Mexico’s Future Shrouded by Ongoing Drug War: Will Nieto’s Strategy Prevail?

Photo: Luis Guillermo Pineda Rodas

As drug wars continue to ravage Mexico, President Enrique Peña Nieto signed The General Victims Act on January 9, 2013 that will trace and compensate innocent victims of the “War on Drugs”. The bill was approved by Congress in April 2012 under the Calderón administration, though implementation was delayed due to objections by former president Felipe Calderón that the bill was too vague, presenting the possibility of it being unconstitutional and difficult to implement.

Calderón’s veto registered criticism from human rights activists who rallied for victim recognitions and reparations. The bill, which remains unchanged, was signed by Nieto with assurances that the contents would be specified to remove vagueness before implementation, but Nieto insisted that putting the law on the books was imperative.

The law consists of a fund intended to allocate up to $70,000 per victim to family members. With an estimated 70,000 drug war victims, the law is a multimillion dollar commitment. Of the 70,000 victims, approximately 9,000 are unidentified bodies, making victim compensation that much more difficult. Also included are provisions for the creation of a victim database, so that more accurate records may be established.

Yet while The General Victims Law is widely supported by human rights groups, problems remain and the law fails to establish any new mechanisms for fighting the drug cartels. Instead, the law is yet another reminder that the long-waged “War on Drugs” persists, and continues to be a resource drain on both the Mexican and American governments.


Learning from past mistakes

Calderón initiated the “war on drugs” in December 2006, sending a military force of over 6,000 Mexican Army Soldiers to the State of Michoacan to break up powerful cartels. Yet the nearly 70,000 victims of this “war on drugs” measure six years of growing violence throughout Mexico. During his term, Calderón targeted and successfully removed the heads of several cartels, including head of the powerful Zetas cartel, Heriberto Lazcano. However, Calderón’s “kingpin” strategy caused violence to increase, as eliminated cartel leaders created a power vacuum for volatile second in commands. Militarized action against cartels has solicited criticism for worsening an already violent situation, and charges of corruption against government officials and police forces have further complicated the issue.

In 2006, Calderón fired several hundred police officers who were suspected of corruption, and even disarmed a town in an effort to prevent misconduct in forces.8 Both police and military units have often been accused of serious corruption by both the United States and Mexican governments, with experts speculating that the drug business is just too lucrative for some to pass up. A 2009 report from the United States Department of Justice claims that the drug cartels make about $39 billion annually on wholesale profits.

Yet, the Mexican government is making efforts to combat corruption. In May 2012, four former officers of the Mexican Army were arrested under the suspicion of sharing information with the Beltrán Leyva cartel for money. The Mexican police force is likewise not immune to collusion with drug gangs, as reports of past corruption linger. In 2002 the police chief of Tijuana was assassinated. Among the seven arrested for the chief’s murder were two former Tijuana police officers, who confessed they were operating with the Sinaloa cartel.


More recently, unconfirmed suspicions from the D.E.A suggest that General García Ochoa has ties with drug traffickers, highlighting tensions between the Mexican and American governments. As the U.S. spoke with Mexican officials, voicing concerns about Ochoa’s possible promotion, the hefty involvement of the U.S. government in Mexican jurisdiction is becoming increasingly strained. The New York Times reports that while relations appear to be friendly, according to a former Mexican official, “the running complaint on the Mexican side is that the relationship with the United States is unequal and unbalanced.”

A dysfunctional relationship?

The United States has been heavily involved in the Mexican drug wars, with the intention of stopping the cartels before they cross the United States-Mexico border. The U.S. has offered military training and intelligence assistance to Mexican forces, which on occasion has led to criticisms of the U.S-Mexico relationship. Tensions rose in the 1990s, when 31 Mexican troops trained by the U.S. for advanced surveillance and assassination skills left the Special Forces to join the Gulf Cartel after being persuaded by the cartel leader’s bodyguard, Arturo Guzman Decenas.

