Twenty years and the death or disappearance of tens of thousands were necessary for the Mexican state to seriously consider the challenge launched by organised crime networks that were capable of imposing their law in 40% of Mexican territory. In January 2007 a war, whose outcomes are uncertain, was unleashed against them.
Mexico has a 3,000-kilometre border with a power avid for narcotics. The emergence of keen entrepreneurs willing to feed the gluttony was logical; thus were born the cartels whose feats are immortalised in the Mexican narcocorridos. Two decades ago, in 1987, then president Miguel de la Madrid identified drug-dealing as the main threat to national security. They were resounding words empty of content. Four years later, in 1991, I had a conversation with then attorney-general Enrique Álvarez del Castillo, who minimised the problem and boasted about the enormous strength of the Mexican state. This suicidal listlessness has been the norm and set the stage for the growth of criminality, and the foundation of territorial enclaves which the forces of security were forbidden to enter.
Vicente Fox turned over to Felipe Calderón, the declared winner of the bitterly disputed election of July 2006, an internal security situation of extreme fragility. A few days into his term, the new president declared that he would employ "all the state's force" to "wrench public spaces from criminals" and "rescue Mexico" (the implications of this last phrase are chilling). The army was deployed throughout eight states - six of them located in the strategic north - where 24 million people live in 763,000 square kilometres of territory. The use of the armed forces was the last, desperate choice, given the corruption, inefficiency or impotence of the hundreds of thousands of underpaid policemen.
The main objective of taking the troops out of their quarters - senior officials confirm - was to demonstrate the president's firmness and to recover the space won over by (and handed over to) organised crime. In the original design, the army would patrol the streets while the required intelligence was collected in order to detain the leaders and dismantle the squadrons of hit-men. The strategy seemed as sensible as the objective was realistic; both received the applause of a society weary of kidnappings, armed hold-ups and executions.
When the federation sent the troops to Michoacán, expectations grew and the states fought each other for their military quota. And in the midst of the clatter of trumpets and tambourines of a legion of governmental communicators, "Operation Tijuana" was born on 2 January 2007. The federal government stated that 3,000 soldiers and marines, speedboats and artillery vehicles would be transferred to this city, located in the vortex where Mexico, the United States and the Pacific Ocean begin and end. The population sighed in relief; the saviours were arriving.
Six weeks into the operation I visited Tijuana where I spoke with a more than representative sample of connoisseurs of the criminal underworld. The initial enthusiasm had disappeared and bewilderment and discouragement prevailed amongst academics, social leaders and journalists. Military checkpoints had relaxed and no arrests had been made of the leaders whose nicknames, habits and hangouts are well known in a city that once again lives under the threat of kidnappings and executions.
Also by Sergio Aguayo Quezada in openDemocracy:
"Mexican democracy in peril" (April 2005)
"America's protean left: José Miguel Insulza and the OAS" (July 2005)
"Washington vs Latin American democracy" (November 2005)
"The Americas' new independence"
"Mexico: a banana republic?"
(19 April 2006)
"Mexico's turbulent election ride"
" Fraud in Mexico?"
"Mexico's democratic lifeline"
(12 September 2006)
"Fraud in Mexico?"
(7 July 2006)
"Mexico’s democratic lifeline"
(12 September 2006)
"Mexico: on the volcano"
(24 November 2006)
A cloud over the cartels
In the first hundred days of his administration Felipe Calderón has repeatedly called for a national crusade against crime. The rhetoric originates in the seriousness of the threat and in the federal solitude. Most governors and mayors avoid the issue and disguise their fear and/or complicity by taking refuge in a feature of the law: the fight against organised crime is a federal responsibility. The result is that these officials have merely substituted the boss: before it was the president, now it is the heads of drug cartels.
Then the unforeseen occurred. The country's capital presented an aggressive programme of its own to confront organised crime. This was unexpected, since the federal district is the most solid of leftwing bastions and loyal to Andrés Manuel López Obrador (who refuses to recognise the result of the 2006 election, and styles himself the "legitimate president" of Mexico); so much so that the head of the capital's government, Marcelo Ebrard, has refused to meet with Calderón, arguing too that his occupation of the presidency is illegitimate. But Ebrard - Obrador's successor-but-one as mayor of Mexico City - is also a pragmatic politician who knows that the capital has been devastated by organised crime; it is in second place for the largest number of crimes per inhabitant, after Baja California (the state where Tijuana is located).
One of the territorial enclaves of organised crime is in the city-centre neighbourhood of Tepito, a few blocks away from the heart of the nation, the Zócalo. If the capital's mayor wished to extend his political margins he had to face crime, and he did so by expropriating a cartel's housing-complex fortress in Tepito. The media effect was well thought out and the operation yielded benefits, because it left Felipe Calderón behind in the competition to represent "law and order", terms identified with a conservative stance.
This is a signal that the argument over the presidential elections in 2012 has already begun. An obvious candidate is the capital's mayor, who has thus chosen to contrast himself to the president in what is likely to prove a tough, enduring war against organised crime. The last six years were characterised by the spiteful relationship between López Obrador and Fox; Ebrard is replicating the contest with Fox's successor, but moving it onto the new turf of efficiency.
If the consequences of this rivalry are unforeseeable, the future of Mexican security itself is even more so. The strength of the cartels, and the reaction they will have towards measures taken to curb their power - expropriations of their illicit funds, installation of military checkpoints, extraditions of their bosses to the United States - cannot be easily predicted. Will they stoically absorb the punches? Will they increase "executions" of policemen and soldiers? Will they resort to terrorism against civilian targets? Will they seek to disguise themselves amongst the population or fortify in their territorial enclaves?
Yet amid this sombre scenario, a source of hope emerges in the rivalry between the federal and the capital city's government - each seeking to distinguish itself for its respective success in combating organised crime. If they are lucky, they might even get a corrido written in their honour.
Mexicans, willingly or not, have been living with organised crime for many years. Now, for the first time in this long period, it seems possible that its advance might be contained.
Translated by Alfonsina Peñaloza