The war on the border streets
Jun 30th 2005
In his office in a small house just south of the border with the United States, Jesús Salazar Almaguer hands visitors copies of prayers for peace. Mr Salazar, the vicar-general of the bishopric of Nuevo Laredo, is tired of the violence that has beset his city. “María, queen of peace, plead for us,” the prayer reads. But Mr Salazar reckons that temporal powers can help too. “People out of work need money, so they sell drugs. The American authorities need to change their way of thinking.”
Mr Salazar is not alone in this belief. The failure of drug prohibition in the United States is wreaking havoc in northern Mexico. In the past, much Colombian cocaine reached the United States through the Caribbean. Repression has made that route riskier. But instead of checking the overall flow, this has merely re-routed it via Mexico. According to an assessment by the United States' government, last year 92% of cocaine entering the country did so through Mexico, up from 77% in 2003.
The story is the same for other drugs. The United States Department of Justice's latest National Drug Threat Assessment notes that marijuana production in Mexico increased by 70% in 2003 (the most recent year for which figures are available). It also gives warning that Mexico's output of heroin and methamphetamine is increasing. Anthony Placido, an official at the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), told Congress recently that methamphetamine seizures on the United States southern border are up 74% since 2001.
According to the threat assessment, Mexican criminal gangs “exert more influence over drug trafficking in the US than any other group.” Mexicans now control 11 of the 13 largest drug markets in the United States, according to an American official.
The effects of the tightening grip of Mexican organised crime are being felt south of the border as well as north of it. “It is not our problem, but we have to pay for it,” says Raymundo Ramos, a human-rights activist in Nuevo Laredo. His city, the busiest crossing on the border, has this year found itself in the middle of a turf war between rival gangs. According to reports in Mexican newspapers, at least 300 people have died in drug-related violence in six of the country's northern states so far this year. Many were the victims of execution-style killings.
Mexican and American officials agree that the rising violence stems in large part from a battle to fill a power vacuum left by the arrest of two prominent traffickers. In 2002, Mexican police detained Benjamín Arellano Felix, the head of the Tijuana “cartel”; in 2003, they arrested Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, who headed the Gulf “cartel”. According to Mr Placido's testimony, a group called the “Federation” (also known as the Sinaloa “cartel”) has been trying to capitalise on the weakness of the Tijuana and Gulf gangs to take over their territory.
Far from combating the drug mobs, the police in Mexico have all too often been their allies. In that respect, however, there are a few hopeful signs of change. The efforts of Mexico's president, Vicente Fox, to enact sweeping reforms of the police and of the criminal-justice system have fallen foul of congressional opposition. But his government has shown much willingness to try to do something about drugs. In 2002, the government formed the Federal Agency of Investigation (AFI), an elite force partly modelled on the American FBI. It is proving to be more effective than any other police body has been in the past in Mexico. And reforms of the judicial system, though blocked at the federal level, are slowly proceeding state by state.
The AFI apart, corruption and incompetence remain hallmarks of Mexico's police. It not always clear which of the two is the bigger problem. Jorge Chabat of CIDE, a university in Mexico City, notes that part of what distinguishes the AFI's members are such mundane skills as being able to use a computer—skills which most Mexican police seem to lack. Other things, too, differentiate the AFI from the norm, notes the American official. It has a cadre of young, college-educated officers whom it has kept separated from older officers who might corrupt them. It has a clear, merit-based career structure, and presidential encouragement. Mr Fox is said to attend every AFI academy graduation. All this seems to have kept the new force relatively clean. The American official sees the appeal to patriotism as especially important. In contrast, “our president sure doesn't come to the DEA graduations,” he notes.
Although the AFI is only a small star in the murky universe of Mexican policing, at least it provides a starting point for rooting out police corruption. Notably, a joint operation by the AFI and the army in early June, which saw the suspension of the entire local police force of Nuevo Laredo, appears to have been at least a partial success. The operation was triggered by the murder of a new local police chief, apparently with the help of some of his subordinates. The subsequent investigation has led to the firing of 100 of the force's 700 officers who failed either drug or polygraph tests, and to the rescue, on June 27th, of 43 people who had been held captive by drug gangs in Nuevo Laredo.
Partly because of the creation of the AFI, a past history of mutual mistrust between Mexican and American law-enforcement officials has given way to closer co-operation under Mr Fox. But that does not mean that the drug “war” is being won. “Once (a drug shipment) hits the ground in Mexico, you might as well say it's in the United States,” says the American official. That is partly because of the lack of effective co-ordination among the various American law-enforcement agencies operating on the border.
The sheer scale of the United States' illegal imports of drugs from Mexico has created some of the world's most powerful and dangerous organised criminal gangs. Taming them will be neither easy nor quick. Despite the manifest failure of the drug “war”, American officials see talk of legalisation as “surrender”. The result is that Mr Salazar's prayer seems unlikely to be answered soon.