Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

The battle against narcotics traffickers has undermined exactly what is needed to win this war: the rule of law.

Reading Time: 4 minutes[i] Can Mexico win the war against drugs? [b]No[/b][/i]
Reading Time: 4 minutes

If winning means eliminating all drug production, trade and consumption, then the only honest answer is “no.” The strategic lines drawn by the Mexican government rely on “containment and weakening” criminal organizations, not “elimination.” Even if we assume a sharp reduction in the consumption of drugs in the United States, significant demand will remain, and supply will most probably come from south of the border. Of course, given the scale of this illegal trade, relatively large and well-organized groups will be required to meet demand.

What can “winning the war” possibly mean, then? It means the reduction of the main negative side effects of the trade: violence and the weakening of the rule of law.

Unfortunately, the indicators of violence in Mexico force us to conclude that we have painfully lost.

The national rate of homicides (per 100,000 inhabitants) moved from 8.4 in 2007 to 18.0 in 2009 (according to the National Institute of Statistics, Geography and Informatics, INEGI) or from 9.7 in 2007 to 15.0 in 2009 (according to the National System for National Security, SNSP). But in the eight states in which federal and local forces ran joint operations against criminal organizations, the 2007–2009 changes went from 12.8 to 41.3 (INEGI data) or from 15.9 to 34.5 (SNSP) per 100,000. I recently estimated that, due to these joint operations, homicides in those states increased by 12,000 between 2007 and 2010 (Nexos, June 2011). Eighty-five municipalities account for 70 percent of total homicides in Mexico, but the increase has been broader: the number of Mexicans living in a municipality with homicide rates above 50 per 100,000 people moved from 850,000 in 2007 to 9.1 million in 2009.1

For the last five years, Mexicans have become experts at body counts, but we still are unable to understand the causes of those deaths. Worse, we have become accustomed to seeing bodies, where we ought to be seeing lawful prosecutions.

This leads to the second side effect. Experts and some government officials argue that the main goal of the strategy started in 2007 was to dismantle big cartels and fragment them into smaller cells so that they would not represent a serious threat. That is, to turn a national security menace into a public security problem.

According to a study presented by Mexican security analyst Eduardo Guerrero (Nexos, June 2011) the number of cartels in Mexico climbed from six to 12 between 2007 and 2010, while the number of smaller local organizations increased from five to 62 in the same period. Intuitively, smaller organizations face higher restrictions for trafficking large amounts of drugs across the border, and consequently are forced to expand their operations to other illegal activities: Mexico’s rate of extortion increased from 3.0 (per 100,000 inhabitants) in 2007 to 5.5 in 2010. Kidnappings went from 0.4 to 1.2 (per 100,000 inhabitants).

We are trapped in a worst-case scenario: giant cartels such as Sinaloa continue to be a threat and new, violent small cells are being created and expanding the range of their criminal activities.

Achieving the government’s goal of transforming the national problem into a series of local ones depends on the quality of local police—and that is another serious problem. By December 2010, in 29 of Mexico’s 32 states, less than 50 percent of state police officers had been subjected to a Trust Test (prueba de confianza), which included polygraph and drug tests to identify cops who likely were or would become accomplices to criminals. Only two states have conducted such tests on more than 50 percent of their municipal police forces. Worse, as many as 65 percent of the state and municipal officers who took those tests failed them, leading national authorities to conclude that they may be linked to criminal organizations.

No one would argue that the Mexican government should turn its attention away from the drug cartels. However, since the inception of the current strategy, the government has never allowed citizens the legal tools to fight this battle. Mexicans do not find their government a dependable ally against criminals. And Mexico’s judicial system remains embarrassingly corrupt, biased and inept.

The increase in lethal violence has not been accompanied by a corresponding increase in prosecutions. On the contrary, we have seen the systematic “presentation” of unconvicted suspects before the news media, and continued abuses by authorities that result in no legal consequences. The killing of two boys in Tamaulipas in April 2010 and the manipulation of a crime scene where two graduate students were killed at Tecnológico de Monterrey in March 2010 are just two recent prominent cases documented by the National Commission on Human Rights.

These concerns help explain why Mexico received a score of 0.3 (out of 1) in “effective criminal justice” on the World Justice Project Rule of Law Index 2011, placing 63rd in a list of 66 countries evaluated. We had the worst performance in Latin America in terms of corruption, law enforcement and access to civil justice.

There have been efforts to change. However, a bill approved by Congress in 2008, changing the Mexican judicial system to an adversarial model with oral trials to make it more expeditious and fair, hasn’t even been implemented yet.

How can we possibly fight a war against drugs when we have such an inefficient and dysfunctional criminal justice system? How can Mexican citizens trust authorities when we are denied legal certainty, due process and access to justice—especially when we routinely see proof of complicity between criminals and police?

No war against criminals can be won where the rule of law is not respected, defended and deepened.

Government officials frequently remind us that an effective strategy to counter crime should result from social policies promoting education, health and income opportunities. I could not agree more. Perhaps the most important government action to prevent a young Mexican from participating in criminal activities is to allow him or her to foresee a productive future within the limits of the law. We must be doing something wrong when a Mexican teen chooses a short criminal life instead of a long life on the right side of the law.

Winning the fight against drugs requires an aggressive use of financial intelligence to combat money laundering, as well as a clear diplomatic effort to question the current punitive model and explore decriminalization schemes. However, two key tools any society needs to fight organized crime—respect for the rule of law and the creation of opportunities for young people to earn legitimate income—have been undermined in Mexico. We’ve become the living, wounded proof of the limits of a battle based priarily on the use of force. And we’ve lost.


1. See Diego Valle-Jones Blog: http://blog.diegovalle.net/2011/01/when-percentages-mislead.html (Last accessed November, 2011)

Tags: Counternarcotics, Felipe Calderon, Mexico
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