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Why Mexico Must Destroy the Cartels

7:31 AM, May 9, 2013 • By JAIME DAREMBLUM
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“The impression they seem to want to send is ‘We got this,’” a former U.S. official told the Times. “But it’s clear to us, no, they don’t. Not yet.” While there is evidence that drug-related killings either plateaued or declined between 2011 and 2012, it appears that any decline in the violence ended late last year: The Times noted that daily murders have been “hovering around 50 since last fall.” According to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in March, only 37 percent of Mexicans believe the government’s campaign against drug traffickers is making progress, down from 47 percent in 2012.

Nevertheless, an overwhelming majority of Mexicans (85 percent) continue to support using military force against the cartels, and nearly three-quarters still favor letting the United States train both Mexican troops and Mexican police. A smaller majority (55 percent) of Mexicans continue to support letting the United States provide Mexico’s military and police with money and weaponry. In other words, while Mexicans are understandably tired of the violence and frustrated by the apparent lack of progress, they recognize that their country will never be able to establish the rule of law without confronting and dismantling the drug gangs.

Did Calderón make plenty of mistakes in his prosecution of the drug war? Absolutely. Did his use of the military lead to greater short-term violence among the cartels? It certainly did. But Calderón had very little choice: When he took office in late 2006, Mexico was facing an unprecedented security crisis—drug-related killings went up by almost 9 percent in 2005 and by almost 11 percent in 2006, according to Harvard analyst Viridiana Ríos—and its police forces at all levels (federal, state, and local) were too corrupt and too poorly trained to mount an effective response. Therefore, Calderón turned to the military. But he also worked hard to build a new federal police force, investing major resources in training and databases. In addition, he approved a judicial overhaul to strengthen Mexican legal institutions. While only a few states have made genuine progress on implementing the necessary reforms, Peña Nieto has said he will make judicial reform a priority.

That’s a good idea. But if Mexico refrains from targeting the kingpins, it won’t be able to destroy their organizations. And make no mistake: Destroying the cartels—rather than simply mitigating short-term violence—has to be the ultimate goal. Some have already been destroyed (such as the Beltrán Leyva cartel and La Familia), and others have been seriously weakened (such as the Gulf, Juárez, Tijuana cartels), but the Zetas and the Sinaloa cartel are making it impossible for Mexico to become a rule-of-law society—and until Mexican officials can uphold the rule of law, their country will never graduate to “first world” status. Every time the government takes out one of the drug lords, it sends a message about the consequences of running a violent criminal enterprise.

For that matter, 25 of the 37 “most wanted” kingpins identified by the Calderón administration in 2009 have now been killed or captured. As Dana Priest pointed out in her recent Post article, most of those 25 were “removed because of U.S.-supplied information, often including the location of top cartel members in real time.” If Peña Nieto makes it harder for U.S. officials to share intelligence with their Mexican counterparts, he will make it harder for Mexico to bring down the twelve drug bosses who remain at large—and he will thus make it harder for Mexico to build solid legal institutions. Colombia would never have defeated the Medellín and Cali cartels without U.S. support, and Mexico will never destroy the Zetas and the Sinaloa cartel unless it maintains the close bilateral security relationship embraced by Calderón.

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