by Joaquin Villalobos, international conflict resolution consultant and former member of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front of El Salvador
Today we present part 2 of Joaquin Villalobos's analysis of, in his words, 12 inacccurate points of view, or "myths", that are held by critics of Mexico's war against organized crime.
Although readers may not agree with some or all of the author's conclusions, his analytical approach is a model we can all utilize to study and explain Mexico's current situation.
A link to the original Spanish language version of this article is at the end of this post.
7. "First we need to eradicate corruption and poverty"
In many studies, addressing and reducing corruption and poverty are activities that are considered prerequisites for resolving the insecurity generated by drug trafficking. This myth is based on a correct approach to counter the effects of drug trafficking: the problem of insecurity requires comprehensive plans that address all facets of the problem, from the use of force by the state to the care of social issues that contribute to security.
However, in a state of extreme emergency that some states in Mexico are undergoing, should we implement in advance programs that tackle poverty and corruption as preconditions for having a safe environment or should we tackle insecurity first since improving safety now is the most important issue for most citizens?
When looking at problems of security the balance between prevention and repression of crime depends on the situation. It is an error to base the equation on ideological beliefs i.e. the right will give priority to repressive police methods and the left will give priority to prevention through social intervention. The priority of what actions are taken must be determined by reality, not a political position.
There is no territorial or social relationship between poverty and drug trafficking. Drug trafficking is a crime of greed which recruits the poor, but that depends primarily on the geographic advantages of routes and areas with potential for production and trafficking.
The distribution networks for drug pushing are clearly based in the geography of urban poverty, but not drug trafficking. The geography of strategic locations for drug trafficking is the reason that the problem is worse on Mexico’s northern border, and not because poverty is concentrated there.
Furthermore, there is no direct relationship between poverty and insecurity. Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the continent and the third most secure; India’s standard of living is vastly lower than the U.S. but the crime rate is generally higher in the U.S.; look at how the huge social spending for the poor by Chavez in Venezuela goes hand in hand with the worsening insecurity for the poorest citizens in the country.
Moreover, the nature of political corruption and drug trafficking are totally different, the first may open the door to the second, but political corruption does not usually carry the risk of violence and death, which is present with drug-related corruption. The rule of "silver or lead" that always ends in "lead or lead" is part of the three principles of drug trafficking action: violence, crime and death. A corrupt politician wants to get rich, but not die.
Clearly the culture of corruption is useful to drug traffickers, but political corruption and the dynamics of cooptation, control, violence and death imposed by the drug dealers are not the same thing, since they respond to completely different logic. It is naive to expect that to improve security in the short term it is necessary to implement a complete ethical reconstruction that will end the culture of corruption that was gestated in Latin America over hundreds of years ago.
The main debate is where do we start in an emergency? In that sense, you can enter an area dominated by mafia powers with "Mother Teresa" social care plans but you are not likely to encounter public participation in areas where drug trafficking has frightened society.
First, we need to regain control by state forces and break the power of the cartels to coerce thru the use of threats and intimidation, which is the center of gravity of the problem. In Medellin, the war was won by the State 10 years ago, and has so far seen the successful results of comprehensive plans, with full participation and cultural changes in the neighborhoods where once Pablo Escobar ruled.
8. “Behind drug trafficking are powerful politicians and businessmen "
This myth is based on conspiracy theories with no consideration for context or history, and which are almost always the result of speculation. Such theories feed telenovelas, movies and literature for entertainment, but they are repeated so often that they end up becoming truth that becomes universal, without verification.
Many Americans believe in the cultural myth that assumes "all Mexicans are corrupt and the authorities are all drug bosses" and this is propagated in Hollywood. In contrast, some Mexicans think "that the drug business is managed from Wall Street." These arguments are easy to believe and spread even without rational foundation.
Drug trafficking usually originates from the activities of smugglers of the lower middle class with little education; they build their organizations from family groups as a way to ensure loyalty ("the family"), and recruit socially down. Their organizations have violence and death as a way of settling all conflicts (personal, market, family and authorities), because their activities are not legal and therefore they can not use the courts and laws.
