By Sylvia Longmire
The US political system is complex and sometimes challenging to follow. But following politics in Mexico can be ten times worse; a fact that is frustrating for those in US government and law enforcement agencies charged with cooperating with Mexico to end the drug war.
The fact is next year the US and Mexico will witness the election of a new Mexican president, and possibly the election of a new American president. Based on the last 40 years of the US’s “war on drugs,” one can safely bet that our drug policy won’t change much in 2012 – and beyond. However, many in Mexico are wondering if a shift in the political sands there could reverse the clock and bring back an era of peace.
Reversing the clock means returning to the time of the 71-year dominance of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, a political party that ruled Mexico with an iron fist through many of the country’s ups and downs. While Mexico was technically a democracy, with elections occurring every six years as required by its constitution, no one really expected any surprises or changes in the regime or status quo.
The key to stability during this time was an implicit agreement between those in charge and the drug lords who had sprung up during the PRI’s rule. Governors, congressmen and even presidents looked the other way while drug traffickers plied their trade. Critical to this arrangement was if a “narco” got too out of hand, authorities simply would arrest him, plain and simple. The transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) could go about their business, so long as they remembered who was really in charge.
But that all changed in 2000 with the election of President Vicente Fox, a member of the PRI’s opposing National Action Party (PAN). The end of the PRI’s 71-year grip on power ushered in an era of true democracy in Mexico. Unfortunately, that transition was one of the many catalysts for the evolution of TCOs into the monsters they are today.
The TCOs knew the Mexican government – at all levels – wouldn’t be as easy to work with. They were also dealing with their own internal business problems, like breakaway factions, grabs for power and the rise of paramilitary enforcement groups that did the dirty work for the drug lords.
As outfits like Los Zetas, Los Pelones, Los Negros and La Linea – all vicious enforcement groups for various TCOs – began their campaigns of terror across Mexico, authorities slowly started to lose control over their formerly subordinate narco-conspirators.
Then current Mexican President Felipe Calderon, also a member of PAN, was elected in 2006. His strategy to fight the TCOs was to hit them as hard as he could, as often as he could. His strategy has resulted in an unprecedented number of drug lord arrests and killings, as well as a record number of drug, gun and cash seizures.
Unfortunately, Calderon’s strategy has also resulted in a drug-related death count never before seen in Mexico. The TCOs saw right away that Fox’s successor wanted a fight, and a fight he got.
That brings us to the current situation in Mexico, where the drug lords are the ones in charge who expect the government and law enforcement agencies to ask “how high?” when they say “jump.” Of course, officials of those agencies are still on the cartel payrolls, but not to keep the peace like they’d done under the PRI. No, these officials now accept bribes under penalty of kidnapping or death.
Many drug war observers point to Calderón’s election and his subsequent drug war strategy as the real cause of all the violence, but the truth is that ball started rolling prior to him taking office. It didn’t help that both Fox and Calderón were viewed as political darlings by the US government for their willingness to fight the drug war in a manner acceptable to US strategy. TCOs took note that the Mexican government was cooperating with US authorities at an unprecedented level to share information.
Because of these developments over the last decade, many in Mexico believe that a future PRI president might be able to bring some peace to the country – a return to the “old ways.” As tempting as the idea might be for some, turning back the clock would be impossible and viewed as unacceptable with regard to achieving US border security objectives.
First, the TCOs currently operating in Mexico believe they are in charge, not the government. Nothing the Mexican authorities can do will persuade them to toe the line like they did in the PRI era.
Second, US financial support – in the form of the $1.7 billion Mérida Initiative – and cooperation in the drug war largely hinges on the Mexican government fighting the TCOs in a manner that the US government finds acceptable. More specifically, the US government will probably not continue to provide funding to a government that backs away from drug interdiction and engages in any sort of arrangement of convenience with TCOs.
Make no mistake, the PRI will take advantage of every Calderón misstep, and they’ve been very vocal that the PAN strategy is the wrong one. Given the limited options the Mexican government has to keep pursuing an interdiction strategy, one can bet that the White House, Department of Homeland Security and US Northern Command will be keeping a close eye on political developments between now and the Mexican presidential election in 2012.
A dramatic change in how the Mexican government chooses to do battle with the TCOs under a different political party’s influence could have major ramifications for US border security strategies.
A retired Air Force captain and former Special Agent with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, Homeland Security Today correspondent Sylvia Longmire worked as the Latin America desk officer analyzing issues in the US Southern Command area of responsibilty that might affect the security of deployed Air Force personnel. From Dec. 2005 through July 2009 she worked as an intelligence analyst for the California state fusion center and the California Emergency Management Agency’s situational awareness Unit, where she focused almost exclusively on Mexican drug trafficking organizations and southwest border violence issues. Her first book, “Cartel: The Coming Invasion of Mexico’s Drug Wars,” is scheduled to be published in Sept. To contact Sylvia, email her at: sylvia(at)longmireconsulting.com
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