is popular,”
Castaneda writes. “But that is not the best way to gauge its wisdom or

What are the long-term prospects for Mexico’s war on drugs?

Opinions vary, but experts agree the first step is purging widespread
corruption in the police and judiciary. As this 2006 Global Integrity
report documents, Mexico’s judges are often intimidated when they try to
prosecute drug cases. Police are compromised by the law of “plata o
plomo,” a choice between accepting bribes from a criminal organization
or being killed, writes the Power & Interest News Report. There are over
1,600 different municipal, state, and federal police forces in Mexico,
most of which are governed by state or municipal authorities. Until
recently, Bailey says the government didn’t even know who was in a
particular police unit (the government is now working to identify all
police with fingerprint databases and interconnected state and municipal
records). “Police is the caboose of the whole reform of the state,” he says.

Bailey thinks it could take decades for the police to improve enough to
successfully combat organized crime. Shirk is more optimistic, but warns
not to expect a “V-day for the war on drugs” in the next five years.
Meyer argues that given the drug war's cross-border nature, any
long-term strategy must include the United States.

What is the nature of U.S.-Mexico drug collaboration?

The Mexican government says the U.S. failure to curb drug demand limits
its ability to crack down on drug trafficking. President Bush has
acknowledged the United States has a degree of responsibility in the war
on drugs, but he has not allocated additional funds to anti-drug efforts
in Mexico, and U.S.-Mexico counterdrug initiatives remain fragmented
among federal, state, and local levels. According to the State
Department, Mexico receives $40 million a year for anti-drug efforts
from the United States (Colombia, by comparison, receives $600 million
per year). Much of this goes to information-sharing and training of
Mexican law enforcement. A Council Special Report says the United States
should improve technical and financial assistance to Mexico’s police
forces. Many experts also stress that the United States should be doing
more to curb arms trafficking from the United States into Mexico. The
gun laws in border states have a loophole that allows individuals to
purchase weapons without a background check. As a result the weapons
trade along the border is very lucrative.

Police are compromised by the law of “plata o plomo,” a choice between
accepting bribes from a criminal organization or being killed.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales met with Mexican and Central American
officials in May to discuss a regional counterdrug initiative, and
promised that U.S. officials would increase efforts to stop the flow of
U.S. weapons to Mexican gangs. A bilateral agreement dubbed “Plan
Mexico” (a reference to Colombia’s assistance package “Plan Colombia”)
is under negotiation. News reports indicate the plan, put together by
Mexico’s government intelligence service, would expand Mexico’s
telecommunications infrastructure and its ability to monitor airspace;
strengthen existing programs to professionalize Mexico’s police; and
provide advanced technologies to Mexican law enforcement agencies. Some
of these measures have already been implemented. The U.S. government
paid for a $3 million wiretapping system in Mexico that began operation
in May, reports the Los Angeles Times.

Author: Council on Foreign Relations via UKCIA

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