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Puerto Vallarta News NetworkEditorials | July 2009 

Mexico on the Brink
email this pageprint this pageemail usBen Whitford - Guardian UK
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July 29, 2009


Felipe Calderón says drug cartels threaten Mexico's democracy. But his effort to crush them are damaging its society.
Last month, President Felipe Calderón announced that Mexico was at a crossroads: the country's drug cartels had grown so powerful that they now posed a threat to future of Mexican democracy. As if to underscore his point, the country was last week gripped by a fresh wave of brutal violence, as heavily-armed gunmen laid siege to police stations across Calderón's home state, left a dozen federal agents dead by the side of a mountain highway and assassinated the mayor of a northern ranching town.

The cartels' brazen attacks point to their evolution from ragged criminal collectives into de facto military organisations. Better funded, better trained and far more heavily armed than the police officers attempting to contain them, they now more closely resemble Colombia's Farc rebels than any conventional street gang.

Like the Farc, the cartels are seeking to control neighbourhoods and even entire regions. Oversized banners proclaiming the gangs' dominance are common sights in public spaces across the country, and cartel leaders' orders can drive police chiefs from office or help propel sympathetic politicians to electoral victory. Amid last week's violence, one cartel capo even tried to dictate terms for a ceasefire to the federal government. His offer was rebuffed but stood as further testimony to the cartels' increasing well-founded confidence.

So, could Mexico be on the brink of a Colombia-style conflagration? A descent into open conflict is no longer unthinkable. Around 11,000 people have died since the government started pushing back against the drug cartels, and reports from the Rand Corporation and the Pentagon recently concluded that if left unchecked, the spiralling violence could conceivably lead to the collapse of the Mexican state.

Still, such an outcome remains highly unlikely. Unlike Colombia's rebels, Mexico's drug gangs are less interested in overthrowing the government than in maximising the profits from their drug-running and human-trafficking operations. A more pressing concern is that in striving to crush the cartels, Calderón might himself do lasting damage to Mexican society.

Borrowing from the playbook of his Colombian counterpart, the Mexican leader has taken a tough line in the battle against the drug gangs, treating the violence as an insurgency rather than a crime-wave and ordering tens of thousands of federal troops onto the streets to restore order. That strategy – facilitated by hundreds of millions of dollars in US military aid – has met with some success. The army has made tens of thousands of arrests and seized tons of cocaine and other drugs.

But Calderón's security forces are nowhere near delivering a knockout blow to the drug runners. A recent surge of 10,000 troops failed to stem violence in Ciudad Juarez, and there's little indication that the 5,000 extra soldiers deployed in response to last week's violence will meet with much more success. Each high-level arrest sparks a new round of retaliatory attacks and infighting as the cartels scramble for position, but does little to disrupt the cartels' core businesses. Mexico's $25bn-a-year drug-running and human-trafficking industries continue unabated.

And there are serious downsides to Calderón's strong-arm approach. Battling savage, shadowy drug gangs has brought out the worst in the Mexican military, who have swiftly gained a reputation for brutality and stand accused of abuses ranging from rape and torture to extrajudicial killings and illegal detentions. Since the armed forces are essentially self-regulating, troops commit such acts with virtual impunity. A recent Human Rights Watch report documented dozens of incidents of abuse but failed to find a single case in which military investigators had obtained a conviction.

In any case, while sending in federal troops plays well with Mexican voters, it's hardly a long-term solution. By sidelining local police forces and judiciaries, Calderón is allowing Mexico's regional law-enforcement infrastructure to continue to atrophy, making the country ever-more dependent on the military to keep the cartels in check. With the armed forces only proving able to fight the drug gangs to a jittery stalemate, Calderón's strategy appears to be paving the way for a troubling long-term militarisation of Mexican society.

Disappointingly, Washington has so far endorsed Calderón's approach. Under the Merida Initiative, hundreds of millions of dollars in US aid are being shipped south to buy bigger guns and high-tech toys for the federal security forces.

Virtually nothing, however, is being spent on cleaning up or strengthening local law enforcement. In fact, 90% of Mexico's police forces – some 325,000 officers – won't receive a dime's worth of equipment or training under current aid plans. Worse, the human-rights standards upon which the aid was originally contingent have been substantially diluted – and it's far from clear whether even those watered-down guidelines will actually be enforced in any meaningful way.

The US – whose drug and immigration policies created the markets so successfully exploited by Mexico's cartels, and whose arms sellers supply nine out of 10 of the weapons used by their gunmen – can't simply stand by while her southern neighbour falls to pieces. But neither should she seek to tackle the crime wave with a carbon-copy of Plan Colombia.

Putting Mexico back on track will require the US to take a more holistic approach, curbing her own appetite for drugs while seeking to strengthen and modernise her neighbour's local law-enforcement infrastructure.

Despite Calderón's tough-man swagger, relying on military force alone will only make matters worse.



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