Small Wars

This Week at War: Is Mexico’s Drug War Doomed?

Learning to live with drug cartels -- and killer robots.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

What happens if Mexico settles with the cartels?

The U.S. Department of Defense defines irregular warfare as “a violent struggle among state and non-state actors for legitimacy and influence over the relevant populations.” By this definition, Mexico is fighting an irregular war. The Mexican government’s campaign against the drug cartels is far more than a law enforcement problem; the two sides are engaged in a violent struggle for influence over the Mexican population.

Four years after Mexican President Felipe Calderón threw 80,000 soldiers at the cartels, their businesses remain as strong as ever. According to the Los Angeles Times, the overall drug trade continues to flourish, bringing in by one estimate $39 billion a year to the Mexican economy, equal to 4.5 percent of Mexico’s economic output in 2009. The cartels, formerly just smuggling businesses operating largely out of sight, have evolved into political insurgents, and Calderón has openly wondered whether the Mexican state will survive. Neither side has the capacity to crush the other. This implies an eventual compromise settlement and with it a de facto or actual legalization of the drug trade in Mexico. When Calderón and the cartels make such a deal, the United States will have to deal with the consequences.

Calderón’s war has managed to inflict pain on the cartels; government forces killed two top cartel leaders and have set the syndicate into a violent struggle with each other for smuggling routes. According to the Los Angeles Times story, the Mexican government estimates 28,000 people have been killed in the war, the vast majority of whom were cartel employees and associates who died in battles between the various gangs. Responding to the pressure, the cartels have transformed themselves into political insurgencies in an attempt to persuade the government to back off and to attract the support of local populations. Their actions are right out of an insurgency’s standard playbook: attacks on the police (recently with car bombs), employees of state oil company Pemex — the cornerstone of the government’s revenue — and the media.

In a speech to the nation last week, Calderón declared that the cartels’ actions are “an attempt to replace the state.” He pleaded with his countrymen to support the government and to report on local officials whom the drug gangs have co-opted. Calderón’s plea comes as Mexico’s main sources of foreign exchange are under pressure: The drug wars are chasing away tourism, competition from Asia threatens the manufacturing export sector in the north, the Pemex oil monopoly is in decline, and the struggling U.S. economy has hit expatriate receipts back to Mexico.

With Mexico’s legitimate sources of foreign exchange wilting and with the government facing a bloody and open-ended war against the cartels, the prospect of a settlement must be increasingly attractive to Calderón. Legalization would legitimize the drug trade as another important export sector of the Mexican economy, along with oil, tourism, light manufacturing, and expatriate labor receipts. According to the New York Times, Calderon has opened up a dialogue with opposition political leaders in a search for possible alternatives, and has called for a national discussion on the possibility of drug legalization. Calderón’s two predecessors, Vicente Fox and Ernesto Zedillo, now support some form of drug legalization.

Should Mexico call a truce and legalize its drug business, where would this leave the United States, the prime market for Mexico’s drug exports? Many Americans would view Mexican legalization harshly and call for suspending Merida initiative aid and perhaps closing the border. But even if this were physically possible, vast legitimate commercial trade and the presence of so many family relationships on both sides of the border, the consequence of past migrations, would make a closure politically impossible. Should Calderón or his successors eventually choose this means of escape, the United States will simply have to cope with the consequences.

Scared of military robots? Get over it.

Robots waging war against their human creators have long been a staple of Hollywood, and the general message of movies like Terminator: Salvation is that building well-armed robots capable of operating free of human control is not a very good idea. However, Technology Horizons, a research road map written by the Chief Scientist of the U.S. Air Force, concludes that autonomous systems — weapons and military computers making most if not all decisions without human input — are both essential and arriving very soon.

The rapid growth in the use of military robots is well known. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has made the brisk expansion of remote-controlled aircraft like the Predator drone a top priority for missions over Iraq and Afghanistan. The CIA is now known to have its own Predator operation in Pakistan. Unmanned systems have become military essentials, performing dangerous missions such as bomb detection or extremely long surveillance flights that exceed the physical capabilities of the human body.

The Technology Horizons report predicts that further rapid growth in unmanned systems will overwhelm the military’s ability to maintain constant human control, making autonomy in these systems essential. For example, successors to the Predator drone will multiply faster than the ground crews that currently control them. The Air Force is already preparing for one crew to simultaneously control four or more such aircraft. As this ratio further expands, the unmanned aircraft will have to become increasingly autonomous.

Furthermore, the data brought in by these systems is already overwhelming the intelligence analysts tasked with interpreting it. The report calls for much more advanced computer systems to process and analyze these data and autonomously develop responses.

Further autonomy, the authors argue, could also provide a way of mitigating the vulnerability of the global communications links that connect controllers with unmanned combat systems on the far side of the world. Drones operating in a hostile threat area could respond instantly instead of waiting for instructions from a far-away human. Finally, autonomy is seen as one solution to the threat of cyber attacks on robot command and control systems.

How will the Pentagon and defense contractors prevent the creation of Terminators running amok? The Technology Hori
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report discusses the necessity of developing “verification and validation” techniques for establishing “certifiable trust in autonomous systems.” This is the single greatest technical barrier that must be overcome to obtain the capability advantages of autonomous systems.

But the report’s authors warn that an unmanned combat systems arms race is already underway and that less scrupulous adversaries may be willing to field highly autonomous systems without spending time and effort on the certifiable verification standards the United States will likely require for itself. Maybe in this case, U.S. planners can hope that just like in the movies, those robots turn on their masters before they can threaten anyone else.

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