The Mexican Drug Cartels

The sharp increase in gang related violence along the US-Mexico
border has propelled the drug trade towards the top of both the
national security and the political agenda. Fresh tales of violence
perpetrated by drug cartels appear in print and on television each day,
leading to the issue being depicted by some as ‘war on our doorstep’.

To help Congress staff and other policy makers better understand
this complex and transnational issue, Security for a New Century hosted
Ray Walser, senior policy analyst specializing in Latin America at The
Heritage Foundation, on Monday May 30th.

One of the key underlying questions of this debate is whether this
problem is actually of America’s own making. That is to say, is the
demand for drugs in the US – whether it be cocaine, marijuana or heroin
– the real cause of the drug supply from Latin America and in
particular Mexico? Secretary of State Hilary Clinton spoke recently of
the US and Mexico having ‘co-responsibility’ for the current situation
on a trip to Mexico, suggesting the current administration believes in
the need to address both the demand and the supply of drugs. Mr. Walser
drew a parallel with other major issues currently facing the US – most
notably climate change and the economic crisis – which the US has
contributed to and must now find a way of solving.

Many more aspects of this problem are fundamentally transnational in
nature. There is, of course, significant south to north movement of
drugs over the US/Mexico border. 90% of cocaine used in the US comes
from Mexico; up to an estimated 18 metric tones of heroin is smuggled
across the border each year; and some 15,000 metric tones of marijuana
make the same voyage annually. Simultaneously, there is substantial
southward movement over the border of both guns and money. Of the
former, exact figures are hard to come by as many are illegal weapons;
of the latter, the level is estimated to be in the region of $25
billion.

The combination of lucrative business and large number of weapons
leads, inevitably, to violence. The Mexican government estimates the
number of drug related deaths in Mexico for 2008 to be around 6,000. Of
these, four fifths or more involve those directly involved in drug
gangs, and are Mexican police or military personnel. 5% or so are
civilians unfortunate enough to become caught up in the violence. Mr.
Walser emphasized two points in relation to violence. One is that
policy makers must be aware that statistics regarding the Mexican drug
trade are not always reliable. The other is that the majority of the
violence in Mexico is confined to ‘gateway’ states to the US – it is
far from uniform across the country.

That second point brings the discussion to the question of whether
or not Mexico can be defined as a failed state. Some analysts have
argued a combination of ineffective institutions and widespread
lawlessness means that Mexico can now fits into that category. Mr.
Walser, on the other hand, pointed out that while many governmental,
civic and legal institutions in Mexico are weak, they are still
operational for the most part. Moreover, violence in Mexico, although
very high in certain areas, is less than that in nearby Guatemala or El
Salvador. These factors help to explain why Mexico does not fit the
‘failed state’ criteria as laid down by, for instance, Foreign Policy
magazine.

Looking ahead, Mr. Walser laid out issues to be addressed in the
short, medium and long terms on both sides of the border. Over the next
year, both public and private diplomacy will be vital, as will
improving intelligence – particularly with regard to the financial
underpinning of the cartels. The central challenge in the medium term
is to build on the existing Merida Initiative, which remains the basis
for the US and Mexico working in partnership to tackle the drug trade.
The gravest challenges are long term. For Mexico, building effective
institutions and combating corruption is pivotal. For the US, a
re-think of the largely unsuccessful drug policy may have to be
considered. Finally, for both nations to continue to be able to work
together on this issue will require relations to remain cordial in
other areas – such as trade and migration.

Security for a New Century is a bipartisan study group for
Congress. We meet regularly with U.S. and international policy
professionals to discuss the post-Cold War and post-9/11 security
environment. All discussions are off-the-record. It is not an advocacy
venue. Please call (202) 223-5956 for more information.

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