An expert's point of view on a current event.

Mexico’s Forever War

Four years into Mexican President Felipe Calderón's assault on the drug cartels, all his country has to show for it is skyrocketing violence. It's time for a different strategy.

View a slide show of Mexico's bloody 2010

December 16, 2009, was supposed to be a turning point in Mexico's long and violent war on drugs. On that day, 200 Mexican naval commandos -- the army and local police were considered too infiltrated by the drug cartels to lead the operation -- stormed the luxury high-rise apartment of Arturo Beltrán Leyva, one of the country's most notorious drug kingpins. Following a two-hour gun battle that was captured on local television, the troops overpowered the drug lord's security forces, killing Beltrán Leyva and six of his bodyguards.

View a slide show of Mexico’s bloody 2010

December 16, 2009, was supposed to be a turning point in Mexico’s long and violent war on drugs. On that day, 200 Mexican naval commandos — the army and local police were considered too infiltrated by the drug cartels to lead the operation — stormed the luxury high-rise apartment of Arturo Beltrán Leyva, one of the country’s most notorious drug kingpins. Following a two-hour gun battle that was captured on local television, the troops overpowered the drug lord’s security forces, killing Beltrán Leyva and six of his bodyguards.

The operation was praised by U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration officials and hailed by Mexican President Felipe Calderón as “an important achievement for the people and government of Mexico and a heavy blow against one of the most dangerous criminal organizations in Mexico.” Mere days later, however, Beltrán Leyva’s gunmen brutally slaughtered the family of a young marine killed during the operation, including his mourning mother and sister, in an act of retribution. This was a mere prologue to the worst spike in killings in the past four years. In the six months that followed this operation, disputes over leadership of the Beltrán Leyva cartel helped push the number of drug-related murders in Mexico from less than 800 per month to more than 1,100, where it has remained ever since.

One year later, Calderón’s offensive against the country’s drug-trafficking cartels continues to exact a horrible price on Mexico’s population. If current trends hold, Mexico will end 2010 with more than 11,000 drug-related killings, up from approximately 6,600 last year. The 2010 figure represents a fivefold increase over the number of deaths in 2006, at the dawn of Calderón’s war.

Even worse, drug-related violence is spreading throughout Mexico. In 2008, three states — Chihuahua, Sinaloa, and Baja California — accounted for 57 percent of killings. Two years later, they account for well less than half of the deaths, as massacres have spread to areas that had previously been largely spared of the violence, such as Mexico City and the state of Nayarit. And yet, not long ago Calderón still claimed that “our hope lies in persevering in this attack, in persevering in this strategy.” Despite the difficulties, he promised that “a clear day will come.”

Calderón’s failure to bring peace to the country should prompt serious questions about his strategy, which has focused on weakening the cartels by military means. More than 45,000 soldiers are currently deployed to this end. While the government can point to discrete achievements in disrupting the cartels’ operations, the long-term consequences of its operations have been ambiguous.

For example, seizures of cocaine have indeed gone up in Mexico during Calderón’s offensive. However, the scale of the confiscations is underwhelming when compared with those made by much smaller countries in the region, at a fraction of the human cost. Cocaine seizures in Mexico during 2008 and 2009 were similar in volume to those made by Costa Rica and were less than 40 percent of those achieved by Panama’s authorities.

Similarly, the government regularly touts having arrested around 20 major drug bosses in the past four years as a signature victory in its war on the cartels. However, this achievement has done little to bring stability to the country — in fact, it has done just the opposite. The resulting fragmentation of the cartels has unleashed vicious murderous cycles and a geographical dispersion of violence as emerging organizations vie for control of new routes. 

When Calderón introduced his military plans to deal with the drug cartels, violence in Mexico was nowhere near the heights it has reached today. The country’s murder rate had fallen by nearly half between 1992 and 2006. And this was true even in the states that have borne the brunt of drug-related violence in the past four years. The state of Chihuahua — where the violence-ridden city of Ciudad Juárez is located — had 18 murders per 100,000 people when Calderón took over at the end of 2006. Three years later, it suffered a whopping 74 murders per 100,000 people, 13 times the rate of the United States. If Chihuahua were an independent country, it would have the dubious honor of having the world’s highest homicide rate.

The post-2007 explosion in the figures of kidnappings and robberies is equally disturbing. The number of reported robberies in Mexico was 520 per 100,000 people in 2006. By the end of 2009, the rate had jumped to 633, higher than at any point since the mid-1990s. One possible reason for why is that the government’s assault on the cartels’ drug trafficking activities has forced them to diversify their income sources, fueling the expansion of other criminal activities. Whatever the impetus, it’s clear that the reach of crime in Mexico is expanding, not contracting.

