Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Mexico is on fire

I've been blogging about the drug war/civil war brewing in Mexico for years (for instance see this post from 2005), but two recent articles caught my attention. First, Sam Quinones suggests that the cause of Mexico's crisis is that the federal government has not adequately funded cities and this has hurt the professionalism of their police forces, which has allowed the drug cartels to totally overrun them, either corrupting or killing the police officers.

Mexico’s gangs had the means and motive to create upheaval, and in Mexico’s failure to reform into a modern state, especially at local levels, the cartels found their opportunity. Mexico has traditionally starved its cities. They have weak taxing power. Their mayors can’t be reelected. Constant turnover breeds incompetence, improvisation, and corruption. Local cops are poorly paid, trained, and equipped. They have to ration bullets and gas and are easily given to bribery. Their morale stinks. So what should be the first line of defense against criminal gangs is instead anemic and easily compromised. Mexico has been left handicapped, and gangs that would have been stomped out locally in a more effective state have been able to grow into a powerful force that now attacks the Mexican state itself.

The first sign of trouble was Nuevo Laredo in late 2005. The Gulf and Sinaloa cartels staged street shootouts and midnight assassinations for months in this border city, which the Gulf cartel had controlled. One police chief lasted only hours from his swearing-in to his assassination. The state and municipal police took sides in the cartel fight. Newspapers had to stop reporting the news for fear of retaliation.

Enter Calderón, who took office in late 2006, determined to address the growing war among Mexico’s cartels. He broke with old half-measures of cargo takedowns that looked good but did little to damage the cartels. Calderón wanted arrests. He also began extraditing to the United States the capos and their lieutenants—more than 90 so far—who were already in custody and wanted [in the US.

But when Calderón looked across Mexico for allies to help him escalate the war on the narcogangs, he found few local governments and police forces that hadn’t been starved to dysfunction. So he has had to rely on the only tool up to the task: Mexico’s military. Calderón has also turned to the United States for help. The Merida Initiative, launched in April 2008, is a 10-fold increase in U.S. security assistance to a proposed $1.4 billion over several years, supplying Mexican forces with high-end equipment from helicopters to surveillance technology.

Fighting criminal gangs with a national military is an imperfect solution, but Calderón has scored some victories. He has captured or killed key gang leaders. Weapons seizures have been massive. Last November, the Mexican Army seized a house in Reynosa that contained the largest weapons cache ever found in the country, including more than 540 rifles, 500,000 rounds of ammunition, and 165 grenades.

The cartels have responded to Calderón’s war with the kind of buchon savagery that so struck me upon returning to Mexico. In addition to fighting each other, the cartels are now increasingly fighting the Mexican state as well, and the killing shows no sign of slowing. The Mexican Army is outgunned, even with U.S. support. Calderón’s purges of hundreds of public officials for corruption, cops among them, may look impressive, but they accomplish little.

The problem isn’t individuals; it’s systemic. Until cities have the power and funding to provide strong and well-paid local police, Mexico’s criminal gangs will remain a national threat, not a regional nuisance.
|Foreign Policy Magazine - State of War| (emphasis added)

Another recent article in the Guardian sounds the alarm bells as well about the dire situation in Mexico.

The crisis [in Mexico] consists in nothing less than an effort by the major drug cartels to tame and suborn the Mexican state... through a policy of terror... they have made it abundantly clear that they are trying to achieve impunity.

The only recent parallel in Latin America was a similar effort 15 years ago by the Colombian drug cartels. That disguised coup failed – barely – and there is no guarantee that the result will be similar this time around in Mexico.

Journalists with long experience of war zones report being more worried about their safety in Mexico border than when they were in Bosnia, Afghanistan, or Iraq...

[I]t is the campaign of targeted assassination against any Mexican official who seems to pose a serious threat to the cartels' operations that makes the crisis so dire. First, in May 2007, the cartels killed Jose Nemesio Lugo Felix, the general co-ordinator of information at the national centre for planning and analysis to combat organised crime. Soon after, a hitman murdered Edgar Milan Gomez, Mexico's highest ranking federal police official.

In November, 2008, a plane carrying Juan Camilo Mourino, Mexico's national security adviser, crashed under mysterious circumstances. And very recently, the retired General Mauro Enrique Tello Quinones, one of the most decorated officers in the Mexican army, was abducted, tortured, and killed less than a week after assuming a new position as anti-drug chief in the resort city of Cancún. ||Guardian - Mexico is in free fall|
I think it's fair to say that this is a national security crisis and the US should be dealing with it aggressively, even if Obama inherited a raft of daunting crises from the Bush administration.

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