It is hard to overlook the deadly storm of violence that has recently engulfed several cities and states in Mexico. According to Mexican government estimates, more than 22,000 people have died in drug-related violence since December 2006. In many cases the killings are particularly gruesome, with severed heads thrown into nightclubs or displayed on stakes in public places as a warning to rival drug gangs. Equally alarming is the rising toll of journalists killed by organized crime in order to silence the press and civic leaders who have sought to document the raging war among different crime groups with the complicity of some local authorities.
The violence is not universal. Mexico registers fewer than half as many homicides per capita as Brazil and a third as many as El Salvador. While Mexico’s murder rate is twice that of the United States today, it is very similar to what the U.S. rate was just 15 years ago. Mexico is hardly coming apart at the seams, even if news reports often suggest as much.
But while most parts of Mexico remain at peace, several cities and towns are living through an inferno of drug-related killings. No place has been harder hit than Ciudad Juárez, which saw more than 2,000 drug-related homicides last year and more than 1,000 so far this year, including the brutal massacre of 15 teenagers in January and three people tied to the U.S. consulate in March.
Ciudad Juárez, across the border from El Paso, Tex., is a crucial point for shipment of narcotics, one of several such cities being contested by rival trafficking organizations. Reynosa, near MacAllen, Tex., and Tijuana, across from San Diego, Calif., have also become hotspots. So too have several seaports, like Acapulco, and areas in Mexico’s interior along major highways now used in the movement of narcotics from the south to the north. Perhaps equally worrying are the many places with limited violence, where a growing number of signs indicate that organized crime is operating, slowly making its presence felt through pressure on public authorities and citizens alike.
A Circular Trade
A recent Associated Press report noted that the four safest cities in the United States are El Paso, Austin, Phoenix and San Diego. Two of them, El Paso and San Diego, lie right across from the two most dangerous cities in Mexico, Ciudad Juárez and Tijuana, while the other two are closely linked to Mexico by important highways. The apparent calm on the U.S. side of the border belies the degree to which illegal drugs are actually a very binational and highly circular trade.
Since the late 1990s, Mexico has become the center of the Western hemisphere’s illegal narcotics trade. Mexican drug trafficking organizations control most of the region’s cocaine and heroin trade and much of the methamphetamine and marijuana trade as well. The rise of Mexican drug trafficking appears to be linked to the atomization of the major drug cartels in Colombia and the increasing U.S. efforts to block Caribbean narcotics transshipment routes. The rise of competitive democracy in Mexico toward the end of the 1990s (for decades the government had been controlled by one party) has also, paradoxically, favored drug traffickers, who have learned to co-opt local government authorities in some areas of the country to do their bidding.
But while Mexico has become the region’s major transshipment point for illegal narcotics, the United States remains the major market for them. There are no trustworthy estimates of the value of this trade, but the U.S. government claims that at least $19 billion to $39 billion of profits flow south from U.S. consumers to Mexican and Colombian drug trafficking organizations each year. Much of the money is moved as bulk cash, with smaller amounts laundered through the financial system or invested in the purchase of high caliber weapons used in the violence. While there is much less violence on the U.S. side of the border, the two countries are deeply linked by the trade in drugs and weapons.
In recent years the two governments have become much more adept at squeezing the trafficking organizations, making it harder for them to cross the border and move illicit goods through Mexico, but these very efforts may well have ignited the violence. As it has become harder to move narcotics through Mexico and into the United States, traffickers have begun to fight with one another over the increasingly valuable transshipment routes and access points along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Over the past three years, the U.S. and Mexican governments have engaged in an ambitious partnership to limit the reach of organized crime groups that move illegal narcotics from Mexico to the United States. Part of this effort has been the Merida Initiative, a $1.3 billion U.S. aid package to Mexico to provide equipment and training for law enforcement agencies, courts and the military to combat drug traffickers and strengthen the rule of law.
