In the attempt to fight drug wars, Mexico's President-elect Peña Nieto has to decide severely on an aggressive fight or a more compromising approach towards the cartels.
The presidential election of Enrique Peña Nieto from the Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI) is unlikely to alter Mexico’s approach to fighting the drug war. While the 45-year-old governor of the State of Mexico promises to reduce drug related violence and has offered a few new plans, his strategy is not much different from that of his predecessor, Felipe Calderón.
Key components of his plan include doubling the security budget, creating a 40,000 member paramilitary gendarmerie to replace the role of the military in policing violent hotspots, and expanding the police force by 35,000 officers and targeting smaller Drug Trafficking Organizations (DTOs). Though he vows to ‘fine tune’ these strategies in order to reduce violence, his plan more closely resembles 75,000 man surge than a de-escalation of hostilities.
Caught between Peace and a Blind Eye
Many saw Mexico’s 2012 presidential election as a referendum on Calderón’s aggressive anti-narcotics campaign. While the third place finish of the incumbent National Action Party (PAN) candidate showed a significant desire for change, voters feared that Nieto might adopt too soft of an approach, reverting to the policy of deal making and compliance with traffickers, common during his party’s previous 71-year rule.
Caught between the conflicting demands to reduce violence and to continue an aggressive campaign against the cartels, Peña Nieto has promised to satisfy both.
"I want to address the issue of organized crime and drug trafficking head-on. There can be neither negotiation nor a truce with criminals. I respect President Felipe Calderón for his commitment to ending this scourge; I will continue the fight, but the strategy must change," he said. Despite his desire for change, his plans are vague and based off those of the current administration.
A Brief History of Changing Dynamics
Drug traffickers have operated in Mexico since the turn of the 20th century. In the 1980s, Colombian drug lords contracted Mexican smugglers to traffic cocaine into the US. Through a connection with Pablo Escobar’s Medellin Cartel, Miguel Ángel “El Padrino” Félix Gallardo or “the God Father” established the Gadalajara Cartel, Mexico’s first cartel. The organization was able to establish its own distribution infrastructure Though originally paid in cash, the cartel was eventually compensated in cocaine, allowing the organization to establish its own distribution infrastructure.
During this era of DTO expansion, Mexico’s PRI, which dominated the country’s politics, decided to turn a blind eye to traffickers, accepting bribes in exchange for compliance. Meanwhile, the Reagan Administration launched a campaign to dismantle the entire Caribbean corridor, used to ship cocaine from Colombia to Florida. As a haven of impunity, Mexico became an attractive alternative to the embattled sea route. Guadalajara’s trafficking routes were split to form the other cartels after the 1989 arrest of “El Padrino.”
The state’s relationship with the cartels began to destabilize when the PRI lost their stranglehold on Mexican politics in 2000, and a flood of political plurality brought representatives from outside the PRI into office. This change disrupted the network of alliances that had been forged between politicians and traffickers, requiring new deals with often less corruptible government officials.
In 2006, Calderón launched an all-out assault on traffickers, hoping that the use of the military and purges in the police force might restore order along the drug corridors and weaken the influence of the cartels over the Mexican government. He borrowed an approach from Colombia known as the ‘kingpin’ strategy, in which security forces targeted top lieutenants with the hope of eroding the chain of command and limiting the organizations’ extensive influence.
Unfortunately, this plan backfired. By arresting or eliminating the top cartel bosses, the Mexican government destabilized the internal framework of the DTOs. The loss of leadership produced factionalism, as the loyalties of subordinates began to fragment into small organizations, led by the often more ruthless lieutenants, best able to secure their dominance with violence. Moreover, the loss of former bosses eroded the network of contacts between cartels, leading to betrayals and violent confrontations among former allies.
By 2010, seven major cartels had grown from the four that existed when Calderón took office six years previously. Today there are more than a dozen, and the number of smaller organizations continues to grow. Fragmentation has increased competition over smuggling routes, causing more violence between and within cartels. The result has killed an estimated 60,000 over the last six years.
From Peaceful Equilibrium to Violent Equilibrium
Since 1994, Mexican Drug Cartels have dominated the majority of drug trafficking into the US. However, they once existed as relatively peaceful organizations, avoiding bloody turf wars. But by 2006, everything changed. Vidriana Rios points to a major shift in cartel relations from peaceful to a “self-reinforcing violent equilibrium.” In her model, government crackdowns increase cartel competition, which in turn create violent turf wars.
