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Global Geopolitics

Time to End the Lethal Limbo of the U.S.-Mexican Drug Wars

The failure of the "war on drugs” – now a welter of spreading conflicts – is a U.S.-Mexican co-production. Washington should stop pushing Mexico City to throw ever more military force at organised crime. Instead, it should help its southern neighbour find solutions tailored to each locale

US President Donald Trump (right) and Mexican counterpart Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador at the White House July 2020. Credit: Toa Dufour/White House

MEXICO CITY, Oct 9 2020 (IPS) - Sporadic but spectacular acts of violence remind the global public of how deeply parts of Mexico have slid into lethal conflict over recent years.

The criminal groups that are the public face of this violence are hardly circumspect about their power. In a video dated 17 July, the Jalisco Cartel New Generation – one of the “five most dangerous transnational criminal organizations” worldwide, according to the U.S. Justice Department – showed off some of its better-equipped and trained foot soldiers and their state-of-the-art weaponry.

If the video seemed intended to broadcast the group’s paramilitary capabilities, that’s because it was. The display of force was a message to the government, a Jalisco Cartel operator told Crisis Group, “to take it easy” after the Mexican courts extradited the group’s leader’s son to the U.S. while freezing a number of its bank accounts. It was a way for the group to remind the authorities that “damage can be inflicted when arrangements aren’t being respected”, he said.

The failure of the “war on drugs” – now a welter of spreading conflicts – is a U.S.-Mexican co-production. Washington should stop pushing Mexico City to throw ever more military force at organised crime. Instead, it should help its southern neighbour find solutions tailored to each locale

Whether or not because of the video, tensions did in fact ease in the aftermath of its release, with the threat of further escalation receding and conditions returning to “normal”. In Mexico, however, normal has come to mean a state of perpetual conflict, which accounts for a large portion of the country’s steady death toll of more than 35,000 homicides per year.


Criminal Predation in a Pandemic

Unfortunately, north of the border, there is little public discussion of what is driving these levels of violence in Mexico. Instead, U.S. political dialogue tends to focus on one consequence of the violence – immigration.

President Donald Trump, who is now standing for re-election, first ran for office in 2016 on a mix of fearmongering about ostensible criminals, drug dealers and rapists coming over the Mexican border and promises that he would build a wall to keep them out.

Yet that campaign featured no meaningful discussion about how Mexico’s stubborn rates of lethal conflict are in reality a U.S.-Mexican co-production, fuelled by the very tactics that the U.S. has exported to fight the “war on drugs”. Nor, to date, has the 2020 presidential contest between Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden.

Nothing is likely to change for the balance of the election season, but once it is over it will be past time for whoever occupies the Oval Office to face these questions squarely – if nothing else out of self-interest. Having a neighbour affected by conflict and instability entails major consequences for the U.S, with the biggest being Mexico’s growing displacement crisis.

Mexican authorities are simply unable to protect citizens from criminal predation in an increasing number of regions, leading an estimated 1.7 million to abandon their homes due to insecurity in 2018 alone, according to Mexico’s National Institute of Geography and Statistics. Most of those forced to flee resettle within Mexico’s borders, but already in 2020 Mexican nationals have replaced Central Americans as the largest group apprehended while aiming to cross into the U.S.

The COVID-19 pandemic is only making the situation worse. Having killed approximately 80,000 Mexicans (a figure that could represent significant underreporting), the coronavirus has exacerbated the humanitarian situation and plunged the country into the worst economic crisis ever recorded, with GDP expected to fall by at least 8 per cent in 2020.

It has also seen armed groups try to consolidate their hold on communities, where they have taken on self-appointed roles from quarantine enforcement to distribution of goods and services. As desperation mounts, so will the drive of highly vulnerable people to seek a safer and more prosperous life elsewhere.

Washington and Mexico City can try to manage the flow of people by locking the border down even more tightly, but that is hardly an acceptable solution from a humanitarian perspective. It could also be difficult for both governments to sustain as the scale of the crisis grows and public pressure to address it increases.