A more important factor, however, has been the recognition in each country that it cannot face the challenge presented by organized crime groups without cooperation from the other side of the border. Government officials in each country increasingly talk about “shared responsibility” in dealing with organized crime, a term invoked by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on a trip to Mexico in 2009 and reinforced by President Obama on his two trips to Mexico that year.
One tangible impact of the cooperation has been greater intelligence-sharing between the two countries, which has enabled the Mexican government to capture a few leaders of organized crime groups. Renewed efforts to arrest some of the traffickers who operate on U.S. soil have focused on members of the violent Barrio Azteca gang, an El Paso-based group that does much of the contract killing for the dominant cartel in Ciudad Juárez. Efforts to disrupt the finances and weapons flows that feed the trafficking organizations remain in their early stages and need to be significantly increased if they are to be meaningful.
The difference in murder rates on the two sides of the border points to an important underlying truth about the ability of the two countries to deal with organized crime. While the trafficking organizations operate equally on both sides, they are careful not to call attention to themselves in the United States because they fear arrest. In Mexico, by contrast, arrest is less common, and only 2 percent of major crimes result in a conviction with jail time, according to a study by the Mexican criminologist Guillermo Zepeda.
That figure may be changing. Mexico’s Congress passed a major constitutional reform of the court system in 2008 that will require a transition to oral trials (from the current system, which involves mostly written arguments), guarantee the presumption of innocence, limit the use of (often forced) confessions and ensure more transparent judicial record-keeping. Even prior to that change, judicial reforms at the state level were already underway in several states, but progress at the national level has been quite slow.
There have been substantial advances in the professionalization of the Mexican police over the past few years. This is perhaps most noticeable in the federal police, which has been built up practically from scratch in the past three years to become a force of 33,000 members that includes more than 5,000 criminal investigators. The federal police increasingly work with state and municipal governments to train local law enforcement as well.
Mexico’s government has also created a new national crime database known as Platform Mexico (Plataforma México), which includes up-to-date records of crimes committed throughout the country, along with key crime data like license plate numbers and fingerprints, that allow police to link crimes across jurisdictions. The database is designed to keep records of the fingerprints DNA and voice recordings of all of the country’s police officers. This should make it increasingly difficult for law enforcement personnel who leave the service to become involved in criminal activity, which happened frequently in the past. Still, progress on all these fronts is slow.
With billions of dollars in their pockets, traffickers can subvert justice by simply buying off police officers and judges. And with their increasing willingness to corrupt politicians and silence journalists and civic leaders, it is hard to see who will champion these reforms in the parts of the country that most need them.
Perhaps the greatest investment the Mexican government could make is to protect the leading advocates for change while making an example of the most egregiously corrupt politicians. But such efforts have lagged so far.
Rethinking U.S. Policy
While Mexico could do much to strengthen its institutions against the threat posed by drug trafficking organizations, the threat will continue as long as there is high demand for illegal narcotics in the United States. Although cocaine use may be dropping, progress has been slow, and methamphetamines and other synthetic drugs command a high price from U.S. consumers.
For the first time in many years in the United States, there appears to be a serious debate on drug policy. The Obama administration is taking the first cautious steps toward investing in the prevention and treatment of addictions, reorienting U.S. drug policy slightly toward lowering the demand for illegal narcotics. Even a slight drop in U.S. consumption rates would undermine the profits of drug trafficking organizations more significantly than any amount of interdiction.
In some U.S. states a healthy debate is underway about whether marijuana should even be considered an illegal drug. Some argue that legalizing marijuana might allow for concentrated attention on narcotics like cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines, which pose far greater risk to society, while taking profits out of the hands of drug traffickers.
Yet no single policy shift could do more to reorient priorities at the U.S.-Mexico border than comprehensive immigration reform. Today the United States spends most of its resources for border control on apprehending immigrants seeking to come into the United States to find work. Creating legal channels for people from Mexico and Central America would allow the U.S. government to work more concertedly with Mexico to secure the border against the serious threats that drug traffickers pose and to reinforce efforts to help Mexico develop its own law enforcement and judicial capabilities.