The Narco State Next Door?
Mexico is fast becoming the central battleground in the war on drugs, but few in the United States seem to notice the worsening violence and corruption across the border.
Beginning late this summer, Mexico's usual simmer of isolated drug slayings boiled over into all-out war. President Felipe Calderon has deployed thousands of soldiers and police to the streets and vowed to purge corrupt police officers and officials who cooperate with the cartels. Since President Calderon's crackdown first began in December 2006, more people have died in Mexico in drug-related violence than from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Over the past several months, a growing number of civilians have been caught in the crossfire.
Beginning late this summer, Mexico’s usual simmer of isolated drug slayings boiled over into all-out war. President Felipe Calderon has deployed thousands of soldiers and police to the streets and vowed to purge corrupt police officers and officials who cooperate with the cartels. Since President Calderon’s crackdown first began in December 2006, more people have died in Mexico in drug-related violence than from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Over the past several months, a growing number of civilians have been caught in the crossfire.
Amid the widening chaos, Foreign Policy‘s Elizabeth Dickinson spoke with observers on both sides of the border. Enrique Krauze is a noted Mexican historian and author who warns of a looming Mexican narco state. Michael Sanders is a special agent with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Foreign Policy: More than 4,000 people have died in Mexico’s most recent bout of drug violence over the last year and a half — and the past several months have been particularly bloody. Why has the death toll been so high? Whats going on?
Enrique Krauze: Mexico did not used to have this kind of problem because we had a centralized political system. In the old times, the president was de facto king. He could be corrupt or not corrupt, but you had a centralized power to deal with the darker sides of Mexican life. One of the paradoxical liabilities of our new democracy [is that it has decentralized the] real powers of the drug traffickers.
FP: President Calderon has launched a military offensive on the streets of Mexico — including 40,000 soldiers and 5,000 police officers. Do you think the military approach will succeed?
EK: This is not a war that can be won soon. It may be a war that cannot be won at all until we have a change [in policy]. I think [Calderon] has been doing well. The fact that [the cartel members] are killing themselves so much is because they are feeling the pain.
One of our great writers, Gabriel Zaid, has suggested that we have to focus on the jails. Some are like the offices or headquarters of crime. We have to control the jails. President Calder’n has also lately been focusing on tracking the money and tracking the big policemen and big politicians. It is not one kind of approach.
FP: What is the mood on the streets of Mexico in places where the Army has been deployed? Are people backing President Calderon’s efforts?
EK: There is uneasiness and sadness and the feeling that we are under threat. But it is not hysteria. It is not panic. The internal impression is that the president is doing his job. No one considers [it] a mistake for him to have engaged in this war. But at the same time, no one would say that he has been having real success.
FP: Since the escalation of violence, there have been a number of rallies protesting the kidnapping and killing of bystanders with no connection to drug trafficking. What has been the reaction to this rise in violence against civilians?
EK: There has been a very strong [reaction]. For example, when we had a bomb in [the state of] Morelos killing people, everyone talked about terrorism. It was a complete shock. Even other drug cartels said they had nothing to do with that. [Civilian deaths are] the main reason for uneasiness. If one knew they were only killing amongst themselves, people would say, “Go on — finish the job.” Instead, people feel helplessness.
FP: Last week in Madrid, you expressed concern about the possibility that Mexico is becoming a narco state. How close is Mexico to that reality now?
EK: There are already signs [of this] in some states. There are many municipalities that are clearly under the rule of the drug traffickers, and that’s frightening because of course they kill the journalists and they corrupt everything. There is a danger [of Mexico becoming a narco state], but it’s still an embryo.
FP: You have also said that the war on drugs will last a long time. How long do you foresee? What needs to happen before the conflict can end?
EK: Ten years, maybe 20 years. [Colombian President lvaro] Uribe said there will be many, many people dying before you learn [how to deal with the problem]. Since 1920, Mexico has been a peaceful country. We had avoided or dodged all the wars in the world. Every country has its wars; some are religious, ethnic, civil, and nationalistic wars. This is one that destiny had in store for us.
Special Agent Michael Sanders
FP: News organizations have reported on a growing weapons trade across the U.S.-Mexican border. Is that something you have seen?
Michael Sanders: Operation Gunrunner, through the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, is trying to track and trace all the weapons that are seized coming out of the United States. Some of those trafficking are sending individuals to purchase weapons at gun shows, but that’s only one part of it, and that’s not a very big part of it. The larger thing Operation Gunrunner is going after are the individuals who are purchasing high volumes of automatic weapons and basically bringing them from north to south and then black-marketing them.
FP: As a special agent, how do you see the evolution of this crisis in Mexico?
MS: We’ve conducted investigations beginning from the time that the Colombians started using the Mexicans to get the cocaine [across the border.] Then at some point in the mid-1990s, we started seeing a shift, where Mexican cartels were purchasing [the cocaine from the Colombians] and then setting up distribution networks in the United States. You started seeing the violence because [the cartels were] fighting amongst each other for routes.
Now, Calderon and his administration have started an active campaign against the traffickers. The cartels are now having to fight against the military as well as each other. Calderon is [also] going after the corrupt police and military and whatever individuals who are taking money from the cartels. He is putting on pressure. And whenever there is pressure, then these organizations are turning towards kidnapping and ransoms and extortions.
If you look at Colombia back in the 80s, it was much like Mexico is today: There were kidnappings, killings of state officials, law enforcement, and judges. Nobody was protected, and there was a lot of corruption. But you look at Colombia now under President Uribe, and you see there’s still going to be crime but not like it was. What Uribe has done is to put a law enforcement presence in every county in every administration. Calderon has tried to do the same thing. He’s fighting a war, and theres going to be a lot of violence.
FP: If it took Colombia more than 20 years to break that cycle, what does the timeline look like for Mexico?
MS: Colombia’s a lot smaller than Mexico. And Colombia, with regard to the drug trafficking, has to get products to the United States. It’s easier for the Mexicans: They can walk, swim, or truck it across the border. Colombia had to bring it all the way up either by fast boats or fishing boats, or had to get it across the Caribbean or the Pacific. It was hard. But that’s a lot easier for the Mexicans.
Elizabeth Dickinson is International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Colombia.
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