WikiLeaks XIV: Mexican Government’s Drug Policy Benefits Drug Cartels

Edgar 'La Barbie' Valdez VillarrealWe’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the fourteenth in the series.

Apologists for Mexico’s horrifically violent war against drugs ought to check out the latest cables released by WikiLeaks, which offer a sobering reality check. Just under three months ago, articles like this one from Newsweek’s Malcolm Beith took stock of the escalating violence in the country and suggested that “the carnage may actually be a sign that the Mexican government, rather than losing control, is winning.” This line of reasoning strikes me now, as it did then, as specious at best. Doubly so when we consider that Beith’s argument is based solely on one source—a former high-ranking government official within the Mexican establishment.

But special-access journalism at its worst—where politicians tell publications exactly what you would expect them to say—has seemingly come to kneel under the equalizing force of WikiLeaks and its trove of unvarnished expert assessments that were never intended to see the light of day. In the case of Mexico, a recently released cable dated just under a year ago offer common sense analysis that the spiraling violence in the country—far from a sign of progress—suggests a descent into failure.

The cable describes a Mexican government pursuing losing tactics in the name of an unfocused strategy that leaves everyone worse off, with the exception of the country’s increasingly powerful powerful drug cartels. While President Felipe Calderon is described as being a largely trustworthy ally who continues to enjoy healthy levels of public support, the embassy report argues that Mexico’s leaders is acting from a position of relevant weakness to the challenges facing him.

President Calderon has entered the last three years of his six-year term facing a complicated political and economic environment. His National Action Party (PAN) emerged seriously weakened from a dramatic set-back suffered in the July congressional elections and was unable to recoup any real momentum during the last legislative session. Calderon’s bold plan for ten ambitious areas for reform, announced in September, has yet to translate into politically viable initiatives. His personal popularity numbers have dropped, driven largely by massive economic contraction and a public sense that there is little strategy to create new and sustainable jobs.

But beyond the perennial problems facing any world leader, Calderon’s situation appears unusually troublesome.

Calderon has aggressively attacked Mexico’s drug trafficking organizations but has struggled with an unwieldy and uncoordinated interagency and spiraling rates of violence that have made him vulnerable to criticism that his anti-crime strategy has failed. Indeed, the GOM’s inability to halt the escalating numbers of narco-related homicides in places like Ciudad Juarez and elsewhere — the nationwide total topped 7,700 in 2009 — has become one of Calderon’s principal political liabilities as the general public has grown more concerned about citizen security.

Here the cable fails to fully articulate the full scale of the country’s drug related violence, fighting that has accounted for over 30,000 civilian deaths since Calderon took office. The source of the trouble, as might be expected, lies in the country’s security institutions, which

are often locked in a zero-sum competition in which one agency’s success is viewed as another’s failure, information is closely guarded, and joint operations are all but unheard of. Official corruption is widespread, leading to a compartmentalized siege mentality among “clean” law enforcement leaders and their lieutenants. Prosecution rates for organized crime-related offenses are dismal; two percent of those detained are brought to trial. Only 2 percent of those arrested in Ciudad Juarez have even been charged with a crime.

The cable notes that reform efforts at bolstering more productive approaches to dealing with the country’s drug cartels—including reducing military units to secondary support functions in police-led operations—have shown some signs of success. Unfortunately, however, the gains will be necessarily limited.

They simply lack the necessary numbers of trained federal police to deploy them in such numbers in more than a few cities. There are changes in the way that the military can interact with vetted municipal police, as we have seen in Tijuana, that produce better results. But in the near term, there is no escaping that the military will play a role in public security.

Even if ideally coordinated efforts could be achieved, it still would likely not matter.

The [drug traffickers] are sophisticated players: they can wait out a military deployment; they have an almost unlimited human resource pool to draw from in the marginalized neighborhoods; and they can fan complaints about human rights violations to undermine any progress the military might make with hearts and minds.

Undermining all of the government’s efforts at rooting out the drug cartels and establishing order have been serious human rights concerns. The country’s Ministry of National Defense (SEDENA)

has taken a serious beating on human rights issues from international and domestic human rights organizations, who argue with considerable basis, in fact that the military is ill-equipped for a domestic policing role. While SEDENA has moved to address human rights criticisms, its efforts are mechanistic and wrapped in a message that often transmits defensiveness about bringing a hermetically sealed military culture into the twenty-first century.

Public pressure has forced Mexican authorities to reign human rights abuses in, but to little effect. The cable cites a recent report by Amnesty International noting

that complaints to the National Commission on Human Rights against the military increased from 367 in 2007 to over 2000 from 2008-June 2009.

Since the cable’s release, things have hardly improved. As an excellent Reuters article recently demonstrated, the government’s war on drugs is literally bleeding the country’s heartland dry.

Grisly assassinations and gang extortion are terrifying Mexicans in the western state of Michoacan, where President Felipe Calderon launched his war on drug cartels, sending in about 5,000 soldiers in December 2006 following a narrow election victory.

Not only do the drug traffickers continue business as usual in open defiance of the military, but

Federal authorities have had a hard time gaining local trust, with complaints of torture and rape by soldiers lodged at Michoacan’s state human rights commission.

On a recent afternoon in the central square of the bustling city of Uruapan near Morelia, couples, groups of old men and clusters of youths watched warily as a contingent of federal police pulled on their ski masks and climbed into armored vehicles to set off on a patrol of their new beat.

“You do not know who to watch out for, the bad guys or the federal police,” said a 60-year-old farmer as he sat on a bench with his wife, who added: “Calderon said he would make things better in Michoacan, but things have gotten worse.”

When security forces do effectively move against the mafias, the traffickers simply ratchet up their retaliatory measures.

Earlier this month, drug hitmen blocked roads with burning cars and set fire to a gas station after security forces arrested two local smugglers, effectively shutting down Morelia. Gunmen fired 1,700 rounds into an armored vehicle carrying the former state police chief in April. The official barely survived and later resigned. A top state policeman was also gunned down in October.

Still, President

Calderon insists there is no turning back, that violence shows gangs are becoming desperate and that he is winning. “We will persevere until we leave Mexico free of the cancer of organized crime,” he said in a speech on Sunday.

This might be persuasive rhetoric if the Mexican drug trade were only in its nascent stages of development. But it’s not. And as anyone who has experience battling late-stage, metastasizing cancers can tell you, poisonous treatments are often be more immediately deadly than the cause.