Mexico’s Failed Drug War

When you go to a job interview, you are usually asked the question, ‘Where do you see yourself in five years?’ The answer is usually, to some extent, a hopeful one. If, at the beginning of President Felipe Calderon’s drug war against the cartels, Mexicans were asked, ‘Where do you see your country in five years?’ their responses would have painted the picture of a Mexico that is much more secure than its current state. Instead, it is a Mexico that remains locked in a violent power struggle against drug cartels and corruption, a Mexico that many have abandoned altogether.

Dead, damaged, or displaced

On Wednesday, the Mexican government updated its drug related death toll during the five year drug war to 47, 515. Many critics argue that the real number is actually much higher; as the Mexican government, despite promises, has been slow to release official figures throughout the war. Though the data released was only recorded up until September of last year, 2011 was well on pace to be the deadliest year to date. To put the five year death toll into perspective, the death toll of coalition forces over a ten year period is 2,860.

The drug war death toll doesn’t include the 5,000 people who have vanished, according to Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission. Nor does it include the thousands of families who were damaged or displaced.

The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre reported that a research centre in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico’s deadliest city across the border from El Paso, Texas, found that up 220,00 people had left their place of residence due to violence. Furthermore; a private consultancy report found that violence had displaced 1.6 million Mexicans – half of which – fled the country.

Small victories, large resistance

There have been some small victories over the five year struggle. Security forces have seized large drugs and weapons caches, and 22 of Mexico’s 37 most wanted drug lords have been captured or killed. Calderon has managed to cleanse some of the widespread police corruption seen across Mexico, achieved through lie-detector tests and pay raises for new recruits. Unfortunately, the small victories have done little to slow the resistance of the cartels, and are overshadowed by relentless violence that has torn certain areas of the country apart.

A prime example of how little control Mexican security forces hold, is the brazenly deadly casino fire that was started by Mexico’s most violent drug cartel, Los Zetas, on August 18th 2011. Members of Los Zetas stormed into Casino Royale in Monterrey, the capital city of Nuevo Leon, and set fire to the building. Their motive was unpaid protection money. 52 people were killed in the attack, which was the deadliest on civilians in the history of Monterrey, and in the state of Nuevo Leon.

I was fortunate enough to live in Monterrey in the summer of 2010, and recall driving past Casino Royale on several occasions. It’s tragic to think that over one year later, it’s nothing more than an ashy scene of historic violence; and a sign that the current strategy of battling the cartels has failed to protect civilians.

A lame duck president

President Felipe Calderon is on his way out; a new Mexican president will be elected in 2012. The candidates of rival parties have plenty of failed Calderon policies to use against the conservative National Action Party candidates who hope replace him, as they debate their way up to a July 1st election.

Enrique Pena Nieto, presidential candidate of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, and the early front runner to replace Calderon, has criticized Calderon’s decision to deploy the military across Mexico to battle the cartels in a kill or capture mentality; a strategy which led to widespread violence and human rights abuses. Pena Nieto has stated that, if elected, he would gradually withdraw military forces from the streets and improve intelligence.

The glowing concern with Pena Nieto, is that his political party has cut deals with the cartels in the past in order to lower crime in exchange for freedom to operate. Although he has stated that won’t be the case if he is elected, he still has skeptics.

A problem fueled by drugs and death

As long as drugs from Mexico are flowing into the U.S., and guns and money from the U.S. are flowing into Mexico, the money, an estimated 39 billion dollars, will often trump reason for the people who have no other options. They are the people the cartels live and die by.

Economic and social growth are Mexico’s best tools in luring away those who choose to join cartels, often by choice, but also by necessity. They are Mexico’s most vulnerable, and have continued to fall as the war rages on, and the death toll rises. It’s death toll that includes a growing number of civilians that have gotten caught in the middle of a war that hasn’t seen results worth dying for.


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