The extreme punishments and deaths are their only instruments of "justice." When they become financially stronger they expand socially and then begin to intimidate, subdue or use public officials and/or businessmen. They first co-opt police until the State’s coercive power is eliminated, then they continue with the judiciary, the press, politicians and economic interests.
In this process they end up on top of the social pyramid with the most power, and with the means to exercise that power through violence and murder. This happened in Colombia, in Chicago in the thirties, in Italy for decades, and this has happened in Michoacan, Sinaloa, Tamaulipas, and so on.
The nature of a businessman or a politician is different and incompatible with the Mafia. That the latter may conform to the former is feasible but that the first may become the second is not sensible; though there are some isolated cases, this is not the rule. Levels of penetration by business and political elites into the Mafia in Italy have occurred after many decades of Mafia power, but in Mexico the criminal phenomenon of drug traffickers is comparatively young.
9. "The only way out is to negotiate with drug traffickers"
This myth is related to the belief that negotiation was the method used by previous governments to maintain peace, and then concludes that violence erupted when the new government abandoned this method. It is argued that violence would cease if the State negotiated with the criminals. This is an extremely simplistic approach to understand the past and to assume a solution in the present.
Drug trafficking hasn’t always been an issue of national security in Mexico. It became a strategic threat after it became financially stronger in the second half of the 1990’s. In the past, the drug traffickers were a second-order problem and to deal with them the police only required a local operational logic and not a state strategy. For many years, they were not a central theme to Mexico or anyone else.
During the 1970’s and 1980’s tolerance to the problem was universal and even the CIA and Cuba underestimated it as a threat. What is known as "negotiations" are possibly legends that originated from some police chiefs or local politicians when they were dealing with a minor problem from a position of strength.
Now we face a different reality in which cartels seek to impose their authority over the state with the threat of "silver or lead." Drug trafficking is now a strategic threat.
No one can say that some possible arrangements that existed in the past between police authorities and criminals are equivalent to negotiations between drug traffickers and the State today and, secondly, it is impossible for the authority of any country to carry out agreements with offenders who govern their conduct by the principles of violence, crime and death.
A negotiation would mean that enemy drug cartels are consistent with control over its structures and rules and limits, but the reality is that drug trafficking is a fragmented enemy, with no control over its people and no rules on the use of violence.
The idea of negotiating with the cartels is a fantasy. Colombia, for example, negotiated with Pablo Escobar and other cartel members, offering advantages if they submitted to justice and the outcome was the absolute mockery of the prison authority, with prisons converted into luxurious command and operations centers with protection for Escobar paid by the citizens as he continued to sow violence and death in the country.
10. "The strategy should address the legalization of drugs"
Legalization is a discussion on how to mitigate the problem, because there is no ideal solution to the problem of drugs. It is actually a choice between public health damage or violence. Legalization will not make drugs socially desirable.
Taking as its starting point the principle of the lesser of two evils, the idea of legalizing them is correct and in the future this will likely cease to be a myth. What is now a myth is to pretend that this strategy can be successfully implemented by countries affected by the violence generated by the production and trafficking of drugs.
The legalization of drugs requires a simultaneous agreement with the consumer countries. Without the participation of the United States and Europe in a strategy implemented in Mexico or Colombia, legalization would be suicide for the security of these countries. This is unfair, but the problem is not about ethics but about reality.
The problem is not only about an international political conflict between the insecurity of the countries that produce and traffic drugs versus the hypocrisy of consuming countries, but the distortion generated within the producing countries would be highly explosive.
The supply of drugs in Mexico and Colombia is infinitely superior to their demand and the situation in Europe and the United States is reversed. Therefore, legalizing drugs in Mexico and Colombia unilaterally without legalization in Europe and the U.S. would mean a strengthening of criminal structures in Colombia and Mexico. This is because the core business would remain illegal exports in the face of a huge price difference.