Rios argues that “[t]urf wars emerge when monopolistic control of territories by drug-tracking organizations is broken; when territories become competitive and trackers fight for them.” Moreover, “[c]ompetition is inherently unstable for illegal industries because these industries lack formal mechanisms and systematic rules to deal with disputes and disagreements between organizations.”
As negotiating mechanisms and informal rules were based on personal contacts between cartel bosses, a strategy that sought to eliminate ‘kingpins’ eroded the existing means of negotiation. To reinstate a peaceful equilibrium, outlets for inter-cartel mediation must be established.
How to Fix the Seemingly Unfixable
Rather than waging urban warfare at coveted points of entry along the US-Mexico border, cartels have been known to negotiate safe passage taxes with rivals. Under these agreements, one cartel charges an informal tax on another, to traffic their product in the other’s territory. By carefully crafting alliances, the Mexican government may be able restore the peace in many embattled Mexican cities.
Due to a history of betrayal and distrust, current territorial divisions among Mexican cartels may seem irreconcilable, but they are ripe for reconciliation. Though there are dozens of cartels, there are two main alliances dictated by the rivalry between the Sinaloa Cartel and Los Zetas. Sinaloa is locked in a war with Los Zetas, Juarez, and Beltran Leyva, while Los Zetas battle the Gulf Cartel, Sinaloa, and La Familia Michoacana.
Two simultaneous peace offensives could be combined to facilitate a comprehensive truce. One would seek to ease relations between the two largest rivals: Sinaloa and Los Zetas. Another would work towards building peace between the larger contenders and their smaller rivals. Truces and even disarmaments among criminal organizations are not unheard of. In El Salvador, a June ceasefire between MS-13 and the Barrio 18, two rival street gangs has reduced violence by 70% throughout the country.
According to hacked emails from Strafor, a US based private intelligence service; the US actively respects the presence of dominant cartels, provided they do not cause excessive violence. A number of Mexican diplomats, cartel leaders, and US clandestine operatives were found to be implicated in the establishment of a truce between the Sinaloa and Tijuana Cartels.
The Devilish Details of Forging Alliances
Mediating peace does not mean compliance with organized crime. That the Mexican government refuses to negotiate directly with DTOs does not imply that it should refuse to facilitate dialogue between rival cartels. To proactively reduce violence, the government should establish safe zones in which cartels are able to meet and discuss peaceful relations, without fear of ambush and betrayal. The cartels must collectively establish secure and neutral spaces not to be disturbed by rivals and negotiate safe passage agreements where they are needed.
The thought of cartels colluding with sponsorship from the state is an unsavory one, but it is a welcome alternative to the sponsorship of violent cartel competition. As Rios observes, “[t]raffickers dislike sharing territories because it increases the costs of corruption, reduces the share of the local market that it can supply, and makes production inputs scarce.” Hence cooperative efforts that solidify territorial control among cartels will reduce violence. While more solid control over a territory may increase the power of one cartel in a certain area, their control of that area takes on a much more peaceful form. Moreover, the certainty of profits from drugs will discourage cartels from resorting to the more destructive revenue scheme of extortion and kidnapping – a strategy, which has become more common under pressure from government forces and rivals.
A Slow Noose
Peace is a goal that can be accomplished in the short-term, but the elimination of DTOs is a long-term project, as the profitability of the trade ensures the prolonged existence of its profiteers. The US and Mexico must work together to gradually reduce cartel revenue through selective legalization. The long-term nature of legalization works to prevent major shocks among cartels that might produce violent responses and massive shifts to extortion and kidnapping as methods of revenue. Gradual weakening would encourage cartels to downsize over time, rather than readjust their strategies violently in the moment. A slow, decades long plan, may also allow enough time for the public to stomach the controversial issue of legalizing narcotics.
While attempting to establish peace among rival cartels, the Mexican government should also continue to crackdown on smaller syndicates and improve police forces. As Peña Nieto prepares to take office in 2013, he will be confronted with the monster of the cartels. If he can succeed in encouraging a more peaceful monster, then maybe he can lay the groundwork for a long-term plan to slay the beast.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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