Calderón has justified his military confrontation with the cartels by arguing that the rule of law cannot thrive where organized crime rules. However, it is equally true that the rule of law can never take root in a situation of widespread bedlam like that of Mexico this past year. The Mexican government’s inability to consistently bring down drug-related violence anywhere since the military campaign began is looking less like the inevitable price of success against organized crime and more like the symptom of a strategy in dire need of revamping.

Calderón should begin by rethinking his diagnosis of what ails Mexico. He has based his approach on the notion that Mexico suffers from waning control over its territory, as was the case in Colombia until recently. However, the Mexican government is far from absent in the areas most afflicted by drug-related violence. Of the 10 states with the highest intensity of violence in 2010, the majority receives more money from the federal government than the average Mexican state. Remarkably, with a couple of exceptions, all have ratios of police officers to population that are virtually identical or greater than that of the United States.

Mexico’s problem is not territorial control, but the penetration of public institutions — particularly law enforcement institutions — by organized crime. This is a problem that cannot be solved by any military contingent, no matter how large, committed, or effective. It requires instead nothing short of rebuilding law enforcement institutions and intelligence agencies.

Calderón should focus less on parading arrested drug bosses before the media and more on restoring trust in Mexico’s beleaguered judiciary and police. According to the Iberoamerican Governance Barometer — a regional opinion poll — the public’s trust in Mexico’s judiciary and police fell by 7 and 10 points, respectively, from 2007 to 2010.

Here is the single most important figure that explains the persistence of the drug cartels: 98.5 percent of crimes go unpunished in Mexico. Unless this number starts coming down dramatically, Mexico has simply no hope of containing the toxic social and political effects of organized crime. Despite Calderón’s admirable efforts to revamp law enforcement institutions, including the creation of a strong federal police force and a far-reaching reform of criminal procedures, implementation of some of the most critical projects remains in doubt in many parts of Mexico. Restoring the integrity of public institutions should be the government’s main focus, not a sideshow to military raids.

The serious delays in the implementation of judicial and police reforms in most Mexican states are symptomatic of the single biggest weakness of Calderón’s strategy: the lukewarm support it receives from state and municipal governments. The president’s insistence on pursuing a top-down strategy for fighting the cartels has undermined its success and sustainability. The federal government often does not even consult state and local security forces when launching an offensive against drug traffickers in their jurisdictions. While there are often sound security reasons for this decision, it breeds resentment and an attitude among state officials that the war against drug organizations is solely a federal concern.

In 2008, the National Agreement for Security, Justice and Legality — which included 75 commitments toward the professionalization of law enforcement institutions and the promotion of a law-abiding culture — was endorsed by every single relevant political authority in Mexico. However, the truth is that the offensive against the cartels continues to be seen as Calderón’s war. While the National Agreement was a crucial step toward transforming the establishment of the rule of law into a national priority, the implementation of its mostly worthy commitments has been sketchy, according to civil society organization United Mexico Against Crime .

The National Agreement must be revisited, reinvigorated, and enriched with a clear discussion of goals and metrics. The governors’ role is particularly crucial. Despite the often troubled history of abuse and corruption by state-level police in Mexico, the recentralization of police forces in the governors’ hands would be an important step toward making them more accountable for the reduction of impunity in the country. It is also important to modify the legal provisions that make felonies perpetrated by organized crime federal offenses, to be prosecuted by the national government alone — which obviates state and local authorities of the responsibility for tackling the threat posed by the cartels.

But what does the public at large think of Calderón’s strategy? Until this year, a majority approved. But support for the president’s military assault on the cartels appears to have been a result of the relative isolation of the majority of the Mexican population from the worst of the bloodshed. But the expansion of violence in 2010 is now seriously undermining political support for the government’s efforts. In October, only 33 percent of Mexicans thought that Calderón’s efforts against the cartels were successful, a drop of 14 points since March.

The president remains adamant in his approach. Less than six weeks ago, he insisted that the cartels “are losing markets, are losing territory, are losing the ability to get their way as in the past.” But after four years of ambiguous results and ever worsening violence, the burden of proof for proving these assertions lies with the president rather than with his critics. It is unclear how this military assault has helped the government’s efforts to improve law enforcement and reduce the country’s endemic impunity. In the meantime, the drug cartels are still doing a brisk business in turning vast swaths of the country into anarchic battlefields.

Rather than bludgeoning organized crime into submission through military means, the government should prioritize the revitalization of the federal and local institutions that have been ineffective or, worse, penetrated by the very criminal elements they were designed to combat. Only after he accomplishes this task will Calderón be able to stand up and honestly declare that the country has turned the corner in the battle against Mexico’s drug cartels.

Kevin Casas-Zamora is a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. He served as vice president of Costa Rica from 2006 to 2007.

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