Mexico's Spreading Drug Violence

Stephanie Hanson
Council on Foreign Relations
Tuesday, November 25, 2008; 10:41 AM

Mexico's economy is slowing--remittances from abroad are down, as is U.S. demand for Mexican exports. But one sector is doing a brisk business--the funeral industry near the U.S. border (Reuters). Since Mexican President Felipe Calderon began his offensive against drug cartels and organized criminals in December 2006, drug-related killings have escalated, as has the need for undertakers. Though the drug war receives minimal attention north of the border, some authorities say it increasingly threatens the stability of the Mexican state and poses a security threat to the United States.

Calderon has moved aggressively against Mexico's drug cartels. He has deployed over thirty thousand soldiers across the country, purged several police forces of corrupt members, and pushed a judicial reform package through Congress. But the violence has only mounted. More than four thousand people have died in drug-related violence this year, up from more than 2,500 deaths in 2007. The escalation is so great that drug gangs are widely suspected of causing the plane crash in early November that killed the interior minister, though the government says pilot error was the cause (NYT).

The drug cartels' infiltration of the police, judiciary, and political parties has severely compromised the government's ability to fight the drug cartels, some experts say. As Alma Guillermoprieto writes in the New Yorker, the end of one-party rule in Mexico precipitated the need to run expensive election campaigns, which the drug cartels are reported to now fund. The Mexican army is considered relatively clean, but its deployment has presented new opportunities for corruption, and causes tension with local security forces.

Experts say little progress will be made until Mexico's police and judiciary are reformed. Mexican professor Ana Laura Magaloni, speaking at the Wilson Center in May 2008, says the focus should be on state-level reforms of the criminal justice system. In the meantime, concerns mount about drug-related violence spilling across the border. "International drug cartels pose an extraordinary threat both here and abroad," said U.S. Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey in September 2008. Mexico's drug gangs could be a greater threat to the United States than global terrorism, adds John P. Sullivan of the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department.

Calderon has sought U.S. assistance to tackle the problem. A new aid package known as the Merida Initiative (PDF) will provide $400 million in equipment and communications systems this year, with plans for further funding in the next two years. Some Mexican and U.S. analysts criticize the package for its focus on equipment rather than training and institution building. Others note that the package does not address how to reduce U.S. drug demand.

Drug trafficking is not the only issue of mutual interest between Mexico and the United States. Mexico is the third most important source of oil to the United States but output has been dropping since 2005. A package of energy reforms passed Mexico's Congress on October 28, but industry experts say it likely does not go far enough to attract the kind of private investment needed to build capacity.

Immigration also complicates the U.S.-Mexico relationship--the majority of illegal immigrants in the United States are Mexicans. The U.S. Congress failed to pass immigration reform legislation in 2007, but some are hopeful that President-elect Barack Obama might revive the issue. It was one of the topics he discussed with his presidential rival, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), in a November 17 meeting aimed at building bipartisan momentum for congressional initiatives. A recent CFR Independent Task Force on U.S.-Latin American relations recommends a U.S. guest worker programs, legalized a path to citizenship, and addressing circular migration for agriculture workers.

© 2008