At Large

Mexico’s Half-Reported Drug War

And President Calderón hasn't even had to appoint a drug czar.

By 3.19.09

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Drug War Intensifies in Mexico's Capital

Drug Gangs Have Mexico on the Ropes

The headlines tell the whole story -- or do they? News from distant places is telegraphed in condensed bites and clips. Limited resources and limited newspaper space and television and radio time dictate that bad news always trumps good. Analysis that tells a broader, deeper story is left to those with the time and stamina to look for it.

Mexico's "drug war" is serious. Drug war stories of kidnappings, murders, decapitations keep coming. Last year, 6,290 were killed and nearly 1,000 this year. Several hundred law enforcement officials have been killed, but some 85 percent of the total were drug gang members. Despite a recent U.S. Joint Forces Command report that Mexico is in danger of becoming "a failed state," its murder rate is lower than that of Colombia, which has been coming back from the brink of chaos. Last year, Colombia's rate was 33 per 100,000 inhabitants; Mexico's was 10 per 100,000. According to Mexico's Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora, murders are down from the last quarter of 2008 in all parts of the country accept the border city of Juarez.

President Felipe Calderón is unlike his predecessors who turned a blind eye to decades-long drug trade. When he took office in 2003 he declared war on the drug cartels. In an interview last month, he said bluntly, "I'm fighting corruption among Mexican authorities and risking everything to clean house, but I think a good cleaning is in order on the other side of the border" (referring to a need to enforce a U.S. assault weapon ban). The stakes are high, he said. "It's either the narcos or the state."

He has backed this up by firing several senior officials implicated in the drug trade and by putting 50,000 federal troops into the field to take over, in effect, from local law enforcement in the four border states where most of the violence occurs: Chihuahua, Baja California, Sinaloa and Durango.

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, a former Arizona governor, recently said, "Mexico...has issues of violence that are a different degree and level than we've ever seen before."

This is true, however, Mexican officials argue that the increased violence is a result of heavy pressure on the cartels, causing them to battle each other. It is also possible that cocaine demand in the U.S. is declining as more methamphetamine is being locally produced, forcing cartels to fight over a smaller market ]

The Mexican government has forced better information sharing between levels of government. 

Still, the cartels use assassination, kidnappings and threats to sow terror. In many cases, local law enforcement personnel have been intimidated into inaction or, in some cases, have become corrupted. Hence, the increasing army presence along the northern border.

On our side of the border, arms smuggling into Mexico has been steadily increasing. The U.S. Department of Justice's Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms unit says there have been recent spikes in the smuggling of machine guns and hand grenades into Mexico. Late last month the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency in U.S. border states nabbed 755 suspected members of the Mexican Sinaloa cartel, along with $59 million in drug money and a cache of weapons.

The ATF estimates that more than 7,700 of the guns sold in the U.S. last year were traced to Mexico. Mexico's gun laws are stricter than ours. Drug cartels are said to pay U.S. citizens to buy assault and other weapons for them at gun shows, where background checks are not required nor sales easily traced. The recently passsed "stimulus" package includes $10 million Project Gunrunner, a federal crackdrown on U.S. gun-running networks. 

Despite the increased violence, is the Calderón war on the cartels working? Recently, Wall Street Journal writer Bret Stephens asked a friend who is on the faculty of Mexico's National University whether she thought the government was collapsing in the face of drug cartel violence.

"Collapsing?" she replied. "It's finally picking itself up."

Meanwhile, despite the drug war and a worsening economy, 23 million U.S. citizens and others visited Mexico last year, sending tourism up by 5.9 percent.

(Mr. Hannaford is a member of the Committee on the Present Danger.) 

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About the Author
Peter Hannaford was closely associated with the late President Reagan for a number of years. He is a member of the board of the Committee on the Present Danger. His latest book is “Presidential Retreats.”