In July, Mexico will elect a new president to replace Felipe Calderón. Whoever wins will need to address the foremost challenge confronting the country today: the battle against the drug cartels. And despite all the negative headlines, the next president will find that the government under Calderón has made huge gains toward defeating them.
When Calderón took office five years ago, there were roughly half a dozen cartels, each a large criminal organization in its own right. These illegal enterprises — the Gulf, the Juárez, La Familia Michoacana, the Sinaloa and the Tijuana cartels — dominated large swaths of Mexican territory and operated abroad as well.
Once he assumed the presidency, Calderón realized that he could not rely on the federal police, the Agencia Federal de Investigación, to restore order or track down the cartel leaders. The A.F.I. was riddled with corruption. Over the years, the cartels had bribed not only regional comandantes but also top-level officials at the agency’s Mexico City headquarters. The state police were even more unreliable. Often on the payroll of the cartels in their respective regions, they not only failed to cooperate with the federal police but also regularly protected the cartels and their leaders.
With limited options, Calderón turned to the military, which, because it had not been involved in investigating or acting against the cartels, remained relatively immune from their influence. Calderón used the military as a show of force in areas wracked by cartel violence, such as Ciudad Juárez, Michoacán and Veracruz, and to surgically target, capture, and, if necessary, kill cartel leaders.
Yet Calderón understood that the military alone could not crush the cartels. To do that, he would need forces capable of patrolling urban areas, collecting intelligence, and gathering the evidence necessary to prosecute drug traffickers — functions that only professionalized law enforcement agencies could carry out. To win this war, Calderón needed cops he could rely on.
Calderón set about reforming Mexico’s law enforcement institutions using a three-part strategy: creating a new, professional federal police force; rebuilding each of the 32 state forces and giving them the responsibilities of the discredited municipal police; and overhauling the judicial and penal systems. He began his efforts with the federal police. Fed up with the corruption of the A.F.I., he abolished the agency in May 2009 and created an entirely new force under the secretary for public safety and security.
The new federal police force now has 35,000 officers and has built Mexico’s first national crime information system, which, among other things, stores the fingerprints of everyone who is arrested in the country. The federal police have assumed command from the army in several regions and demonstrated their ability to confront the cartels by apprehending several of their central figures. The force has also avoided any serious incidents of corruption.
Calderón has begun restructuring Mexico’s state police forces as well, along the lines of the reforms he made to the federal police. Given the sheer number of new officers that must be vetted, hired, and trained, it will take at least several more years to complete the job.
Finally, to address the judicial shortcomings, Calderón has proposed moving to a more transparent criminal justice system, with trials taking place in public, and he has begun building maximum security prisons modeled after those in the United States.
Although Calderón has fully achieved only one plank of his proposed reforms so far — the creation of a new federal police force — he has waged an increasingly effective campaign against the cartels by employing what is known as the kingpin strategy, which Colombia used to defeat its drug cartels in the 1990s.
This calls for exploiting all the cartels’ vulnerabilities: intercepting their communications, disrupting the supply and distribution of drugs and the chemicals needed to make them, and seizing the assets of cartel bosses. Once authorities have weakened a particular group, they can find and arrest the kingpin and the other essential members of the organization, including the kingpin’s potential successors.
In the last three years alone, using this strategy, the Mexican government has captured or killed over 40 major cartel leaders; key players who are not easily replaced. Several of the cartels have already been severely weakened or destroyed.
To dismantle the remaining cartels, Calderón’s successor will need to use an essential element of the kingpin strategy that has so far been missing: an aggressive asset-seizure program. This would involve identifying and confiscating not only the funds that the cartels use to conduct their criminal activity, but also the assets that cartel members have purchased with illicit profits: houses, ranches, airplanes, boats, vehicles and otherwise legitimate businesses.
When Mexico removes the kingpins, their successors and key operators, these large criminal organizations will splinter and collapse, unable to threaten the state any longer. That is when Mexico will have won its war against the drug cartels. Calderón does not have time to finish the job before he leaves office in December. Fortunately for Mexico, he will bequeath to his successor major successes against the cartels, newly invigorated institutions, and a sound strategy.
Robert C. Bonner is senior principal of the Sentinel HS Group. He formerly served as administrator of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and as Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. This is a condensed version of an article that will appear in the May-June issue of Foreign Affairs.