by Joaquin Villalobos, international conflict resolution consultant and former member of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front of El Salvador
Joaquin Villalobos is a unique personage is recent Latin American history. Villalobos was a military leader of the Marxist oriented Farabundo Marti Liberation Front (FMLN) in the brutal civil war with the U.S. supported El Salvadoran government that dragged on from 1979 until 1992 when peace accords were signed between both adversaries.
Although the Salvadoran civil war ended almost twenty years ago the legacy of violence from the conflict lives on in the destabilization of Central America caused by Salvadoran criminal gangs such as the Mara Salvaratrucha-13.
MS-13 criminals serve as foot soldiers in the Mexican drug cartel wars and are also well established in at least fifteen U.S. states including the District of Columbia, our nation’s capitol.
As a leader of a powerful insurgent movement that was not defeated on the battlefield, Villalobos has a unique perspective on the conflict between the Mexican government and drug cartels as they fight to establish a parallel state within a state where they can carry on their criminal affairs free of any interference.
Villalobos no longer considers himself a leftist and is a politician in a centrist political party in El Salvador.
In the following article Joaquín Villalobos argues against points of view held by many citizens, politicians and policymakers in Mexico and the U.S., points of view that according to Villalobos are derived from poor statistics and invalid comparisons.
Part one will consist of Villalobo's analysis of the first 6 myths. Tomorrow we will publish his analysis of 6 more myths.
12 myths of the war against the drug cartels
In the late 1980’s the United States succeeded in reducing the volume of drugs moving through the Caribbean route from Colombia to Miami. This route had allowed the Colombian cartels to export marijuana and cocaine into the U.S. directly, without intermediaries.
Mexico thus became the most important route for the transit of drugs into the U.S., and the expansion of drug trafficking in Mexico grew rapidly and broke with the long period of relative peace that the Mexicans had known sine the 1910 Revolution.
Understanding and paying the costs involved in combating the power and violence of organized crime, under democratic conditions, is new to a Mexican society accustomed to little debate and authoritarian order imposed from above, that is a consequence of more than half a century of PRI rule.
This historical condition has created difficulties in understanding the war being waged by the Mexican government against drug traffickers, and this has given rise to myths about the conflict and its violence.
Some of these myths are the result of necessary democratic political debate. However, while this is a complex problem that will require time to bring under control, there is no reason to be pessimistic.
1. "We should not have confronted organized crime"
When violence began to grow as cartels fought over prime drug trafficking routes, the government of President Fox initiated the intervention of federal forces in the states that had early problems (Tamaulipas, Guerrero, etc.). Faced with worsening violence and its spread into other states, the government of President Calderon decided to combat drug trafficking frontally and escalated the federal intervention.
The government’s offensive was criticized as lacking in operational intelligence, consisting of reactive operations and as being undertaken for political reasons, in particular as a cover for a stolen election that should have gone in favor of the PRD presidential candidate, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.
Some thought it best accept the presence of organized crime and let everything continue to operate by so-called "local agreements" such as the arrangements between much less powerful drug traffickers and government officials during the years of PRI rule.
However, the criminals had grown tremendously in wealth and power and now equaled or surpassed the power of the State in regions with substantial drug trafficking, with their law of "silver or lead" leaving police, mayors and governors in fear.
The idea that the power and influence of drug cartels is not contagious or expansive and would not enter Mexico City, the capitol, is naïve to say the least. The reality is that one of the first successful battles of the drug war was to recover the airport in Mexico City that was as important to drug traffickers as Nuevo Laredo or Ciudad Juarez.
Mexico is caught in a vice between the biggest consumer of drugs in the world to the north, and the most violent region in the world (Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador) to the south. Therefore, it is very difficult to believe that it is possible for Mexico to isolate itself, ignore the problem and assume that nothing will happen.
Drug trafficking is a global crime that is spreading in most of Latin America, affecting Eastern Europe, North Africa and parts of Asia. The growth of the urban middle classes and increased drug use are directly related, there is no solid reason that the Mexican middle class would be excluded from the increase in consumption, which is already seriously affecting Brazil.
