March 13, 2009

In War on Drugs, Mexico’s Success Is Our Misfortune

By Louis E.V. Nevaer
New America Media

MERIDA, Mexico – Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s decision to move troops into drug trafficking hot spots is making it impossible for the cartels to continue to operate in Mexico on a “business as usual” basis — and their only alternative is to move into the United States.

There lies the paradox of Mexico’s war on drugs: If Calderon wins, he will create a problem for his neighbor to the north.

Figures provided by the FBI documenting the spread of cartel activity to dozens of American cities substantiate Mexico’s success. The current spike in violence – along with the relocation of cartel operations from Mexico to the United States – is evidence of Mexico’s success. “It is reflecting how they are melting down,” Mexican Attorney General Eduardo Medina argues.

Calderon is convinced that 2009 will be a crucial year, one in which there will be greater violence as the Mexican army continues to disrupt and destroy the drug cartels’ operations, forcing them to abandon Mexico for the United States.

His decision to move forward with a military show of force last week by sending an additional 7,500 troops to secure Ciudad Juarez has Mexicans wondering if this “surge” against the drug cartels will work.

Mexico has been rocked by an escalation of violence, with more than 1,000 slain in the first two months of this year. Not a day goes by without authorities announcing the gruesome discovery of dead, and often mutilated, bodies dumped along the road, or a shootout between the military or police and members of a drug cartel.

This escalation of violence has stunned Mexicans, who are fearful that it signals a broadening of Calderon’s “war” on the cartels. Last year more than 6,290 people were killed in Mexico, and 2009 is on track to be even bloodier.

Calderon’s critics charge that declaring “war” on the cartels has unleashed a wave of violence from these drug syndicates, which are better-financed and better-armed than the Mexican police and army.

Within weeks of taking office in December 2006, Mexican President Felipe Calderon declared the drug cartels the greatest single national security threat to the integrity of the Mexican State. Mexico moved forcefully throughout 2007, and the drug cartels retaliated, killing police, attacking the army, demanding that public officials resign or face “assassination.”

As gun battles between drug cartels and the police made headlines, Calderon was forced to order the army to “secure” civil authority, occupying airports and setting up military checkpoints on the nation’s highways. The violence continued to escalate, with drug cartels taking a page from Iraqi insurgents, torturing their victims before mutilating their bodies. The sight of decapitated bodies thrown near schoolyards continues to unsettle the Mexican public.

“Mexico right now has issues of violence that are a different degree and level than we’ve ever seen before,” Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano recently testified before Congress.

Critics charge that Calderon runs the danger of unleashing a civil war, where violence becomes uncontrollable.

Calderon disagrees. “It’s either the narcos, or the state,” Calderon said in an interview published in February in the Mexican newspaper El Universal.

He has continued to move forward with his “surge” against the cartels, deploying the military to border cities.

Looking beyond the horrific daily headlines of violence, there is compelling evidence that Calderon’s “surge” is working.

Despite the gruesome and relentless news of killings, Calderon has done a remarkable job of containing the violence to the principal actors: drug cartels and law enforcement. In a country of 110 million people, 6,290 people killed in 2008. Of these, more than 90 percent were members of the drug syndicates. Nearly 800 of the dead were police officers or army soldiers, and fewer than 250 were innocent civilians. The majority of the violence stems from struggles among the various syndicates, particularly the Sinaloa and Tijuana cartels, to fill in the power vacuum created by Calderon’s success in disrupting their organizations. That Mexicans can go about their lives almost untouched by the violence swirling around them is a testament to how effectively Calderon has prevented violence from spilling into civilian society.

Calderon bristles at the notion that Mexico is a “failed state,” with the implication that the drug cartels are asserting control over communities. “I have not lost any part – any single part – of Mexican territory,” he said in an interview last month. When the U.S. Joint Forces Command recently stated that Mexico could face a “rapid and sudden collapse,” it harkened back to the 1990s when alarmist books, such as “Bordering on Chaos” described the “imminent” collapse of the Mexican state. Mexican Attorney General Eduardo Medina points out that the army is fully in control of highways, airports and municipal buildings in the cities of greatest activity. “We want to raise the opportunity costs of our country as a route of choice,” he said.

Unlike Colombia, where Pablo Escobar was beloved and protected by the public, no drug lord has won the loyalty of the Mexican people. Fed up with their nation being hijacked by criminal gangs, Mexicans staged a peace march in cities around the country, “Iluminemos Mexico,” or “Let’s Illuminate Mexico,” that drew millions of citizens to participate in candlelight vigils. When the Mexican army moves in to secure airports, police stations and highways, Mexicans stand in their doorways and applaud.

As Calderon’s surge moves forward, the cartels have moved north into the United States and east to the Bahamas and Cuba. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder characterized Mexican drug trafficking organizations as “a national security threat.” The National Drug Intelligence Center warned last month that Mexican cartels are crossing into the United States where “they control most of the U.S. drug market and have established varied transportation routes, advanced communications capabilities and strong affiliations with gangs in the United States.” The FBI confirms this, noting that “gangs are trafficking illicit drugs at the regional and national levels; several are capable of competing with U.S.-based Mexican drug trafficking organizations.”

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