The Ciudad Juárez newspaper El Diario reported this week that, according to Mexican journalist Carlos Loret de Mola, author of a forthcoming book about the drug trade, Mexico's drug economy is almost twice as large as that country's largest legitimate economic sector, the oil exports. The annual income of the four "cartels" that dominate the traffic in Mexico would, if divided equally among them, amount to more than 17 times the annual income of Carlos Slim, Mexico's wealthiest man, for each cartel, writes Loret. Similarly, Loret concluded that profits from the cartels are three times greater than those of Mexico's 500 largest companies combined.
According to El Diario, Loret's figures on the drug trade are derived from official and unofficial sources, as well as secret data compiled by the Mexican police agency CISEN and obtained by Loret. According to one CISEN document obtained by Loret, if the drug trade were to suddenly disappear in Mexico a hemispheric economic crisis would quickly ensue, with the US economy contracting by as much as a fifth and the Mexican economy reduced by more than half.
The drug traffickers "have the ball in their court," Loret told El Diario, warning that to deal with the narco-economy could create political costs that no one wants to confront. Again citing secret CISEN documents, Loret warned that "such is the weight of the narcotics traffic in the Mexican economy that to uproot it would provoke an economic collapse."
Mexican officials and analysts increasingly worry that efforts to combat the cartels could also result in violent retribution from the powerful, well-connected and well-armed trafficking organizations. Mexican President Vicente Fox has publicly questioned the drug war, but that has not stopped him from pursuing traffickers with an energy not seen in previous administrations.
Former Quintana Roo Gov. Mario Villanueva was finally arrested last month on cocaine trafficking charges after evading authorities of the former ruling party, the PRI, for two years. Mexican police have also made a number of important, or at least well-publicized busts of cartel figures in recent months. But perhaps of most concern to the traffickers, as well as many Mexicans concerned with the rule of law, was a January decision by the Mexican Supreme Court that allows for the extradition of Mexican citizens to the US to face charges for drug crimes.
While the move has proven popular with US officials, who cite it as evidence of Mexico's new attitude of cooperation in the drug war, some Mexican commentators have been much less enthusiastic. They point both to the danger of a narco backlash and to the perversion of the Mexican legal system to serve foreign interests.
Ignacio Burgoa, a leading Mexican expert on constitutional law, criticized the Supreme Court decision on legal grounds. "The court enlisted itself, improperly, as an ally in the war against drugs," he told the AP. "The court is not a diplomatic institution, nor should it carry out foreign policy."
Luis Astorga, a sociologist who studies the drug trade, joined Burgoa in critiquing the extradition ruling. The court "put politics above the rule of law. The ruling was designed expressly for the United States," he told the AP.
One accused trafficker, "Kiki" Paez, an alleged lieutenant in the Tijuana-based Arellano Felix cartel, was extradited last month, and seven other major traffickers are in the final stages of anti-extradition appeals.
"Extradition is a very powerful weapon in the hands of a weak government," Jorge Chabat, a drug expert at Mexico City's Center for Economic Development Research told the Associated Press. "It's like putting an AK-47 in the hands of a child; he could kill himself. This could just provoke the rage of the narcos." Still, Chabat added, times have changed from the days when Colombian drug trafficker Pablo Escobar could count on significant nationalist support for his bloody war against extradition in the 1980s. "Their nationalist arguments got a certain amount of response in the 1980s," he said. "Now, with globalization, integration, such demands don't have a lot of potential to draw support."
Popular support for an anti-extradition campaign is one thing; the trafficking organizations' ability and willingness to fight back is another. It is that fear, the specter of a Colombian-style war between the state and traffickers, which generates greater concern. An incident in the border town of Matamoros last week has only heightened those concerns.
In Matamoros, somewhere between one and two dozen masked men dressed in black, wearing bulletproof vests and armed with AK-47s took over the city's three-story police station in a carefully planned paramilitary action. In a matter of minutes, they disarmed six policemen and escaped with their objective: Juan Ramon Davila, a 22-year-old soldier from Tijuana who had been arrested for his role in a kidnap attempt. According to police officials, Davila told them he had been hired to kidnap a businessman and his wife "to settle accounts," an ominous euphemism for drug trade acts of retaliation.
According to local police, the raiders were members of the Gulf Cartel, which has been recently battered by the Fox administration. In April, cartel lieutenant Gilberto Garcia and 19 others were arrested by Mexican police.
For Matamoros historian Andres Cuellar, the police station raid signifies both the enduring power of the traffickers and the futility of the drug war. "This is not new to us. It's part of the enormous power of the drug traffickers, and I don't see any possibility of stopping them by the way we are doing things," Cuellar told the AP. "The only results have been deaths, which number in the thousands each year, in exchange for nothing. What are we winning? The drugs keep going to the United States and people keep using them."
The only practical solution, said Cuellar, is to legalize certain drugs while using public health campaigns to educate the public about the dangers of their abuse.