Mexico's Next President and the Drug War

Lessons for the next President of Mexico on the drug war, courtesy of Jennifer Jeffs.
By: /
May 17, 2012
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The latest known victims of Mexico’s drug war may never be identified – their mutilated bodies, discovered Sunday in San Juan, Cadereyta, are designed to horrify. While Mexico’s interior secretary, Alejandro Poire, states that this massacre, the fourth in the past month, was due to fighting between the Zetas gang and the Sinaloa Cartel, gang fighting too often leaves innocent victims in its wake: Nine of the 18 bodies found outside Guadalajara last week were identified as individuals with no criminal records. In Cadereyta municipality, the number of killings since January is nearly three times higher than the number over the same period last year, as crackdowns in previous cartel hotspots have shifted gang activity to new regions.

Against this backdrop of escalating violence, Mexico will hold a presidential election in July. In fact, since President Felipe Calderón took office at the end of 2006, his crackdown on the drug cartels has created new gang relationships and ousted several gang leaders, producing two major gang rivals as smaller gangs became absorbed by the larger and more powerful ones. In the meantime, nearly 50,000 lives have been lost, many solely for the sake of spectacular displays of violence and intimidation. As his term draws to a close, Calderón – the first Mexican president to aggressively launch raids and law-enforcement reform to combat the cartels – leaves the problem unsolved. Along with the continuing problems of the drug trade, Mexico’s next president faces an additional challenge: fatigue and defeatism in drug-war politics.

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Mexico’s next president will have to choose between taking up where Calderón left off (i.e. continuing the struggle to defeat the illegal drug trade) and negotiating with the criminal gangs to reduce violence, thereby undermining the progress that has been made thus far, at the expense of so many lives. The choice is the subject of a recent article in Foreign Affairs, “The Cartel Crackdown: Winning the Drug War and Rebuilding Mexico in the Process,” by Robert Bonner, who appropriately advocates that the new president, whoever he or she is, continue the fight against the cartels.

Calderón’s federal police force, while still in need of expansion and improvement, is  nonetheless a remarkable accomplishment. This force has increased from 4,000 to 35,000 officers in the past four years, and now hosts Mexico’s first national crime information system. The judicial reform advocated by Calderón’s administration is also a big step forward for Mexico: Oral trials would increase transparency and modernize the judicial system, and would be a tremendous improvement over the current system, which leaves too much room for corruption and bribery.

The most difficult challenge will be combating the cartels directly. Calderón’s kingpin strategy involves weakening cartel operations to facilitate locating and arresting the leader and his cronies. This strategy, successful in Colombia in the 1990s, is key to preventing Mexico’s descent into a Mafia state, as deduced from Moisés Naím’s Foreign Affairs essay, “Mafia States: Organized Crime Takes Office.” Unlike Russia, in which “the line between government agencies and criminal groups has been irreparably blurred,” Mexico’s government institutions have been reformed, and their progress is the source of considerable pride in the country. Government officials, like law-enforcement officers, are not yet completely immune to corruption, but issues of corruption and rent-seeking have declined dramatically as reforms have been implemented. 

If Mexico’s next president – whether Andres Manuel López Obrador, Josefina Vasquez Mota, Gabriel Cuadri, or Enrique Peña Nieto – does not take up the fight against the criminal gangs, he or she will put more of Mexico’s strengths at risk. Among emerging countries, Mexico has the advantage of a relatively well-educated population, sound fiscal policy, a sophisticated private sector, and an abundance of natural resources. Its economy is forecast to supersede our own by 2030. As a result of these factors, Mexico has been attracting considerable foreign investment – particularly in important industries such as aerospace – despite the repellant forces of gang and monopoly rule. But increasing violence that implies a weak state will eventually discourage even the most enthusiastic investors.

Last November, Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes told an audience at the Royal Ontario Museum that violence does not define Mexico any more than the violence of last century’s American mobs define the United States. In doing so, he deftly reminded his Canadian audience of the cynicism and cowardice underlying the view of Mexico as an essentially violent place. To the extent that Canadians and Americans see Mexico’s violence as an unchangeable reality, they abdicate responsibility for feeding that war through demand for the drugs Mexico’s cartels supply. Calderón’s drug war has combatted that view, but if Mexico’s future policies reflect fatigue and defeatism, the rest of the hemisphere will follow suit.

Photo courtesy of Reuters