Doing nothing could have led Mexico into a similar situation facing Colombia in the late eighties. Many citizens and Colombian officials accept openly that they waited too long to act.
The current level of violence in Mexico makes it clear that the monster was real, strong and dangerous. There are two fundamental principles for action against the drug cartels: determination and speed. Determination not to back off the offensive in the face of organized crime’s violent backlash and the reaction of fear by society, and the speed to recover and consolidate territory controlled by drug cartels.
Realistically, operational intelligence wasn’t really lacking if you consider that the cartels were operating in the streets, with impunity. The first step has been achieved with the presence of military and federal police in the “plazas”. This has deprived the cartels of the ability to conduct their business in the open and made their operations much more difficult and expensive.
The first phase of the offensive was of a “massive” nature i.e. “boots on the ground”. Now the government is beginning a more qualitative, complex phase of the struggle such as rebuilding the police forces and the social component of the strategy.
However, without taking territory from the cartels and decreasing their impunity the government cannot effectively rebuild institutions or institute comprehensive social plans. Successful action is needed to transform drug trafficking from a threat to national security into a police problem.
2. "The Colombianization of Mexico and the danger of a failed state"
These statements are made without using serious comparative data.
Mexico suffers localized violence in six of its 32 states and has a national rate of 10 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. Today, Venezuela has a national rate of 48, Colombia has a rate of 37, Brazil has a rate of 25; Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are above 50.
The state of Chihuahua, the most violent in Mexico, is currently in its peak with a rate of 143 homicides, followed by 80 in Sinaloa, Durango with 49, Michoacan with 44 and Baja California with 25.
In the early 1990’s Medellin, Colombia's most violent city, maintained a rate of 320 for several years and in that same period Cali’s rate was 124, Cúcuta had 105 and Bogota, the capital, 80. Colombia, with a population slightly less than half that of Mexico’s, has suffered 200 thousand deaths and 2 million displaced in 25 years of conflict against drug cartels and the FARC , and the conflict continues.
The volume, extent, historical roots, cultural codes and complexity of violence in Colombia has been, and still is, far superior to that in Mexico. In Colombia drug cartels reached levels of penetration in politics, the military, police, the business establishment and society higher than those that currently exist in Mexico, which by any measurement, is not a narco state.
Colombian cartels attacked society and political, economic and media institutions with narco-terrorist acts such as massive car and truck bombs and the bombing of an Avianca Airways passenger jetliner. In 1989 Luis Carlos Galan, a popular presidential candidate, was assassinated by a cartel hit squad and three other candidates were killed during that period.
Even President Alvaro Uribe has survived several assassination attempts and Vice President Francisco Santos was kidnapped by Pablo Escobar.
Incidents like these have not happened, and would be hard to carry out, in Mexico. In the last 40 years there has been no national territories without any state presence like there has been in Colombia. The Mexican State has been rather pervasive and strong, and not weak and absent as in Colombia.
In Rio de Janeiro, Brazil from January to June 2009, 65 police officers were killed in clashes with criminals and the murder rate in Rio is 38 per 100,000 inhabitants. Within the past year drug traffickers shot down a police helicopter in the northern neighborhoods of the city and killed 12 policemen.
In May 2006 Sao Paulo, roughly equivalent in population to Mexico City, suffered simultaneous attacks on police posts, government offices and points of economic importance by gangs engaged in drug pushing such as the PCC that resulted in more than 100 deaths, including 40 police officers.
The Federal District (Mexico City, Distrito Federal), in contrast, has a rate of only five homicides per 100,000 inhabitants and, except for the murder of hundreds of students by the military and police in 1968 (the Tlatelolco massacre), events such as those in the cities of Colombia or Brazil have not occurred.
(reporter’s note: This article was originally published in January 2010. Since then Monterrey, Mexico’s 3rd most populous city, has been engulfed by widespread organized crime violence and lawlessness)
Mexico has a security problem on the periphery of its vital center, and Brazil has a very serious problem in its two main cities: Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo.
However, in spite of the violence, Brazil is not a failed state and as proof Rio was chosen to host the Olympics in 2016.