Policymaking Inertia

Nevertheless, U.S. policymakers have thus far met the prospect of deepening disquiet in Mexico with inertia. They continue to support the militarised “war on drugs” that has been the anchor of bilateral security cooperation.

Recurrent threats by President Trump and other high-level U.S. government officials to sanction Mexico economically if it does not “demonstrate its commitment to dismantle the cartels” push Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to further increase the country’s dependence on the armed forces in public security matters, in spite of campaign promises to do just the opposite.

The problem is that, for the most part, militarisation has proven to be anything but a remedy. Since 2006, when the Mexican government – urged on by Washington – unleashed the military to deliver what it promised would be a swift, definitive blow to organised crime, the situation has by many measures only gotten worse: more than 80,000 Mexicans have been disappeared and annual murders have quadrupled.

The overall number of those who have met a violent death in this period, which is north of 330,000, is more than twice the number of conflict-related fatalities recorded in Afghanistan since the U.S. invaded in 2001.

Compounding the problem is pervasive impunity. Fewer than one in ten murders get resolved in the justice system – and the line between state officials and the criminals they are supposed to rein in is not only thin but occasionally non-existent.

To offer just one prominent example, a chief architect of the latest iteration of the war on drugs, former federal Public Security Secretary Genaro García Luna, is being tried in a U.S. court for alleged collusion with the Sinaloa Cartel. (He denies the charges.)


A Series of “Stupid Wars”

The lack of accountability has allowed the armed groups to expand their businesses far beyond the illicit drugs that were once their primary domain. With their predatory “thiefdoms” spreading out over Mexico, groups use territorial control as a means of squeezing revenue out of whatever commodity is locally available, chiefly through extortion.

The story repeats itself across the country. In Guerrero, gold mining has come to supplement heroin smuggling. In Michoacán, limes and avocados are add-ons to methamphetamine. In Chihuahua, illegal logging has come to accompany marijuana cultivation. The expansion of their business portfolio into licit commodities and crops increases the criminals’ power over people and politics – and bolsters their ability to fend off crackdowns.

Blame for this deteriorating situation falls at least in part on the war on drugs’ flawed kingpin strategy, which is based on the belief that arresting or killing criminal leaders makes criminal organisations implode. These groups do indeed die, but their parts live on, very often pitted against one another in countless feuds over parcels of land.

Michoacán is emblematic. This state was dominated by a single criminal organisation until, in 2014, the federal government sent in its troops. With help from other illegal armed groups, the army succeeded in breaking up the once dominant organisation, arresting one of its top leaders and killing the other.

But after authorities failed to follow through with sustained institution- and peacebuilding measures – for example, to free law enforcement from corruption, provide youngsters with ways out of criminal groups and offer local populations licit economic alternatives – armed conflict bounced back.

Today, the number of armed groups operating in the state has risen from one to twenty. Most are splinters of the once dominant group, and none has been able to impose itself fully on the others. The fighting has become perpetual.

Moreover, Michoacán mirrors the nationwide trend. In 2006, there were six criminal conglomerates fighting it out in a handful of regions. In 2019, the number reached 198, according to a Crisis Group analysis of online citizen journalists’ websites called “narco-blogs”.

The result of this hyper-fragmentation of armed conflict has been the birth of a series of “stupid wars that nobody has control over and that don’t end”, as one criminal lieutenant allied with the Jalisco Cartel said. Yet he – and hundreds of others – keep at it, killing, disappearing and displacing enemy operatives and those perceived to have ties to them.

Children and women are no longer excluded as targets. In Guerrero’s highlands, for instance, as part of a string of forced displacements, one armed group has driven hundreds of civilians out of their communities out of suspicion that they could in some fashion be tied socially or economically to its competitor.

A former cocaine trafficker, active until the mid-1990s, reflected upon the changing logic of violence by saying “today’s narcos aren’t even narcos anymore”. He suggested that today’s criminal actors no longer adhere to the informal norms of conduct that his contemporaries once followed.

