Urban gun battles drive schoolchildren to the floors of their classrooms and entire villages into flight; noncombatants die in the crossfire; others, unfortunate enough to cross paths with pitiless irregulars, are hacked to death or beheaded. The national economy falters because of the rising chaos and uncertainty. Tensions rise along the border of a neighboring nation as some seek to escape the violence any way they can.
This is not a description of a social meltdown occurring in faraway North Africa. This is the meltdown occurring in North America, at your doorstep. Mexico, a major economic and political partner of the United States, is entering the fifth year of a deadly struggle between the U.S.-subsidized forces of law and order and the ruthless armies of drug cartels and crime syndicates. The violence has claimed the lives of almost 40,000 people, and each week it seems to cross a new threshold of depravity. Not too long ago the discovery of a mass slaying in the Mexican State of Tamaulipas, south of the border near El Paso, Tex., caused shock on both sides of the border. Such reports have become all too regular.
This year has witnessed the advent of a new kind of carnage as gangs—apparently in cahoots with regional immigration and security figures—set up roadblocks to intercept and hold for ransom migrants from southern Mexico and Central America heading north to the United States. The migrants are hoping to find work and a better life. Instead they face kidnapping and death on the highway or forced recruitment as cannon fodder for the drug cartels.
At the heart of the war itself, of course, is the apparently insatiable appetite in the United States for the illicit drugs produced in or trafficked through Mexico. Ninety percent of the cocaine consumed in the United States now passes through Mexico. Human trafficking into the United States has been another lucrative business for Mexican criminals. But the clandestine trade flows in both directions. Sustaining the violence has been a dependable flow of small arms and military-grade weapons from the United States into Mexico.
Despite occasional high profile successes like the recent arrest of Jesús Enrique Rejón Aguilar, a leader of the brutal Los Zetas cartel, Mexico’s drug war is not going well. Although that may appear obvious to average Mexicans, it is less clear to Mexico’s President Felipe Calderón, who began the war in 2006 and appears determined to see it through to some kind of conclusion. He is guardedly supported in this grim effort by Mexico’s bishops, who affirm the aims of the drug war—to the point of describing the violence engendered by the war as “inevitable”—even as they criticize its tactics and priorities.
President Calderón’s options are neither many nor appealing. Declaring “victory” and unilaterally beginning a ceasefire carries its own risks. It could mean giving the already well-armed and brazen drug gangs time to rebuild and modernize their stockpiles. They might expand their recruiting campaigns and further extend their corrupting reach into regional governments and even the military itself.
But a cease-fire could produce a lull in the violence, presuming that the drug gangs would return to a prior observance of noncombatant immunity, and allow Mexico a national respite to recover from its losses, consolidate its forces and concentrate its efforts on reconstituting the security and government institutions that have failed so demonstrably. There is no point in taking an army to war when that army cannot be trusted to do the job or even to maintain the integrity of its forces in the face of the taunting and temptations of its enemy. The war itself has become a force of degradation not only for the Mexican military and security forces, but for the rule of law in Mexico. A recent report from the U.S. State Department said the war had not produced “relevant results,” but had taken “a significant toll on human rights.” The report concludes that “impunity and corruption at all levels of government are still pervasive.”
Ultimately it may not matter what President Calderón decides to do; there are some matters he cannot control. For Mexico to prosecute this drug war successfully, policy across the border has to change. The United States must confront its own drug problem more creatively, transferring funds from enforcement and interdiction to so-called demand-reduction, “soft” strategies that include treatment and relapse prevention for drug abusers as well as drug awareness and prevention programs. It must restore commonsense gun control policies, and, finally, it must produce a comprehensive immigration reform that includes temporary work provisions for unskilled labor from Mexico and Central America. If progress can be made north of the border in these key areas, Mexicans, exhausted by this war, can have reason to hope they may someday be able to declare a real victory against the drug cartels.