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Five myths about Mexico's drug war

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By Andrew Selee, David Shirk and Eric Olson
Sunday, March 28, 2010

Violence in Mexico has escalated dramatically in recent years. In 2009 alone, at least 6,500 people were killed in apparent drug-related incidents, and more than 2,000 have already died in such violence this year. The recent killings of three people linked to the U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juarez (just across the border from El Paso) have left many wondering whether the situation is hopeless.

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In Mexico last week, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton lamented the "cycle of violence and crime that has impacted communities on both sides of the border" and pledged continued U.S. engagement. With Washington's support, the Mexican government has been pursuing an aggressive multiyear campaign to confront criminal groups tied to the drug trade. To understand those efforts' chances of success, let's look beyond common misperceptions about Mexico's plight.

1. Mexico is descending into widespread and indiscriminate violence.

The country has certainly seen a big rise in drug violence, with cartels fighting for control of major narcotics shipment routes -- especially at the U.S. border and near major seaports and highways -- and branching into kidnapping, extortion and other illicit activities. Ciudad Juarez, in particular, has been the scene of major battles between two crime organizations and accounted for nearly a third of drug-linked deaths last year.

But the violence is not as widespread or as random as it may appear. Though civilians with no evident ties to the drug trade have been killed in the crossfire and occasionally targeted, drug-related deaths are concentrated among the traffickers. (Deaths among military and police personnel are an estimated 7 percent of the total.) A major reshuffling of leaders and alliances is occurring among the top organized crime groups, and, partly because of government efforts to disrupt their activities, violence has jumped as former allies battle each other. The bloodshed is also geographically concentrated in key trafficking corridors, notably in the states of Sinaloa, Chihuahua and Tamaulipas.

While the violence underscores weaknesses in the government's ability to maintain security in parts of the country, organized crime is not threatening to take over the federal government. Mexico is not turning into a failed state.

2. The Mexican government lacks the resources to fight the cartels.

Last week, the Mexican newspaper Milenio released a survey indicating that 59 percent of Mexicans believe the cartels are winning the drug war; only 21 percent believe the government is prevailing. Such assessments are well founded, but the battle against organized crime is not a lost cause. Thanks to a genuine commitment by Mexican officials and greater cooperation with the United States, important cartel leaders have been arrested over the past several years. Some cartels, such as Arellano Felix in Tijuana, have been seriously weakened.

The Mexican government has the tools to succeed, but it must redirect its efforts. To date, its campaign against drug traffickers has relied on the massive deployment of federal security forces, both police and military. But their "presence and patrol" strategy presents only a minor inconvenience to criminal groups, which work around it by shifting their trafficking routes.

To strengthen law enforcement and restore public confidence, there is an urgent need to modernize and professionalize Mexico's police and courts. The 2008 passage of constitutional reforms in this area was a good start. As they are implemented, the changes will transform the country's judiciary from one that relies on closed courtrooms and mostly written evidence into a system where evidence is presented in open court.

The federal government has also made strides in developing a professional national police force. It is devoting resources to the improvement of state and local forces and boosting investigative capabilities, including creating a national police database that allows authorities to track crimes in different parts of the country.

3. Endemic corruption allows the cartels to flourish.

Corruption does continue to be a major challenge for Mexico. In 1997, for instance, the country's drug czar was found to be on the take from the Juarez cartel, and last year, the Federal Investigative Agency was dissolved after a third of the force was placed under investigation for corruption.

But there appears to be a real commitment by honest officials to root out malfeasance. Recent arrests and prosecutions have brought down the head of Mexico's Interpol office, senior officials in the attorney general's office, three state public security chiefs, hundreds of state and local police officers, and a few mayors and local police commanders. Meanwhile, Mexico is slowly cultivating a culture of lawfulness, thanks to courageous journalists and new civic organizations calling for greater accountability. Far more can be done, but this is a good start.

4. Drug violence is a Mexican problem, not a U.S. one.

Hardly. Mexico and the United States share a 2,000-mile border, and our southern neighbor is also our third-largest trading partner. Since the drug cartels run a binational business -- moving drugs from south to north and weapons from north to south -- both the problem and the solution will inevitably involve Washington.

Perhaps the top contribution the United States could make is to redouble its efforts to reduce American demand for illegal narcotics. The trafficking in Mexico is driven overwhelmingly by U.S. consumption -- especially of cocaine, marijuana, heroin and methamphetamine -- which is estimated to exceed $60 billion annually. Moreover, the U.S. government estimates that $18 billion to $39 billion flows south each year as a result of American sales of illegal narcotics. Some of this money is invested in high-caliber weapons purchased in the United States and taken across the border illegally. Little surprise that in Mexico on Tuesday, Clinton referred to "our shared responsibility to combat and defeat organized transnational crime."

In a positive development, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy announced this month that it will seek more funding for programs to reduce U.S. demand for illicit drugs -- with a 13 percent increase for prevention and 4 percent for treatment. Such funding pales in comparison to law enforcement budgets, but it's a step in the right direction.

5. Mexican drug violence is spilling over into the United States.

Despite the violent confrontations between drug-trafficking organizations in Mexico, there has been little of the same spectacular violence on the American side of the border, even though the cartels operate with U.S.-based distribution networks. El Paso, one of the least violent cities in the United States, sits right across from Ciudad Juarez, the most violent in Mexico.

This points to important institutional differences. In Mexico, a crime has only a 1 to 2 percent chance of leading to a conviction and jail time; the greater likelihood of arrest in the United States leads traffickers to keep most of their violent activities south of the border. Of course, drug violence does occur here, but not with the severity or impunity found in Mexico.

For better or worse, the United States and Mexico are in this together. It is hard to imagine a solution that does not involve a joint strategy to disrupt organized crime; a shift in U.S. drug policy to address consumption; shared efforts to improve Mexican law enforcement and judicial institutions; and continued cooperation to foster greater economic opportunity in Mexico.

mexico@wilsoncenter.org

Andrew Selee is the director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. David Shirk is a fellow at the center and an associate professor at the University of San Diego. Eric Olson is senior adviser at the center.


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