A Pax Mafiosa in Mexico?

MEXICO CITY -- The recent killing of Ignacio Coronel Villarreal, a boss of the Sinaloa drug gang, by Mexican special forces is but the latest high profile killing in an increasingly violent campaign.  But is a strategy of killing off Mexico’s drug kingpins really viable?  

Mexico’s government has several options for ending the violence of narcotics-related organized crime that is devastating the country and corrupting and weakening its political system. Only two are advisable, but they are not easy to apply and success is not guaranteed.

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Three years ago, President Felipe Calderón decided to deploy the armed forces in several states where the main drug gangs are established. Calderón is trying to check the gangs’ capacity for violence and diminish their economic resources, but he still has not been able to implement a plan that is both successful and minimizes the cost in lives.

The country’s two biggest drug gangs, the Sinaloa and Tamaulipas organizations, were once rivals, but are now allied against their former partners – the Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, Beltrán-Leyva, and Zetas organizations – which appeared during Mexico’s long period of one-party rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

Created in 1929, the PRI lost the country’s presidency for the first time in 2000. Since then, two parallel transitions have been taking place: one toward democracy, and the other, in the field of drug trafficking, toward a paramilitary/mafioso framework.

It was the Tamaulipas organization that began the latter transition at the end of the 1990’s. A regional presence corrupting local politicians, it soon expanded its territory and gained control of key positions in municipal and state security institutions. This was accompanied by an increase in armed violence against the police, the military, and journalists, as well as by incursions into politics and diversification of criminal income through kidnappings, extortion, piracy, and human trafficking.

Paradoxically, the PRI’s loss of its monopoly on political power and the opening of Mexican politics facilitated and accelerated this process. Parties without pacts, consensus, or a shared vision were made co-responsible in matters of national security, which enhanced the influence of the drug gangs.

None of the areas where illicit drugs are produced, smuggled into the country, and transported into the United States are insulated from drug related-corruption. Indeed, corruption, including “protection” of traffickers, is distributed along the lines of party control in various regions. The historical subordination of criminal to political power is being undone.

During the 2010 elections in Tamaulipas, a candidate for governor and another one for mayor were assassinated, presumably by “organized crime.” Other candidates received death threats. In Chihuahua, candidates for office claimed to have received threats, and some asked for police protection. In Tamaulipas, the Golfo and Zetas gangs, former partners, are fighting to the death. And in Chihuahua, the state with the highest number of murders in the country, powerful gangs that were once united are now in open confrontation.

The PRI retained power in those states: voters did not make them pay for their share of responsibility for the violence. But more than 60% of voters stayed away from the polls.

Mexico’s political class has at least six options in the fight against the narcotics traffickers:

·        Do nothing and let the drug gangs impose their lawlessness on society;

·        Make anti-drug policy the exclusive concern of the federal government;

·        Form a strategic partnership with the traffickers in the hope that they keep to a “gentleman’s agreement” and commit themselves to lowering the level of violence and avoiding confrontations with police and the military. This means granting them formal political recognition and acceding to widening the pax mafiosa that already exists in many local jurisdictions;

·        Provide support for partial continuation of Calderón’s strategy, including cooperation agreed with the US to combat transnational organized crime. US financing will need to be continued, and probably increased, to combat the traffic in illegal drugs, organized crime, and related violence;

·        Create a partnership between political parties join and the federal government to design a national security policy, consolidate law-enforcement institutions, and impose authority throughout the national territory against all illegal armed groups;

·      Radically alter Mexico’s drug policy by legalizing drugs and assuming the consequences in the United Nations and in relations with the US.

Despite the increasingly desperate violence, there is nothing to indicate that Mexico’s political class is even prepared to consider the sixth option. At present, versions of the other options can be seen. Achieving the fourth, along with social and economic measures aimed at creating better jobs and improving people’s standard of living, would at least make it possible to weaken, contain, and control Mexico’s drug trafficking organizations, thereby strengthening civil order and governability.

Read more from our "Breaking the Drug-War Habit" Focal Point.