By RICARDO AINSLIE
The Mexican government, finally, is gaining the upper hand in a drug war that has turned much of the border region and parts of interior Mexico into war zones. President Felipe Calderón's campaign against the cartels is now three-and-a-half years old and the death toll is nearing 40,000. After a series of visits to Ciudad Juarez, the war's epicenter, and interviews with federal law enforcement and intelligence officials in Mexico City, I see convincing evidence that the government has dramatically weakened the drug cartels, an essential step if the country is to restore peace.
The strategy of "disarticulating" the cartels has been largely successful. The command-and-control structure of the cartels has been decimated and the cartels are severely fractured. Twenty-one of the 37 individuals on Mexico's most wanted list have either been apprehended or killed. Of the five original cartels, two of them, the Juarez Cartel and the Tijuana Cartel, are mere shadows of their once powerful selves. The Gulf Cartel has split into two warring factions. Last week, Mexican federal police captured Jose de Jesus Mendez Vargas (better known as El Chango, or The Monkey), the leader of La Familia, one of the country's most powerful criminal gangs. La Familia's brutality against its rivals led Calderón to launch his crackdown on organized crime. The Sinaloa Cartel, under the leadership of the mythic "El Chapo" Guzmán Loera, has always operated more as a federation of closely allied organizations with Guzmán as the figurehead. The Beltrán Leyva organization broke off from "El Chapo" in 2008 and has been at war with him ever since. Ignacio "Nacho" Coronel, a powerful leader within the Sinaloa Cartel, was killed last year and his successor, Martin Beltran Coronel, has been arrested. And there is evidence of ruptures between groups in Durango, the heart of Guzmán's territory. The cartels have been eviscerated by a combination of federal operations and internecine conflict.
A factor making it increasingly difficult for the cartels to operate is that they are being hunted by a variety of Mexican military and law enforcement agencies. The Mexican army and marines operate independently. The Mexican federal police force has quintupled in size to 33,000 officers (and U.S. sources describe their cooperation with American law enforcement as unprecedented). Finally, there is the smaller Agencia Federal de Investigación. Each of these entities is pursuing the cartels, sometimes collaboratively, sometimes independently, and each has taken down important cartel capos.
Another important variable is that it has also become much more difficult and costly for cartels to ensure control and protection. Prior to 2000, in PRI-controlled, pre-democracy Mexico, what was decreed at the top levels of government was enforced all the way down to the poorest municipalities. That made corruption efficient. Well-placed bribes at the top controlled everything up and down the line.
Today's playing field is much more complex, given that there are so many actors. For example, even though the Beltrán Leyva cartel was paying the head of the organized crime unit in the Mexican Attorney General's Office $450,000 a month to provide information about investigations and operations, Mexican army special forces arrested Alfredo Beltrán Leyva in January 2008. His brother, Arturo Beltrán Leyva was subsequently killed in December 2009 by the Mexican marines. There are simply too many players tracking down the cartels and the latter can't pay everyone off. Mexico's fledgling democratization has also increased the cartels' cost of doing business. Once a country where a single party controlled everything, today Mexico's three most influential political parties control governorships and municipalities, making it more cumbersome and expensive for the cartels to control local and regional institutions.
Together, the decimation of the cartels, the strengthening of federal law enforcement institutions, and Mexico's increasing democratization bode well for Mexico's future. However, for the present, taking down cartel operatives and unprecedented seizures of cash, weapons and drugs have had no appreciable impact on the one metric that matters most to the Mexican public: the level of violence. The vast majority of deaths are due to gang-on-gang disputes related to the local retail drug business. This violence is more akin to the Bloods and the Crips killing one another off in the streets of South Central than it is a cartel war per se. The fracturing of the cartels has also resulted in a proliferation of criminal bands engaging in ordinary street crime, including the lucrative kidnapping and extortion business. This crime is taking an enormous toll on citizens, which is why Calderón's popularity is sagging, notwithstanding his government's success against the cartels.
Today, Mexico is actually fighting two different wars: the war against the cartels, which is under the purview of federal authorities, and an explosion of ordinary street crime, much of which is under the purview of state and local police forces. The Mexican government is clearly winning the cartel war; it is local crime that has become the country's biggest challenge. Even as it succeeds in dismantling national and transnational drug trafficking networks, Mexico will continue to have a significant crime problem until state and local law enforcement are strengthened, judicial reforms are implemented and the social conditions that are breeding grounds for criminality improve.
Ainslie teaches at the University of Texas at Austin and is author of the forthcoming "The Savior of Juarez: Mexico at the Time of the Great Drug War" (University of Texas Press). He has spent the last two years exploring the impact of the violence on Ciudad Juarez, as well as interviewing Mexican policymakers, including several current and former members of President Felipe Calderón's security cabinet. Last year, Ainslie was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for his work on Mexico's war against the drug cartels.