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

Latin America World

 Chivis Martinez Borderland Beat  Crisis Group TY Gus

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 neighbor find solutions
tailored to each locale.

he criminal groups that are the
public face of this violence is 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.

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

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 neighbor 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

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 organized 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 organizations 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 organization 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 organization,
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

Children and women are no longer
excluded as targets.

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

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.

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.

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 demobilization 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 a close study of local conflict dynamics would be a
better way to make progress, even if the gains appear on the surface more

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
whose 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.

 Any solution to Mexico’s conflicts will
require backing from the U.S.

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 militarized 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 neighbor, 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

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