Can Mexico really defeat the cartels?

For most governments, security focus has changed much in the last 20 years. In the Cold War it was always based on fear of invasion from the US or the Soviet Union depending on your allegiance, but most governments do not fear inter-state war quite so much these days. Instead, threats to the state are increasingly coming from non-state sources. The clearest example of this is of course terrorism but another that has grown in prominence is drug trafficking. The issue has dominated government policy in Latin and South America has well as many of the Soviet successor states in Central Asia. The epicentre of this has been in Mexico. The nation has had a long history battling the drug cartels whose gangs have caused violence across the country. Indeed, figures released by the government note that nearly 13,000 people died as a direct result of organised crime by the drug cartels between January and September 2011. The government though has boosted its efforts in this area in recent years, partly due to growing pressure to do so from the US. It is easy to see why they want Mexico to fight harder, for dealing with drugs in Mexico will help reduce drug-related crime in US’s urban districts and would help mitigate some of the issues associated with illegal migration along the US-Mexico border.

For Mexico, the war is much closer to home, with their government needing to install greater order to tackle the gang related violence that has blighted the nation, particularly in the northern outposts close to the US border. The result has been bloody. Open warfare between government forces, mainly the Navy, and the well-armed cartels has been persistent and has resulted in the deaths of some 50,000 people under President Calderon’s six year presidency. A high death toll, but one which they argue is having the effect of breaking up the powerful cartels, creating schisms which weaken their internal structure which in turn makes them easier to be contained and even defeated. The most recent ‘success’ came just weeks ago with the confirmed death of Heriberto Lazcano after a shoot- out with the Mexican navy. Known as “El Lazca”, the gangster was the leader of the infamous Los Zetas cartel, widely considered one of the most violent and powerful of Mexico’s cartels. Although his body has now mysteriously now vanished, photographs confirm the kill and this has been widely celebrated by the Mexican government as a symbol of their progress which has seen some two-thirds of Mexico’s most wanted drug lords either killed or incarcerated.

This success has led some to question whether a victory for the Mexico government over the cartels is in sight. Splits and further detention of gang members has caused greater inter gang rivalry and violence as the cartels struggle for control of key drug supply routes; but it is possible that this hard line approach may be destabilising the cartels to such an extent that their ability to cause carnage could be restricted or even neutralised entirely. But Mexican politicians should not pop the champagne just yet. For while the deaths and captures of key leaders clearly weaken the hierarchy of the cartels, this is not enough to defeat them. The reason why is simply that drug trafficking continues to entice new recruits. Part of the reason is economic. Apart from some of the industrial Maquiadores in the North of the country, which produce cheap goods for US markets, Mexico has few financial opportunities. Certainly none quite as lucrative as the drugs trade, whose demand continues to make it a billion dollar industry. But while it may be possible for the Mexican politicians to mitigate that to an extent, what they can’t manage is simply their country’s geographical location. Many of the world’s drugs, especially highly valued cocaine, are made in South America. Its primary audience, aside from Europe, is the US market. This means, one way or another, those in South America will always try to get the drugs they create through to the US, meaning they will mostly pass through Mexico. So for all the fighting Mexico’s forces do, there is always going to be a demand for drug smugglers in Mexico. The cartels may be weakened, but not broken. The President’s attempts are also undone by failure within Mexico’s institutions. Corruption in the police service is considered by many to be widespread, meaning the cartels can often get away with trafficking in areas away from the government’s displays of power.

This is not to say the Mexican government should do nothing, for clearly organised crime cannot be tolerated. But questions do need to be asked about their approach. The 50,000 that are reported to have died as a result of government battles with the cartels includes the deaths of innocent bystanders as well as those of government forces and drug-lords. How many? The government won’t say. Clearly innocent people are still likely to get caught up in the cross-fire of cartels violence if the Navy does nothing, but it still raises questions about the approach being adopted. Military action is a powerful tool that can be used, but it should be one of many that also incorporates economic diversification and a stronger crack down on institutional corruption. This would make drug trafficking harder and less desirable. Drugs are always going to be a problem for Mexican politics. As long as there is a demand, there will be suppliers prepared to take the necessary risks. Mexico has the opportunity to restrict the power and influence that the cartels have in many areas of the country. But it will take more than the deaths of those like El Lazca for that to be possible.

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