Assessing Mexico's Narco-Violence


May 14, 2009

This commentary originally appeared in The San Diego Union-Tribune on May 14, 2009.

Drug-related violence in Mexico has more than doubled over the past 18 months, with a sharp increase in crimes that can only be understood as atrocities. The gruesome executions posted on YouTube, the assassinations of police officials and politicians, the more than 200 decapitations in the past year, and the use of high-powered weapons such as assault rifles and grenade launchers may all seem wanton and senseless. After all, these are some of the same tactics used by al-Qaeda in Iraq. But this violence actually has a purpose. It is a strategic campaign by the cartels to terrorize the Mexican public and sap support for the government's campaign to tamp down cartel activity.

President Felipe Calderón has made the war against the drug cartels the centerpiece policy of his six-year term, putting federal police and the military at the forefront of the battle until state and local police forces are reformed.

The drug lords have responded to this campaign with three types of violence. When the security forces move to disrupt the cartels, the cartels fight back in ways that maximize the potential for civilian casualties. The drug lords know that the government cannot accept much collateral damage, and the cartels are betting on a decline in public support that would eventually force the government to back down. If one cartel is weakened by the security forces, the others try to muscle in on its lucrative territory, causing even more violence. Meanwhile, the cartels are using death squads to intimidate local politicians, media and police, who are given the choice of "plata o plomo," meaning accept a bribe ("plata" means silver) or take a bullet ("plomo" means lead.)

Despite their violent tactics, the cartels are not a true insurgency in the sense that they want to take over Mexico. And the risk is not "state failure" as the U.S. Joint Forces Command recently stated, as at worst Mexico could simply let the traffickers go about their business and the violence would die down.

The real risk is not drug trafficking itself, or the osmosis of criminality across the border, as pernicious as those problems may be. The real threat to the United States is that Mexicans lose their political will for the fight, and the cartels' organized violence and bribery will permanently subvert Mexican institutions, suppressing real political and economic progress. So the U.S. goal must be to support President Calderón in separating large-scale, strategic violence from the drug trafficking problem.

But what about the "spillover" of violence into the United States? While the cartels want to spoil the appetite of the Mexican public for a real battle against them, it is clearly not in their interest to expand the war into U.S. cities.

That would keep U.S. policy-makers' attention attuned to the issue, bringing more American resources to the border. Already media coverage of the carnage in Mexico has led to increased attention by policy-makers. President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other administration officials have recently visited Mexico, and the administration is considering requests to deploy 1,000 National Guardsmen to the border.

U.S. attention is bad for business, so the cartel leadership will likely try to turn down the heat by tamping down conspicuous activity by their U.S. distributors. The wholesale price of cocaine is 300 percent higher on the U.S. side of the border, so it is vital to cartel profits to ensure safe passage of large shipments of drugs across the border — but not essential to control drug distribution within the United States.

That is why so much of the violence has been concentrated in Mexican border cities such as Tijuana, JuÁrez and Nuevo Laredo, where authorities are cracking down, where the rival cartels are fighting each other, and where civilians are caught in the crossfire.

In Colombia, strategic cooperation and large amounts of U.S. aid failed to stem the production of narcotics. Nearly two-thirds of global cocaine continues to be produced in Colombia. Yet it is undeniable that Plan Colombia, an eight-year strategic initiative providing $6 billion in U.S. aid, succeeded in depriving the FARC rebels of drug profits by strengthening the Colombian military and police to target violent traffickers. While trafficking itself remains a problem, Colombia is no longer in danger of becoming either a "failed state" or an anemic, low-growth quasi-democracy — an outcome that is yet possible for Mexico.

The U.S. strategy for Mexico, much like Colombia, should be to show support for the current campaign against the cartels by providing U.S. aid and technical assistance to Mexican police reform programs. The three-year, $1.4 billion "Mérida Initiative" to send aid to Mexico is a good start, but the United States can do more, and should make a more lasting commitment.

Drug eradication is a distraction. Rather, this calls for a bigger, more sustained law enforcement aid program that would focus on separating strategic violence from the drug trafficking problem.

Bahney is an analyst and Schaefer is a political scientist at the RAND Corporation.

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