Yet despite accusations of corruption, J.D. Jenik Radon, from Columbia University’s School of Public and International Affairs, maintains that, when it comes to corrupt members in the military, “if you’re looking for perfection, you won’t find it,” and further argues that “bad eggs” are found everywhere in many different countries and government organizations.

However, Dr. David Shirk from the University of San Diego argues differently and emphasizes that aid to the Mexican government must be given carefully. “The United States government is in a tough position. We cannot give unconditional support to bad actors,” he said.

Despite concerns of bad actors, the Mexican government under the Calderón Administration initiated and led a committed fight against drug cartels. In 2011, Mexico sent 1,800 federal agents, in addition to the initial 6,500 to the state of Michoacán to address drug related crimes. Furthermore, in 2012, Interior Minister Alejandro Poire said Mexico is, “systematically bringing down some of the most dangerous criminals,” as violence experiences a small decrease. President Nieto has also announced plans to build a patrol force of 10,000 that will be used for the security of Mexican citizens.

Additionally, as Mexico plans future security additions and strategies, the neighboring countries continue the drug war offensive in tandem. During Calderón’s six-year “kingpin” strategy, the killings and arrests of several drug cartel leaders were completed in a cooperative effort that officials and citizens from both Mexico and America generally applaud.

Yet while the American-Mexican cooperation has been met with general approval, reservations remain concerning the relationship. After the assassination of fifteen teenagers in a 2010 cartel related incident, resistance to the U.S.-backed drug war has grown. Mexican protestors insist that the U.S. halt the flow of arms to Mexico and that the Mexican government rethink the U.S. regional security policy currently in place. Jenik Radon claims that many weapons being used in the drug war come from America through “porous borders.” He further states for Americans, “We have to really recognize that we are the ones buying it, creating a market for the drugs,” an issue that has been a large component in Mexican opposition to American involvement. The growing tensions between Mexico and the United States raise questions over each country’s motives and end goal in the conflict.

Different leaders, different countries, different goals?

Under the Calderón administration, the primary emphasis in Mexico was to dismantle cartels with direct force, which resulted in heavy losses, with an estimated 1,000 police officer deaths in the first three years alone.

However, President Enrique Peña Nieto is redirecting Mexico’s focus to the reduction of violence and homicides that affect everyday citizens, as opposed to direct military confrontation and intervention. He plans to build a military force of 10,000 and will place security force in troubled areas, but will not focus on dismantling cartels.

Meanwhile, the United States is concerned with stopping the trafficking of drugs, which has cost about $20 billion dollars in security aid over the past decade. With Mexico looking to pull away from the cartels, and America still concerned about drug trade, there appears to be a lack of cohesive goals in place. Dr. Shirk, however, assures that while, “these is some tension between U.S. priorities and Mexican priorities… the goal was to break the cartels,” and slightly different goals do not mean ineffective cooperation. In fact, as the U.S. works to reduce drug trade, and Mexico focuses its efforts on the reduction of violence, the two initiatives could work symbiotically.

Big plans for the future, but no definite answers

The turn from a militarized kingpin strategy to civilian security precaution defines a new era in the drug wars. However, concrete strategies have yet to be established. Nieto has not yet addressed how the General Victims Law will be implemented, where the money will come from, or how a victim will be defined.

Christopher Wilson, from the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Mexican Institute, explains that the law, “is something that has been promoted by victim groups,” but “as written, the law could apply to a broad pool of people, and perhaps to those that have not been severely affected.”

Wilson describes the new law as, “innovative, but undefined,” attributing its uniqueness to the fact that the guilty party, not the state, normally pays reparation. The Mexican government is creating a role for itself that is both rare and vague. As the government pulls away from direct cartel intervention to focus on civilians, and prepares to distribute reparations, the future of the drug war remains indefinite. What is clear, though, is that past strategies have not been as successful as initially hoped. One might even call them crazy; the repetition of the same action over again and expecting a different result. Perhaps Nieto’s new approach to the the drug war will reap better results.

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