Unilateral legalization would give free rein to criminal groups in several small countries in Latin America and Africa with large institutional weaknesses. If currently they are at risk of falling into the hands of mafias, unilateral legalization would aggravate and multiply the problem.
Although it is difficult to admit, the reality is that the U.S. and Europe continue to tolerate drug consumption because the levels of violence by criminals engaged in distributing drugs in the streets has not yet become a strategic threat. But such violence is growing.
The U.S. has imprisoned more than two million people for crimes related to drugs and has a million gang members, most of which are involved in selling drugs. Maybe when the violence becomes intolerable for Europe and the U.S., the idea of legalizing drugs will begin to be discussed seriously as a multilateral strategy.
For the moment Latin American countries have to maintain damage control strategies while denouncing the damage caused by the drug consumer countries. The issue of legalizing marijuana is advancing, but it is still a difficult issue for discussions between governments.
11. "The military’s participation is negative and they should be withdrawn"
The myth about the negativity of the army's participation is on part due to certain assumptions: that internal security is not their task, they are not trained or prepared for such work that jeopardizes their image, ending human rights violations, it is dangerous to empower the military, and other similar ideas. All these and other arguments are based on potential risks, doubts and suspicions that in some cases are predominantly subjective ideas.
None of these arguments takes into account the objective problems which have forced the military to be used: the scale of the threat posed by the cartels, the fire power, number of assassins and level of organization of criminal structures, the moral crisis and the problems of co-optation of state and municipal police by drug cartels in troubled areas, the limited number of personnel available to the Federal Police, the transnational nature of the drug problem and finally the roots, social power and territorial control that organized crime has in some parts of Mexico. It is a huge difference if you have only 30,000 federal police or the military force of 200,000 to deal with the problem.
Transnational drug trafficking poses a challenge that exceeds the police mandate and constitutes a threat to the sovereignty of the State. If the army withdrew today the drug cartels would quickly regain ground, the threat would acquire higher dimensions, and the violence would soar and could reach Mexico City.
We addressed earlier the risk of becoming a “failed state” but, paradoxically, the myth about the withdrawal of the army is based on another extreme because it assumes that the problem is not so serious and could be solved by the municipal and state police. It is hard to imagine that Mexico could, in the coming decades, face another conflict worse than drug traffickers. The strategic solution is to rebuild, reform and strengthen the police, but while that progresses it is essential to use the military.
Throughout Latin America the military may be essential to answer the threat posed by organized crime, and today the ethical requirements of human rights have become a fundamental part of the operational effectiveness of both the military and police.
Modern wars are subject inevitably to critical media, political and judicial investigation and review. The State can maintain legitimacy in the use of force only if it is able to use its coercive power under those conditions. This means that this is now a permanent universal condition to the use of force and should not be seen as an obstacle inhibiting its use.
To re-impose security Colombia rebuilt its security forces. By contrast, Guatemala has fallen into the hands of organized crime because they have been unable to rebuild theirs.
12. "The most effective and quickest way to fight crime is through extra-judicial means”
Among the cartels are no rules and their differences are resolved through "exemplary death." The state, for its part, seeks to procure justice, and not murder criminals, and must retain the moral and social advantage against criminals.
Thru the employment of paramilitary violence, based on the same principle of "exemplary death," the State becomes another violent actor without rules that ends up being identified as such by organized crime, which would accelerate and multiply the use violence. The idea that killing criminals is the fastest way to restore security is false.
Organized crime is a large social body, they should not be seen as individuals but as groups with a certain amount of support. Deadly paramilitary confrontations may end up further dividing communities, which would extend the duration of the problem rather than shorten it.
Also, confrontations of this kind can redirect much of the self destructive violence of the drug dealers to institutions, public officials and their families. The task of the State is to restore authority and ensure the monopoly of violence.
The use paramilitary forces constitutes a delegation of authority to private groups that undermines the authority of the State. International experience shows that paramilitary activity is a serious error. The cases of Colombia and Guatemala are very clear. In Colombia, paramilitary groups escalated the conflict and in Guatemala, their use has led to the State being virtually defeated.
Link to Spanish language article: