Ciudad Juarez: How This War Is Not Like Colombia, Italy and Chicago

by John Murray


This Cinco de Mayo, while some are celebrating Mexico’s past, most Mexicans are anxious about its uncertain future. Yesterday in Mexico City, national security minister Genero Garcia Luna remarked at the Reuters Latin American Investment Summit that the war against the cartels will in all probability take years before anything is accomplished. Citing other prominent examples of long-lasting wars on organized crime in places like Italy, Colombia and Chicago in the 1920s, Garcia Luna explained that expectations for a quick finish should be tempered against these historical examples that lasted “six years on average.”

Now that we are at what seems to be the peak of violence since the government’s war on the cartels began in 2007, it certainly is disheartening to think that such a level of mayhem could continue for years into the future. But this also raise the question: what will the completion of this war look like? Perhaps only one of the examples that Garcia Luna raised had a definitive end, the reign of Al Capone’s Chicago mafia, and the event that truly precipitated the finality of that era was the end of Prohibition. In Italy, despite that the out-in-the-open days of Mafia rule as a threat to the state may be past, organized crime is still a widespread and hugely influential force, despite that it may be a bit more behind the scenes.

The situation of Colombia in the 1980s is an even more problematic example, since it is so closely linked to the Mexican drug trafficking problem. Pablo Escobar was a figure who waged an outright war on the Colombian government, attempting to not only avoid extradition to the US but also to achieve some kind of government-sanctioned ability to operate his business, and he tried to do so through sheer force and violence. He bombed an airliner, set off enormous bombs in crowded cities, even assassinated supreme court justices and a prominent presidential candidate. Eventually, Escobar was killed with the help of US Delta Force commandos, but it did nothing to stop the drug trade. The Cali cartel took the place of Escobar’s Medellin cartel as the prominent drug traffickers in the country for a time, and later the Norte de Valle cartel. Today, the flow of cocaine out of Colombia hasn’t been affected at all.

It seems then that the conclusion Garcia Luna is referring to is less an assured victory in the government’s war against the cartels than a stabilization and tapering off of the horrific violence and upheaval the country is currently experiencing. This makes sense considering his audience, a conference of people trying to assess the potential and safety of foreign investment in Latin American countries like Mexico. In essence, then, it seems Garcia Luna isn’t referring to the government’s war on the cartels resolving at all. Instead he’s talking about the war between the cartels themselves, making a sort of ‘this too shall pass’ assurance on the situation. While this is categorically different than Escobar’s all-out war on the Colombian government, the outcome will be the same as in Colombia. No matter what cartels are destroyed in the current realignment of the industry, the drug trade will continue to exist. But perhaps there will eventually be an event or series of events that allows relative stability to reassert itself, bringing the appearance of an ‘end.’

The government’s role then is to look busy until that eventuality occurs. As evidence of the government’s commitment and focus on the cartel war, Garcia Luna brought up the recent removal of the Army and their replacement by the Mexican federal police as arbiters of law and security in Juarez. “We’ve had federal police (in control) in Ciudad Juarez for almost 20 days… and we are beginning to see signs of improvement in public security,” he said.

But this was the same thing the government said when they originally sent the Army to Juarez in March 2009. There was a lull in killings at first, and then they got worse than they were before. Why will the presence of the federal police be any different? The removal of the Army had more to do with public relations than the ability of another force to do a better job than them, as they were accused of human rights abuses, murders and rampant corruption-as well as expelling the Chihuahua state Human Rights investigator Gustavo de la Rosa Hickerson from the country with death threats. If you need evidence as to the ability of drug gangs to corrupt the Federal Police, there is plenty.

It just goes back to the fact that the problem of drug trafficking becoming such a large, culturally ingrained and violent force in Mexico over the past few decades wasn’t a military problem to begin with, and it can’t be solved with a military solution. First and foremost, drug trafficking is a problem of capitalism, with a neighbor to Mexico’s north that outlaws drugs its citizens are willing to pay billions annually for. But it’s also a Mexican economic and social problem, with so much of Mexico’s dirt poor ruled by an oligarchical, supremely wealthy class that has done little socially for those citizens. As Hickerson noted, “The people of Juarez aren’t going to gain anything if the Juarez cartel or the Sinaloa cartel falls. I can assure you that the salaries of the people of Juarez won’t go up even a dollar if one of the two cartels falls.” The communities in which these cartels thrive and in which violence is most rampant are on the outskirts of Mexican society, stricken by poverty, close to the border or deep in the rural provinces. The investments that people like Genero Garcia Luna are trying to attract aren’t really going to do much of anything to help those communities, where the government can think of nothing better to do than deploy an authoritarian police force that threatens the civil and human rights of its own citizenry.

But maybe it is unfair to blame the Mexican government entirely for the focus on military intervention as the only response to the drug cartels, especially in the light of concern about foreign investment. One of the biggest foreign investments in Mexico is the Merida Initiative, the $400 million US aid package signed into action in 2008 that specifically provides Mexico “equipment and training in support of law enforcement operations and technical assistance to promote the long-term reform, oversight and professionalization of our partners’ security agencies.” For all the talk about “shared responsibility” that got Merida approved, maybe we should talk about better ways to allocate those funds when Merida expires in 2011and a new military aid package inevitably comes up for review.

John Murray is a lover of obscurity. He lives and writes in Arizona.