At Large

New Broom, Old Mess

The new focus on drug cartel violence ignores the drug trafficking at its core.

By 8.10.12

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It was just a few days after the story broke that there was a battle going on within Los Zetas for control of this Mexican drug cartel that it was confirmed that three high-ranking army generals had been formally arrested for aiding in cocaine trafficking. One of these officers was well known earlier to Washington in his capacity as Deputy Defense Minister and before that as military attaché at the Mexican embassy.

The fact is that there is a complicated war in progress in Mexico that involves federal law enforcement and military connections with certain drug gangs. There are also linkages of cooperating state and local police to the illegal narcotics trade and competition among these participants. Earlier this year the Mexican government listed 47,515 civilian and cartel member drug-related violent deaths since the fall of 2006.

The "Fast and Furious" exposé provided the soon-to-be outgoing president, Felipe Calderon, with a convenient diversion on which he could focus attention both politically and journalistically. This now has given impetus to an important part of the announced priority program of the incoming government of Enrique Peña Nieto to reduce violence in Mexico -- as opposed to emphasizing reduction in drug trafficking. The theme of this politically profitable focus is that Mexico's problems really stem -- if not totally, certainly partially – from the U.S.- sourced gun supply and North America's insatiable appetite for narcotics.

Blaming the Americans for Mexico's troubles is hardly a new tactic, but it is unusual to have a term-ending PAN (National Action Party) president to be seen to have prepared the ground for a new PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) president. The concept of diminishing emphasis on stopping the illegal traffic in order to seek to reduce violence between the major cartels is clearly to the liking of the narcotics organizations that now have been decimated by their own bloodthirsty proclivities.

That the corruption had reached so high in the Army goes far to explain the breakdown of command and control at the company and battalion level responsible for anti-cartel operations in the field. It has become well known that close cooperation between U.S. and Mexican naval special operations forces has effectively closed down cartel activity in areas where -- except for certain small specialized units -- the army had been conspicuously ineffective. Worse was the actual military assistance that army units sometimes had given in support of cartel criminal ambitions.

Mexican navy teams, aided by American intelligence, civilian and military, showed they were consistently superior to the combined drug and army gangsters. Although this type of close American/Mexican defense cooperation has been highly classified, the results have made it possible for the new program of reducing violence against the innocent civilian population even to be considered.

There is a concern among some analysts of both nations, however, that concentrating on reducing violence actually will create a tendency to ignore the illicit drug trafficking itself. The fear is that the practical effect will be to ease the process of cross-border smuggling operations. This means that not only will the physical shipment of the drugs be made less difficult if it no longer features the typical cartel combat that has become a part of the storage and transportation phase of the products, but it also will ease the immense cash transfers that after all are the ultimate reason for illegal drug smuggling.

Interdicting the transfer of vast amounts of cash has been a priority not only of law enforcement, but also a target for rival narcotics organizations. War among the cartels and their sub-divisions inhibits their operations. They prey on each other like prehistoric carnivores. Creating a peaceful environment assists in reducing the criminal commerce to a "normalized" business environment. Paying off local law enforcement and judiciary becomes a far more simple "cost of doing business." And that is another problem faced by the new president, Enrique Nieto, as he takes office this fall.

Mexico has existed for a long time with an economy subsidized by an annual injection of billions of dollars produced by drug trafficking. Any serious reduction in the dollars produced endangers the gross national product, accounted for by the capital created in the system, legal or not. As the illicit drug trade works its way through to the eventual American consumer, another underground economy has been created that serves in varying degrees all socio-economic classes in urban and rural communities of the United States.

It is clear that a serious unintended consequence is possible if a major reduction in violence occurs in Mexico, even though the flow of illegal drugs ceases to be obstructed by battling among competing organizations. To seek to reduce the violence in Mexico without simultaneously curbing the illicit drug traffic will do nothing but allow the illegal narcotics trade to grow and prosper. Has this been thought through at all?

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.