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Too early to tell if drug war in Mexico is being won

By Slyvia Longmire
Mexico’s Drug War


“Head of Northern Command says it is too early to tell if drug war in Mexico is being won.”

Mexico's cartel drug wars are part of daily life in some Mexican cities

Here’s an excerpt from this article translation from Mexico’s La Jornada, and found on America’s MexicoBlog:

“The head of U.S. Northern Command said today it is ‘too early to estimate whether the drug war in Mexico is being won or lost,’ despite ‘the brave decision’ to put the military in the streets. Gen. Charles Jacoby, head of Northern Command (Northcom), responsible for U.S. military affairs in North America (U.S., Canada and Mexico), appeared today (Tuesday) before the Armed Services Committee of the Senate and was asked to assess the security situation in Mexico… Senator John McCain had asked the general–given that almost 50 thousand Mexican citizens have been killed since 2006, almost 13,000 in 2011, and the U.S. government has issued warnings to travelers regarding areas in northern Mexico–if this ‘indicates that we are winning or losing, or it is a stalemate.’

Jacoby, pressed to give an assessment of whether the Mexican government’s efforts on this area are a success or failure, said “the violence has grown. It was not a huge leap this year, but those numbers are unacceptable, adding that the travel warnings, like the one issued to Nuevo Laredo, are indicative of the safety issue along the border. At the same time, he felt that the strategy of decapitation of the cartels has been ‘successful,’ given that 22 of the 37 most wanted drug traffickers have been ‘removed from the board.’ However, he said, “this has not had a significant, positive effect.” Link to Full Post

Analysis: I get very bothered anytime there’s talk of whether or not the drug war in Mexico is being “won.” I understand that Congress has to ask these kinds of questions to determine if Mérida Initiative money is being wasted, or if cross-border collaboration efforts are actually making progress. The problem is that this is not a war where anyone can easily determine who’s winning and who’s losing.

One mistake that US authorities can make when trying to assess progress in the drug war is to treat it like a conventional conflict. Yes, there are (more or less) two sides: the good guys (Mexican and US governments and law enforcement) and the bad guys (the TCOs). However, many members of Mexican law enforcement and the government play both sides of that coin, which makes things murky.

Also, there are several different TCOs and smaller criminal groups who sometimes align with the TCOs (and sometimes not). If this were a more traditional conflict, who would raise the white flag on behalf of the bad guys if they ever wanted to surrender? Plus, they’re not state actors, despite the TCOs’ ability to manipulate politics at the local level. So who would the good guys say they’re at war with? The vague and nebulous “organized crime,” or TCOs in general?

If you’re able to get past these issues, you then have to figure out how you’d define progress. A reduced level of violence as indicated by a drop in murder figures is a solid and easy start. On the north side of the border, perhaps a significant drop in apprehensions of criminal aliens (armed smugglers, as opposed to unarmed migrants just looking for work) or a significant reduction in the volume of cross-border drug shipments might signal progress. But would these things be enough to signal “victory”? What levels do violence and drug trafficking activity have to drop down to in order to say the drug war is being won, and what happens if the US and Mexican governments disagree on these levels?

I’ve written in my book and said on many occasions that I think it’s a mistake to use win/loss language when talking about Mexico; I believe this is a war that needs to be managed, as true victory can’t really be defined. Bringing this war to a manageable level, in my opinion, means reducing violence and drug trafficking to levels where the Mexican people feel safe and secure enough to go about their daily business almost anywhere in the country – much like we do here.

We have high crime levels in many parts of the US, but that doesn’t prevent people from going to work, taking their kids to school, or eating out at certain restaurants like it does in Mexico. If an American gets robbed or assaulted in a US city, he or she is usually confident that if the police are called, they’ll respond right away and follow proper procedures to ID the bad guy and prosecute him if he’s caught.

I did criticize the Mérida Initiative in my book (just like the GAO did in its 2010 report) for not having solid benchmarks to determine progress in the drug war. I think this is crucial, and it’s very possible to determine whether or not things are getting better in Mexico, as well as north of the border. But winning or losing?

It’s the wrong language for this conflict, and we need to keep things from getting any worse before we can even start talking about making progress.


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