Mexican President Felipe Calderon has his hands full. The fight against powerful drug cartels has become increasingly bloody and exposed the weaknesses of his government. A turf struggle among rival gangs has escalated into a frontal assault on the government. In a subtle twist, gangs are now enlisting and paying citizens to participate in protests against the military presence in their cities.
While it is fashionable to call a struggle against any social evil — say, poverty or crime — “a war,” it is no exaggeration in this case. More than 6,500 people were killed in Mexico last year as a result of drug wars. It is estimated that more than 650 have died in the first two months of 2009. At first, the victims were primarily gang members fighting for control of profitable smuggling routes into the United States. Then they realized that Mexico itself was a viable market; reportedly use of cocaine in Mexico has doubled in the past four years.
Rising bloodshed forced the government to step in and target the cartels. The drug groups have responded with intimidation and corruption. Gunmen have attacked police stations with automatic weapons and grenades. Police officials who dare to do their jobs are kidnapped, tortured and killed to send a message. In some small cities, entire police forces have resigned as a result.
It is far easier, however, for the drug gangs to use their immense profits — estimated at $15 billion to $25 billion annually — to buy off their enemies. Mexico’s former top antidrug official was recently arrested on charges of accepting nearly a half-million dollars a month from drug traffickers during his two years in office. He is not alone: Other local, regional and national officials have been arrested for taking payoffs. The economy minister, Mr. Gerardo Ruiz Mateos, said he is worried that the gangs’ penetration of Mexican society is so deep that “the next president of the republic would be a narco-trafficker.”
Frustrated by police force failures, Mr. Calderon called in the military. Since taking office in December 2006, more than 45,000 troops have been sent into the field to fight the drug gangs. The army has been used before to destroy drug crops, but this is the first time that it has been deployed as a law enforcement tool in this manner.
There are risks with this development. One is corruption within the military itself. Another is escalation as the drug traffickers respond to the government’s more serious crackdown. The capture of gang arsenals containing rocket-propelled grenades, hand grenades, mines, heavy machine guns and other weapons suggest that these are not gangs anymore, but rather paramilitary groups. This war could get much more bloody for civilians. Finally, there is the risk that fighting a war against a civilian enemy on Mexico’s own territory could alienate the Mexican people from the military and, by extension, the government. A protracted, bloody war would undermine the legitimacy of the government in Mexico City.
There are signs that this process has begun. There are almost daily protests against the military in many towns and cities. The Mexican government says demonstrators are being paid by the drug gangs to take to the streets — usually $15 to $35 apiece. That speaks to the cartels’ ability to provide financial assistance to people who need it; governments are supposed to do that. Other demonstrators and human rights groups report a rising number of complaints of military abuses.
Dealing with this problem requires much more than an active military, whose deployments should be only a last and short-term resort. Local police forces should be on the front lines, but they are underfunded and understaffed.
Ultimately, the power of the drug gangs reflects failure of a different kind: The U.S. already spends more than $20 billion on law enforcement and on the reduction of the supply of illegal substances at home. Some 500,000 people were incarcerated in 2007 in the U.S. for drug offenses, a tenfold increase since 1980. The best measure of the failure of U.S. drug policy is the price of drugs. Cocaine costs a quarter of the 1981 price; heroin prices are tumbling too. Yet profits are skyrocketing and being used to finance corruption.
Enlightened observers concede that the U.S. approach must be fixed. Unfortunately for Mr. Calderon, that decision is not for him to make. Until there is a change, he is on the front lines of a vicious fight. He must ensure that Mexican law enforcement agencies have the tools to fight an increasingly powerful enemy. Firepower is only part of the solution; just as important is training, better salaries and federal support. Mexico has little choice.