Thinking Long Term: Solutions to the Mexican Drug War

My first installment offered some background on the Mexican drug war, including the history, scope and impact of the violence in Mexico. To briefly summarize: it’s bad. When I hear about the persistent problems plaguing Mexico, more than anything else, I feel frustrated. How can a democratic nation like Mexico, in 2015, allow drug cartels to pull the strings and manipulate the State? How can Mexico’s government stand idly by while the homicide rate and number of disappeared continue to climb?

When I first learned about the Argentine Dirty War, I could not believe that barely thirty years ago, a violent dictatorship claimed tens of thousands of lives. The Mexican drug war has shattered that record, and the conflict will likely continue for many years. We’re talking hundreds of thousands of disappeared Mexican citizens.

In the wake of my summer research about Mexican drug cartels, I find myself even more infuriated with the government than the criminal organizations that orchestrate this horrendous violence. The Mexican drug war emerged from deeply entrenched societal ills in Mexico, including wealth disparity, lack of education, and shoddy public safety.

The reality is that many cartels offer social services to Mexican communities that the government cannot provide. More than anything, they offer three very alluring things to young Mexican boys—wealth, protection, and brotherhood.

So. How should the Mexican government go about combating the problem it inadvertently helped to create?

Not by targeting cartel kingpins. Killing off the leaders of drug cartels has proven to increase violence by creating new, more bloodthirsty organizations out to make a name for themselves. For example, the Knights Templar emerged from the wreckage of La Familia Michoacana and went on to become one of the most sadistic cartels in Mexico.

Not through a heightened military presence in the country, either. The army and state police are responsible for extrajudicial executions of Mexican civilians and cartel members alike. Evidence has shown that on multiple occasions, police targeted and killed civilians who protested or expressed dissatisfaction with the government.

Not by legalizing marijuana—at least, not just by legalizing marijuana. Although legalizing weed in the U.S. has decreased cartel profits from the drug, it won’t fix everything. Since the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington, the DEA estimates that marijuana imports from Mexico have been cut by 40%. The cartels cannot compete with the quality and ease provided by medical and recreational marijuana stores. However, most cartels traffic hard drugs in addition to marijuana, most notably cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines. Recently cartels have found ways to refine opium paste to make cheaper and cleaner heroin. The DEA’s 2014 assessment showed that Mexican cartels are now responsible for half the heroin in the United States. While I have major issues with the “War On Drugs” in the U.S., something tells me legalizing heroin isn’t exactly on the table (although the DEA did allow Sinaloa to traffic drugs into the United States in exchange for information about rival cartels… read more about it here:

Another reason why legalizing drugs is not enough to extinguish drug-related violence is that extortion has become an independent source of revenue for cartels and may even be as lucrative as drug trafficking. Gangs and cartels have blackmailed Mexican civilians, farmers, and politicians for hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years. They have the men and the guns to back up their threats. Without relief from the police and the State, violence and extortion will remain ubiquitous in Mexico.

Mexico seriously needs to start thinking long term. I believe the nation’s only option is to start building security, social welfare safety nets, and trust in the government from the ground up. I by no means have all the answers. I acknowledge that I am just a white girl from California who has spent limited time in Mexico, and I cannot fully comprehend the ideologies and cultural forces that shape Mexican society. But I have compiled a series of long-term solutions—some gleaned from other articles, others self-generated—that I believe would help Mexico begin to heal itself.

Public officials and police:

  • Pay police officers more, offer substantial benefits, and shorten officers’ shifts. The local and state police are currently paid significantly less than other sectors and are often forced to work 50-hour weeks with no overtime pay. They and their families are also at great risk of retribution from the colleagues of cartel members they arrest or kill. In that position, I’d probably take a hundred thousand dollar bribe, too.
  • Overhaul the federal and local police forces to eliminate officers who have already been bought by drug cartels.
  • Revamp police training to emphasize gathering evidence for criminal investigations. Crimes go unpunished in Mexico partially because when police are called to the scene, they fail to collect evidence that often has mysteriously disappeared by the time the investigator arrives. (Recent reforms have actually implemented this.)
  • Conduct background checks on public officials, rather than relying on “proof of purity” letters that supposedly guarantee candidates’ freedom from association with criminal organizations.

Judicial reform:

  • Actually prosecute perpetrators of crimes, even (gasp!) rape and feminicide. Obviously this relies heavily on the thorough investigation of these crimes, which hopefully would follow police reform.
  • Implement the 2008 constitutional amendments that reform trial procedures for cartel members. For example, the new Article authorizes the detention of suspected cartel members in separate facilities from other prisoners and limits their communication with the outside world. These reforms are supposed to be enforced in every Mexican state by 2016.

Social reform:

  • Offer more social services in poor and rural areas. These reforms must be “place-conscious” and take into account the different needs of Mexico’s diverse populations.
  • Develop community education on sexual assault to shift cultural attitudes that reinforce the inferiority of women. This would not only lead to the successful prosecution of crimes against women, but also hopefully in time would reduce violence and alter the apathetic social response to it.
  • Pump more money into education for lower-income youth, including preschool-aged kids. Develop incentives to keep youth in school through age 18 and create more community organizations that aim to intercept young men before cartels can recruit them. (Cartels often target young people who show promise and leadership in school, youth groups, or church congregations.)

Lastly, and I cannot emphasize this enough, Mexico needs to take responsibility. Current President Enrique Peña Nieto has asked newspapers and television stations to censor their reports of violence in order to increase confidence in the government. This perpetuates the cycle of misinformation and distrust in the government. We need accurate statistics and we need them now.

It is scary to imagine five, ten, or twenty more years of this violence. But I believe the government has to start from the bottom—through political, judicial, and social reform—to build a healthy nation free from violence and fear.

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