If the idea of territory outside the control of the state is used to define failed states, there would be more than a dozen of these in North and South America, and even several areas of large U.S. cities where more that one million gang members reside.
Mexico has a greater media resonance and geopolitical significance than that of Colombia, Venezuela and Brazil, therefore what happens in its territory carries far more impact on perceptions inside and outside the country. The proximity of Ciudad Juarez to the United States, and the distance of Medellin and Rio de Janeiro, makes a huge difference.
3. "The intense debate on insecurity is a sign of deterioration"
The debate and the complexity in decision-making processes in advanced democracies are signs of stability, but in emerging democracies are perceived as weakness and uncertainty. Societies in emerging democracies live with the memory of order imposed by authoritarian rule with little or no debate.
The debate on strategies that are designed to address security problems are normal in a democratic environment and that debate is more intense and free the lower the threat to the country's vital powers. The criticism of the opposition, intellectuals and the press are needed and should be automatic, this is part of democracy.
Drug trafficking is a phenomenon that can and will co-opt or destroy institutions, which eliminates democratic freedoms and subjects citizens to the law of the jungle. Where organized crime is strong there is no criticism or freedom of expression.
Therefore, when there is debate, when citizens and opinion makers can criticize the government, it means that state power dominates over any mafia power. In Mexico the central authorities are not affected or inhibited by the cartels, this is a problem only in a few states.
In Colombia, when they were designing indicators to measure the level of success of the strategy of imposing democratic security in areas that had long been dominated by diverse armed groups, it was concluded that one of the best indicators of the success of security plans was that of measuring the demands and complaints of citizens.
It was determined that citizens finding their voice was a marker for the defeat of fear and the restoration of democratic freedoms. It is a misconception that the existence of a lengthy and critical debate on security and methods to deal with violence are themselves a sign of severity and impairment, when in fact that sign would be the silent grave.
4. "The deaths and the violence show that the war is being lost"
Drug trafficking organizations are a violent, well-armed enemy, and a great corrupting power without moral barriers. To believe that this problem can be solved without confrontation and without violence is an exercise in gross naivete.
This enemy can only be subdued using the force of the State and when this road is taken resistance by the drug cartels increases, and so do the internal wars between rival cartels. Inevitably, the number of people who lose their lives also rises.
In every war there are dead and they are an indicator of the state of the war itself. Wars are won by causing enemy casualties and are lost when your casualties are higher than what the sociopolitical environment itself can tolerate. Understandably, it is a difficult issue to be explained to the public by state officials, but the reality is that whoever is taking more deaths, arrests and morale deterioration in its ranks is the one who is losing the war, and in the case of Mexico they are the drug dealers.
The fight against drug trafficking can not be read as a “classic” war in which opponents are clearly defined. Enemy cartels are fragmented, which generates a violent anarchy; the many groups are fighting both each other and against the state.
Most of the criminal casualties occur in the process of self-destruction of the cartels, which is deepened when the state confronts them. In this type of war this process can be measured as progress.
In Colombia, cartels self-destructed under pressure exerted by the State, for reasons that ranged from disputes over territory, control of routes, to personal problems. This self-destruction process disintegrates the cartels and requires recruitment to descend toward marginal and inexperienced youth gangs, thereby increasing violence and accelerating the process of self-destruction.
The problem is that in the intermediate phase of the war, the political pressure demands a reduction in violence, and this does not occur until three assumptions are met: 1. That the State has greater social and territorial domination than cartels in their zones of operation, 2. That criminals have been weakened in their ability to recycle assassins, 3. That the criminal’s weakness converts them into a marginal problem for the state.
In the case of Mexico there is still time to reduce violence. There, the process of self-destruction is accelerating and this is a positive indicator. General Naranjo, chief of the National Police of Colombia, said that "when we know that drug trafficking has strongly penetrated into society, the main problem is not violence, but non-violence" because it implies that the drug traffickers control society.
The belief that for every death there are two new offenders is illogical, greed for money does not translate into an infinite capacity to recycle gunmen, they also need the skill and experience, and this is not achieved overnight.
