Newly elected Mexican President Felipe Calderon took office in December after a razor-thin victory over his leftist rival, Andres Lopez Obrador, last summer, and in the few weeks since he has been in power, Calderon has moved quickly and aggressively against the country's powerful, wealthy, and ruthless drug trafficking organizations, the so-called cartels. But while Calderon's bold moves have won him kudos from Mexicans hungry for law and order and from the Bush administration, Mexico analysts are skeptical they will mean anything in the long run, especially without fundamental reforms of the country's police, military, and judicial systems.
Late last Friday night, Calderon made another dramatic move, when he agreed to extradite 10 top drug traffickers to the United States, most prominent among them Osiel Cardenas, who ran the Gulf cartel from a prison cell since his arrest in 2003. Also extradited was Hector Palma, reputed to be Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman's right hand man. Guzman would have made the list himself, but he escaped from prison in 2001. Calderon also extradited brothers Ismael and Gilberto Higuera Guerrero, top henchmen in the Tijuana-based Arellano Felix cartel.
"We are determined not to tolerate any defiance to the authority of the state," Calderon said last Friday.
Calderon's deeds and words won quick praise from the Bush administration. "The actions overnight by the Mexican government are unprecedented in their scope and importance," US Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales said in a statement Saturday. "Never before has the United States received from Mexico such a large number of major drug defendants and other criminals for prosecution in this country."
But despite thousands of searches, hundreds of arrests, and the seizure or eradication of large quantities of marijuana, there may be less to Calderon's offensive than meets the eye. "Calderon has achieved in creating a public image that he is going to be serious about organized crime from the beginning," said Maureen Meyer, the Washington Office on Latin America associate for Mexico and Central America. "The high level of operations is a clear signal, as was the extradition of cartel members to the United States," she told Drug War Chronicle. "But in terms of long-term results, that remains to be seen. We haven't seen many reports about eradication totals that are greater than normal," she noted.
"This campaign is really aimed at Washington as much as it is at Mexico City," said Larry Birns, executive director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington, DC. "It's a kind of shock and awe breakaway by Calderon to announce his presidency," Birns told the Chronicle. "Calderon has been worried that his defeated rival, Lopez Obrador, has outshone him with his political shenanigans, and he can use this anti-drug campaign as a piece of drama to overshadow his rival. The only problem is that the idea that Mexico will ever solve its drug problem is largely an illusion."
If Mexico wants to come to grips with the cartels, it's going to take more than high-profile raids and military operations, the analysts said. "The steps Mexico should be taking are more structural reforms of the judicial system so there is more transparency in the process, better investigations, and more mechanisms for accountability and oversight within the military and the police," said WOLA's Meyer. "If you don't accompany these big anti-drug operations with reforms in the judiciary, law enforcement, and the military, you will probably see the same results you saw in the past."
Calderon's predecessor, Vicente Fox, led a similar aggressive campaign against the cartels early in his administration, but without the reforms Meyer mentioned, his war on the cartels led not to a decrease but an increase in violence. As Fox managed to disrupt or decapitate various drug trafficking organizations, the remaining cartels and cartel leaders fought with each other in order to secure the lucrative "plaza" or "franchise" from corrupt law enforcement officials in various cities, leading to steadily increasing death tolls among the traffickers and the police who either fought them or were allied with them.
By last year, the violence had reached record levels, with more than 2,000 killed in the cartel wars. That's more than the number of American soldiers killed in Iraq during the same period. The violence also reached new levels of horror, or, more precisely, exemplary terror, with policemen decapitated in Acapulco and the heads of murdered traffickers thrown onto the middle of a night club dance floor in Michoacan, among other atrocities.
It is likely that instead of reducing the violence of the cartels, Calderon's offensive will, like Fox's before it, only lead to more violence as the traffickers try to reestablish themselves after the hits they've taken. "The tendency has been for the government to target the higher levels of the cartels, then there is a struggle for power among them, as well as within the cartels as mid-level leaders struggle for supremacy. We will most likely see more inter-cartel and intra-cartel power struggles now," said Meyer.
With illicit drug revenues estimated at $142 billion in US and Canada each year, and Mexican traffickers pocketing a significant fraction of them, the cartels have every reason to battle each other for supremacy. And while they have traditionally refrained from open warfare on the national government, there are fears that Calderon's pressure and especially his okaying of the extradition of leading traffickers will lead Mexican cartels to follow the lead of the Colombian confreres, who in the early 1980s unleashed a war on the Colombian state when threatened with extradition to the US.
There are also fears that the corruption that has enveloped various Mexican police forces will engulf the military as it is pulled into Calderon's drug war. "Members of the military aren't immune to corruption," WOLA's Meyer noted, pointing to the rise of the Zetas, a group of US-trained former military anti-drug personnel who switched sides to join forces with the Gulf Cartel and who are blamed for some of the most horrendous violence.
"When you have a police officer or a military officer paid one-fiftieth of what he could make working for the narcos, the odds are really against you," said Birns. "That's why you see the subversion of the security forces and the periodic firing of all the police."
As long as the underlying reality of America's insatiable appetite for illegal drugs remains, Birns said, the latest Mexican anti-drug crusade is little more than theater. "This is more decorative than anything," he said. "It's the semblance of doing something. With all that money involved, how are you ever going to turn off the spigot? One is going to have to think the unthinkable and investigate the politics and economics of drug legalization."
In an as yet unpublished editorial written as Calderon was about to assume power, Drug Policy Alliance executive director Ethan Nadelmann was eerily prescient about events in Mexico. "The new president will vow to crack down on the drug traffickers and do whatever he can to reassure Washington on that score," Nadelmann wrote. "He'll appoint new people to key military and criminal justice positions and tell them to do whatever they can to reduce the drug violence. Some of the most notorious traffickers will land up in prison or dead. The violence will quiet. Media on both sides of the border will cheer the new resolve. And then… It will all start up again. The drug trafficking gangs will re-group with new leaders and new connections. Previously incorruptible officials will be corrupted. Police of all ranks, and all shades of probity, will tremble in fear of assassins' bullets. And Mexicans will once again wonder why the cycle never really stops."
And so it goes in the Mexican front of our drug war.