The Mexican Drug War A Nation Descends into Violence

Janet Jarman / DER SPIEGEL

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Part 3: The Absent Government


Why isn't El Chapo, the most powerful of all drug lords, in prison? He's been living in a secret location for years. Is the government incompetent, or is it protecting a cartel? Many credible people believe the government has an agreement with the drug lord. Some believe that it is trying to solve the violence problem by handing over the drug trade to one cartel.

In a recently published book, investigative journalists Anabel Hernández claims that former President Vicente Fox allowed El Chapo to escape from a maximum security prison in 2001 in return for a payment of $20 million. According to Hernandez, the Calderón government knows his whereabouts, but instead of arresting him it is eliminating his enemies.

There are many rumors and conspiracy theories in Mexico. What is perhaps most remarkable about them is what people believe their government to be capable of. They have little faith in federal institutions, which are weak. Mexico has been a real democracy only for the last 10 years, after being controlled for 70 years by a single party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). The PRI protected organized crime, but also held it in check.

President Calderón declared war on the cartels, but he lacked the necessary tools. The police are corrupt at almost every level, and in some communities they're identical with the ruling cartel, which helps to explain why so many municipal officers are murdered. The justice system is also viewed as corrupt. There are no independent prosecutors, and charges are never brought in many cases, because they are handled poorly or because defendants buy their way out.

The army is the only institution that Calderón can trust, although the story of Ciudad Mier reveals how ineffective it is. Soldiers can occupy a territory, but they cannot investigate or penetrate the structures of a cartel. According to security consultant Alberto Islas, a cartel is like a logistics company with a military arm. Instead of scrutinizing the structures, the government becomes embroiled in skirmishes with 18-year-old foot soldiers.

A 'Decapitation Strategy'

The government has hardly any functioning investigative agencies. Mexico receives key information from US government agencies like the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). The Americans provide the army with information on the whereabouts of drug lords, allowing the Mexican soldiers to capture or kill them. This "decapitation strategy" produces reports of successes, but no real success. The cartels quickly replace their leaders.

The massive deployment of the military also poses a threat to society. Throughout Mexico, soldiers have been accused of hundreds of cases of human rights violations and torture, even murder. Critics say the large number of military operations is responsible for the violence in the first place, because it has destroyed equilibriums and triggered turf wars across the country.

The army cannot solve Mexico's real problems -- poverty, lack of education and weak government. Most experts agree on how Mexico ought to liberate itself. The only question is whether anyone has the political power to do it.

The country is a long way from being a stable democratic society, says Luís Astorga, a social scientist in Mexico City. The biggest challenge, according to Astorga, is to create a constitutional state strong enough to resist the power and money of the cartels. This requires nonpartisan political will; but Astorga says representatives of the three major parties all have their hands in the drug business.

Astorga says he does not believe the government is cooperating with a cartel. But as long as there are no independent judges, he believes, there will always be rumors and speculation.

Many yearn for simple solutions; they believe in a return to the days when the cartels were allowed to do as they pleased. Even some high-level politicians say privately that the problem is drug consumption in the United States, and that it's time to legalize marijuana. But the cartels are involved in up to 22 other types of crimes as well, including film piracy, human trafficking and extortion.

Vanda Felbab-Brown of the Brookings Institution in Washington says that bringing in the army was unavoidable, but that what is important now is to finally develop a functioning police force. Mexico does have plans for a national police reform, but they are making slow progress.

Edgardo Buscaglia, the expert on drug-related crime, and his team studied 17 countries that have successfully fought organized crime. He says that all of them took the same four important steps.

First, says Buscaglia, comes a reform of the judicial system. Second, laws are needed to fight corruption in politics, because 70 percent of all election campaigns in the country are partially financed with drug money.

Third, Mexico must investigate the flow of funds from the drug trade into the economy. According to Buscaglia, 78 percent of the Mexican economy has ties to the drug cartels.

Finally, social programs are needed for young people, as the Colombian city of Medellín has demonstrated. Such programs are meant to turn young people's attention away from a life working for the cartels -- a life that can end quickly.

Taking Back Mexico, With PowerPoint

There are many ideas, but who is there to implement them?

Javier Treviño, the lieutenant governor of Nuevo León, has a plan that consists of a large number of PowerPoint slides. He wants to eliminate violence in Monterrey, the city where he lives, and in the surrounding state.

Treviño, a short man with a moustache and glasses, speaks English with an American accent. He studied at Harvard, then worked as a diplomat and later in private industry, before he entered politics. He's one of the few people in Mexico who have not lost faith in the ability of politics to shape the country.

Perhaps it is also a question of honor for Monterrey, Mexico's wealthiest city. Located in the northeastern part of the country, 140 kilometers (88 miles) south of the US border and surrounded by mountains on three sides, Monterrey resembles an American city, with its glass and marble office towers. Many of the country's most important companies are headquartered there.

It came as a shock to the city's affluent citizens when, at the beginning of the year, members of the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel suddenly started shooting each other on their streets. The battle being waged in Ciudad Mier had moved to the middle of Monterrey, an economic center that was always immune to chaos elsewhere in Mexico. Many of the wealthy left town, or even the country -- including the publisher of the country's most important newspaper, La Reforma, who fled to Dallas.

Treviño is proud of the 29 slides in his presentation, which he shows to every visitor. His plan includes all the elements the think tanks have deemed necessary: social programs and reforms of the judiciary and the criminal code. The state of Nuevo León has also established a statewide police force that it hopes will finally be clean and effective. The officers will be required to take regular lie-detector tests. They will be paid well enough to end their dependence on bribes; they will receive scholarships for their children.

Nuevo León is to become a model for all of Mexico, says Treviño. It sounds like an effective plan. And who knows? It might even work. Once it is implemented, there might be at least one state in Mexico with a functioning police force. Treviño wants to make a start by strengthening institutions and society, and what better place to launch such an effort than Monterrey, the most advanced city in the country?

He continues clicking through his slides. The next one shows the country's highway network. Two of the five main highways in the north are colored dark red, which means that they are safe for travel. The goal for 2011, says Treviño, is to make the three other highways safe as well.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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