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What can be done about Mexico’s Drug War?

01 Jul 2020
By Jessica Honan
Crews offload nearly 660 kilograms of narcotics seized during a recent patrol in the Eastern Pacific, Feb. 2, 2015. Source: Chief Petty Officer Luke Pinneo

The Mexican government has implemented a series of different policies to try to eradicate the pervasive power of cartels, and the violence accompanying them. However, an effective policy will require eliminating the source of cartels’ power, rather than just undermining it. 

Drug violence seems to dominate any dialogue on Mexican relations. The issue is pervasive, not just in international relations, but also the internal politics and everyday lives of Mexicans. Since Mexico’s democratisation in 2000, government policy has attempted to address the problem. In 2006, then-President Felipe Calderón ordered soldiers to Michoacán state to end drug violence in the region. But this combatant approach has been unsuccessful in eliminating violence. Instead, cartels have responded with equal aggression, increasing public killings and torture. The “kingpin” strategy of removing cartel leaders has caused power struggles within the cartels that create further conflict.

This kinetic strategy was supplemented in 2008 by legislative measures focused on combating widespread corruption in public agencies. Calderón’s comprehensive strategy against drug trafficking involves purging local police forces of corrupt officers. However, this strategy has instead reduced recruitment rates and had the opposite effect as intended. The state is now weaker for it, as recruitment rates are lower than dismissal rates. The area of commonality between these two strategies and their failure is thus: they aim to weaken cartels rather than addressing the cartels’ source of power.

Firstly, cartels have a stronghold on the public sector. Efforts to end this stronghold have been unsuccessful partially due to inattention to the extent of their political, social, and economic power. Many cartels have infiltrated government institutions, and they control highways and geographical regions throughout Mexico. The largest cartels employ thousands of workers. In contrast, the government’s anti-cartel effort is under-resourced. Approximately 120,000 policing positions in Mexico are unoccupied. Police are vastly outnumbered compared to organisations such as the Sinaloa or Los Zetas cartels, with approximately 100,000 foot-soldiers between them.

Consequently, the Mexican state is not strong enough to control violence. The main reason Mexico cannot recruit new officers is the low income offered to police officers. Mexican police officers’ pay is comparable to unskilled workers. Police officers’ low pay is indicative of a broader problem: a lack of employment opportunities. Youth unemployment is between 7.5 and 8 percent (double the unemployment rate for the general population of working age), and minimum wage is so low, approximate $8 AUD per day, that Mexico’s disenfranchised turn to the drug economy to escape poverty. Cartels in Mexico employ an estimated half a million people directly. Therefore, the cartels’ strength is somewhat due to their ability to create paid jobs. Additionally, Mexico has the highest levels of impunity in Latin America. 90 percent of drug crimes in Mexico go unpunished. Officers, the judiciary, and political leaders are easily susceptible to bribery. The result is a corrupt Mexican leadership, and cartels powerful enough to withstand Calderón’s opposition.

An effective strategy against cartels therefore must address (1) the high levels of impunity causing corruption in the military, police force, and government, and (2) the high levels of unemployment forcing people into the drug industry. The first step to ending impunity in Mexico would be enforcing a separation of powers.  Currently, chief ministers have discretion over indictable crimes. This adds another layer of impunity to an already corrupt system and should be addressed to weaken cartels at a grassroots level. To end impunity, the legislature needs to limit the executive’s control over the judiciary and parliament.

Secondly, the Mexican government needs to create more job opportunities, particularly in rural areas where there are few alternatives to cartel employment. Mexico has existing agricultural and manufactured goods sectors, but there is capacity to expand. Mexico trades almost exclusively with the USA, but there is potential to diversify – the EU and British markets should be tapped. Increasing production and exports would create many farming, factory, and finance jobs. The existence of safe and legal alternatives would render cartel employment less appealing, decreasing the membership and therefore the power of the organisations.

Finally, to both decrease unemployment and end impunity, more police are needed. Introducing officers in the Mexican Federal Police dedicated to eradicating organised crime would increase the state’s strength and therefore weaken the hegemonic regional power of large cartels. A stronger police force would also help ensure cartel members are indicted for offences. To increase the number of police officers, the government needs to incentivise enlisting. Increasing officers’ wages will make the job more appealing and would also reduce bribes. As the world’s 15th largest economy, Mexico can financially support more public policing jobs with higher wages.

Implementing these policies certainly has the potential to create grievances amongst cartel workers – particularly for those prospering from impunity. Some scholars argue the creation of “grievances” in the Mexican drug war would further fuel conflict, as it gives the cartels more reason to retaliate. However, given that the drug war can be defined as a conflict stemming from “greed” – that is, the cartels have not been fighting for ideological reasons – implementing these strategies is unlikely to incite further violence. Whilst the drug cartels are unlikely to respond positively to the above recommendations, peaceful strategies are a productive step in reducing extreme violence in the drug war.

Jessica Honan is a third year Bachelor of Laws/Bachelor of Arts student at the Australian National University. She is the current President of the ANU International Relations Society and former intern with AIIA ACT.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.