Mexico: a war dispatch

Sergio Aguayo Quezada
25 June 2007

Mexico's president, Felipe Calderón, declared a war on organised crime at the beginning of his period in office. Seven months after his inauguration on 1 December 2006, and a year after Calderón's disputed victory in the bitterly contested election of 2 July 2006, the result is not very encouraging: the state is overwhelmed by the situation and its members are a prime target for gunmen, who continue to fight amongst themselves for market control. Here are six elements of a complex and desperate situation.

Vicente Fox's legacy

The ex-president had a starring role in the weakening of the state. During his period in office, 2000-06 he allowed organised crime to continue to undermine the state monopoly on the use of force. His Procuradúria General de la República (attorney-general's office / PGR), for example, was characterised by its inefficiency and neglect of this issue. An expert on security, Carlos Antonio Flores Pérez, has been patient enough to research all of the press bulletins of this office during this six-year period; citing these and other documents, his investigation concludes that "the fight against high-level corruption linked to drug trafficking virtually collapsed during Vicente Fox's six-year term. Whereas during Ernesto Zedillo's term (1994-2000), diverse high-ranking public officials were arrested, including one governor and several generals," Fox's government "did not legally proceed against any high-level official."Sergio Aguayo Quezada is professor at Mexico's Colegio de Mexico. His website is here

Also by Sergio Aguayo Quezada in openDemocracy:

"Mexican democracy in peril"
(21 April 2005)

"America's protean left: José Miguel Insulza and the OAS"
(25 July 2005)

"Washington vs Latin American democracy"
(29 November 2005)

"The Americas' new independence"
(27 March 2006)

"Mexico: a banana republic?"
(19 April 2006)

"Mexico's turbulent election ride"
(16 May 2006)

"Fraud in Mexico?"
(7 July 2006)

"Mexico's democratic lifeline"
(12 September 2006)

"Mexico: on the volcano"
(24 November 2006)

"Mexico: living with drugs"
(16 March 2007)

The state trains the hitmen

Almost 250,000 soldiers have deserted the army in Mexico since 1995; alienated by low salaries, some were tempted by the money dispensed by drug-lords. The army recruits, educates and trains in the poor areas of the country, but the result of the low salaries it pays to its men (the equivalent of around €250 [$335] a month) is predictable: the barracks are prowled by companies and drug-cartels looking to recruit the best and the brightest, and offering the equivalent of €2,000 [$2,640] a month. The exact number of defectors who are tempted by such offers is hard to gauge, but the effect is clear: the transformation of soldiers into well-trained assassins, who are armed with knowledge about the inner workings of the government's security operations, language and strategic approach.

America's cynicism

The shadow projected by geopolitics on Mexican security is a pernicious one. The powerful neighbour, the United States, loves weapons as well as drugs; and millions of the former enter into Mexico. In 2004, a good proportion of the up to 16.5 million illegal weapons that were then in Mexico had been acquired in the 12,000 drug-sale points located on the American side of the 3,000-kilometre border; security specialist Georgina Sánchez, in an unpublished text, concludes from such statistics that Mexico is "on top of a volcano of violence".

The situation is so bad that the Mexican attorney-general, Eduardo Medina-Mora, has accused Washington of being "cynical" in light of the mismatch between what it says and how little it actually does.

The cross-border smuggling of weapons is facilitated by more than American indolence; the fact that the Mexican customs service seems to employ blind or corrupt custom officers is a vital ingredient. From December 2000-December 2005, official numbers reveal that Mexican customs were able to confiscate a mere 1,791 weapons: fewer than one a day.

A papier-mâché coalition

The alliance between federal, state and local forces in Mexico is set not in stone but in moist newspaper. The federal government has committed all its reserves to prosecute this war, but the overwhelming majority of the country's thirty-two state governments and hundreds of local governments play dumb in order to avoid getting involved in it.

Meanwhile, an indicator of morale within the police force is the proliferation of strikes within its ranks. In recent months insubordinate policemen in seven of these thirty-two states have protested against low salaries, job insecurity and the meagreness of their weaponry. In San Salvador Atenco - a town close to the capital - the local police went on strike after three officers came under attack and were unable to defend themselves from being wounded because they only had one weapon between them. It turns out that the local police in a city of 60,000 inhabitants had only six guns! (see "Paro de policías atenquenses", La Jornada, 12 May 2007).

The drug-trade's reaction

The presence of federal forces in Mexico's constituent states is not producing results. Military members patrol and carry out operations but when they return to their barracks the drug-trade reimposes its own law. In some places, even in the capital, groups of hitmen are bold and confrontational: they face the troops openly, execute public officials and military personnel, and attack barracks. In all this, the drug-cartels repeatedly demonstrate the quality of their organisation, intelligence and weaponry.

As of the first week of June 2007, there had been 1,335 executions in Mexico in 2007, and the majority of these are the responsibility of the organised-crime syndicates which are fighting to increase their "market share". It is terrifying to envisage a scenario where this systematic violence is directed towards Mexico's state and society.

A defenceless, scared society

Mexican society responds to the danger by simulating normalcy. Behind the façade, fear grows. It expresses itself in the growing number of journalists and mass-media outlets who opt to report very little or nothing on drug-trafficking and violence. Even the most powerful national media feel obliged to conceal the identity of those who pursue the issue. The intelligence networks of organised crime monitor all that is reported, and are quite prepared to act against those who go beyond the intangible but real limits of what they consider politically correct.

A coherent strategy

In light of these six factors, what can be done?

The battle is not lost, but neither is the state winning it. The constant publicity and acclaim that gathers around Felipe Calderón in the Mexican media sound increasingly hollow and unreal. It is urgent then that the federal government adopts a coherent strategy that includes, among other aspects, three key components:

  • strengthening of an institutional nexus currently softened by the reluctance of states and local governments to play their part in the campaign
  • restructuring of a customs system incapable of stopping the weaponry that reaches the drug-cartels' battalions
  • pressuring the United States to demonstrate the firmness of its commitment in the battle against organised crime.

The 2007 diagnosis for Mexico by the British security company Control Risks says that "Drug-related violence will continue unabated, particularly in coastal and northern states..." As the year reaches its mid-point, the assessment remains well-grounded. Both the official frontline and the official rearguard in Mexico need very badly to be strengthened. As long as this does not happen, the outcome of the war will remain uncertain.

Translated by Alfonsina Peñaloza

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