During his trip to Mexico and Costa Rica last week, President Obama tried to highlight the positive and downplay the negative. Thus, he spoke at length about the growth of trade, commerce, and economic partnerships, arguing that security issues should not be allowed to dominate all discussions of U.S. policy in the region. (Of course, Obama voted against the Central America Free Trade Agreement when he was a senator, and he canceled a U.S.-Mexico pilot trucking program during his first months as president, but never mind.) His remarks were surely welcomed by Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto, who has taken great pains to transform his country’s image abroad. Whereas many Americans and others have come to associate Mexico with drug trafficking and brutal cartel violence, Peña Nieto wants them to learn more about Mexico’s emergence as a manufacturing powerhouse, its increasingly important role in the global economy, and the expansion of its middle class.
His desire to emphasize good news, rather than the latest news of gangland violence, is of course understandable. But rhetoric and optimism are no substitute for a real strategy to destroy the drug cartels. Not only has Peña Nieto failed to offer one, his administration is significantly reducing Mexican security cooperation with the United States.
Indeed, shortly before President Obama left for Mexico City, the Washington Post and the New York Times both published articles documenting U.S. concerns that the bilateral progress made under President Felipe Calderón—Peña Nieto’s predecessor, who served from December 2006 to December 2012—is being threatened by Mexico’s changing approach to the war against organized crime. Post reporter Dana Priest observed that the new Mexican administration has backed away from the so-called kingpin strategy of targeting cartel bosses—a strategy backed by Washington and implemented by Calderón—and instead claims to be focused on reducing violence. It is establishing five “fusion centers” where intelligence will be gathered and analyzed by Mexican officials, but “Americans will no longer be allowed to work inside any fusion center,” not even a key facility in Monterrey that was sponsored by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Given that Mexico’s ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) was known for making corrupt deals with drug traffickers during the 1980s and 1990s, it is not surprising that “some U.S. officials fear the coming of an unofficial truce with cartel leaders.”
Mexican authorities have dismissed these concerns as overblown. In his May 2 press conference with Obama, Peña Nieto stressed that he is merely adopting a “more efficient” strategy that will reduce the number of drug-related killings and improve public safety. He insisted that curbing violence and fighting organized crime are not contradictory objectives. But he also said that he wanted the United States and Mexico “to cooperate on the basis of mutual respect.” That was a polite way of declaring that Mexico will no longer give U.S. officials such wide access to their territory or their security and intelligence operations.
“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.
Even if Mexican officials wanted to imitate the old PRI strategy and forge some type of “unofficial truce” with the cartels, it would not be possible. A decade ago, there were four massive cartels that controlled most of the Mexican drug trade. Today, according to Mexico’s attorney general, there are literally dozens of small or medium-sized drug-trafficking organizations—perhaps up to 80 in total. How would a democratic government in a decentralized political system orchestrate a sustainable truce among so many competing criminal outfits? And how would it convince the Mexican people to support such an arrangement?
Whether or not Peña Nieto will admit it, there is no practical, acceptable alternative to the strategy he inherited from Calderón. The idea that Mexico could achieve long-term peace and stability by laying off the cartel leaders is dangerously wrong. As former DEA chief Robert Bonner has written, “The public will never believe in the rule of law if the government itself permits certain criminal groups to operate above it.” Mexican officials should take those words to heart.
Ambassador Jaime Daremblum is director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the Hudson Institute.