5. "Three years is a long time, the plan has already failed"
As with other claims, the demand for quick results is based on emotional factors and not on an objective analysis of reality. In the most general sense we can say that the time required to control the problem is directly proportional to the size and the historical roots of drug trafficking in Mexico, and we can measure the progress by referring to other countries with similar problems.
The size of the problem of drug trafficking in Mexico is determined by its proximity to the United States, the largest consumer of drugs in the world, and the consequences of this in terms of demand, flows of money and weapons.
As for the historical roots of the phenomenon, the problem began to take shape, in some states, particularly in Sinaloa, for many years, but the further expansion of the cartels began 15 years ago after the closure of Colombia’s Caribbean drug trafficking route.
In the case of Mexico, we can compare its progress to countries like Colombia, Italy, Brazil and perhaps some of North Africa.
Colombia remains at war and Medellín, the most violent city, took 16 years and 70 thousand dead to begin to reverse a deteriorating situation. Italy has many decades of struggle against the Mafia but it has still not been eliminated. Brazil, during eight years of Lula's government, has yet to resolve the gang problem, and in North Africa the decline is up and almost out of control. Given the above we can objectively state that Mexico, in three years, has made progress faster and with lower costs than all these countries.
The results of operations in Mexico in the last three years are world records. 227 laboratories have been destroyed; $389 million (U.S.) seized, 30,500 assault weapons seized, 24,900 handguns, 409 aircraft, 310 ships, 22,900 vehicles; five thousand tons of drugs including 90,000 kilos of cocaine, 4.8 million kilos of marijuana, 4,500 kilos of methamphetamine, 27,000 kilos of ephedrine and 18,000 kilos of pseudoephedrine (methamphetamine precursor chemicals); 286 drug traffickers have been extradited, the vast majority of them to the U.S.,
89,500 people have been arrested or killed including 7 kingpins, 47 financiers, 60 top lieutenants, 2,061 expert hitmen and 600 government officials.
(reporter’s note: this article was published in January 2010 and the figures given above cover seizures, arrests and deaths for the years 2007 thru 2009)
The money amount listed above is almost the amount of one year of aid from Plan Merida, to transport the total drugs seized would take several trains or 250 large commercial trailer loads, the weapons seized could equip both the armies of El Salvador and Honduras, the aircraft seized are the equivalent to 50% of the fleet of American Airlines, the boats are double that of Mexico's Navy and the number of vehicles seized outnumber the police and army vehicles in all of Central America.
The first achievement of a plan are the blows to the criminal structures, not the reduction of violence, without the former the latter cannot be achieved.
6. "The attacks carried out by the drug cartels prove that they are powerful"
In all wars, chance and coincidence play a role, sometimes against and sometimes in favor. In every war battles are won and lost, but what ultimately determines the outcome is who has the strategic initiative and is overpowering the morale, human and material resources of the enemy.
In the case of Mexico all these factors favor of the state, although sporadically the cartels carry out actions that create fear and shock and have significant political and media impact. Cartel attacks are reactive, a product of irrational revenge and are not based on strategic and rational logic.
The basic rule in any war is that harassment and pressure on an enemy leads him to despair, error and even terrorism. The cartels operate defensively and not offensively, their policy is to co-opt police, not kill them. When they fight directly against the State the cartels help to unite the morale of the members of the government forces.
In the kind of conflict facing the Mexico, cartels are strongest when they control a “plaza” without a fight and operate largely unnoticed by most of the population.
On the contrary, when cartels attack and become visible, their ability to control and operate freely is threatened and this increases their internal conflicts. These attacks are not a sign of strength but of weakness, in spite of the violence and insecurity.
For example, when the cartels began to use submarines to transport drugs, the perception was that the drug cartels demonstrated their enormous capacity and power to build submarines. However, what was not said was that the ability to openly smuggle drugs via seaports and airports was closing, and therefore the cartels resorted to more complex and difficult to operate mechanisms that carried fewer drugs. In this sense "more sophisticated" does not necessarily imply an improvement.