While trying to gain the upper hand in fights over territories and markets, criminal groups also try to draw state actors onto their side. All too often they are successful, with devastating effects on law enforcement. “Whoever is supported by the state grows”, as the Jalisco Cartel lieutenant summed up the situation.

The alleged collusion between top narco-warrior García Luna and the Sinaloa Cartel is but the tip of the iceberg; similarly troubling arrangements can be found in the government’s lower echelons.


One Size Does Not Fit All

Given the overlap between the state and the criminals it is fighting, there are no meaningful enemies or front lines in this war. The war is not winnable. There are, however, clear and feasible steps Mexico can take to mitigate and eventually end its armed conflicts, with support from its partners in Washington.

Most critically, the government should pivot away from a one-size-fits-all approach that treats the use of force as the primary solution to every crisis and ignores who and what drives lethal violence at the local level. In what has become a mosaic of regional conflicts, circumstances matter and have to form the basis for effective policy.

Officials will thus need to understand not just the armed groups that are fighting but also the politicians and businesspeople who are aligned with them and the resources they are all fighting over. They will also need to get a handle on how to make control of these resources less profitable by alerting consumers about goods that come from criminally tainted supply chains, whether gold being purchased in Canada or avocados in the U.S.

Mexico’s government also has to invest more, with the support of the U.S. and other international partners, in social and economic programs that can divert vulnerable young people who might be drawn into the armed groups.

Likewise, it should step up efforts to provide youngsters with ways out of armed groups through demobilisation programs. Transitional justice mechanisms could also help communities come to terms with their fraught pasts and interrupt years-long cycles of revenge killings.

The focus for these efforts should be those regions where conflict is most intense, and that account for the bulk of Mexico’s violent deaths and displacement. Bold policies introduced by past and current administrations have often foundered as a result of indiscriminate application of one reform model to many different settings.

Concentrating resources and efforts on regional intervention plans that have been devised on the basis of close study of local conflict dynamics would be a better way to make progress, even if the gains appear on the surface more limited.

Even with these changes, there will still be a role for the use of force in managing these conflicts, but that role will be different than it is today. Security forces might be used to support the foregoing initiatives and their beneficiaries, who would likely be targets of violent attacks and criminal co-optation.

They might also be deployed to deter brazen criminal aggression against those local populations whom data show to be most vulnerable to displacement and other abuses. But while the state would continue to employ force where needed, it would no longer be the primary and only tool for rooting out insecurity.

Finally, key to the success of any new initiative to staunch lethal violence in Mexico will be a push to clean up the institutions charged with protecting the public from crime, and that for decades have been riddled with collusion and corruption. Various criminal operators have told Crisis Group that “reaching agreements” with police and armed forces commanders is routine.

These understandings depend on security institutions such as the armed forces remaining largely self-governing and impervious to oversight. To develop a more reliable group of officials to carry out the policies described above, the government will need to introduce transparency and accountability mechanisms throughout the security forces and to give them teeth through external watchdogs.

Which brings us back to Washington. To be successful, any solution to Mexico’s conflicts will require backing from the U.S., which would be well advised to rethink, and ultimately overhaul, the militarised approach to law enforcement it has exported to Mexico.

The U.S. government, in championing, designing, financing and, in effect, imposing the war on drugs on its neighbour, hoped it could purge the country of the corrosive social, political and economic impact of the narcotics trade and bring greater stability to the region.

Since the late 1960s, it has invested in this vision, pouring wave after wave of U.S. taxpayer dollars – billions all told – into the effort. But while U.S. resolve was enough to persuade Mexican leaders to go along with this scheme, reliance on iron-fist militarisation has proven a failure.  It is time for Washington to grasp this hard truth and change its course. If it wants to see peace across its southern border, it must support Mexico in moving away from the war footing that has spawned so much conflict.


This story was originally published by International Crisis Group, You can find the full report here.

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