Murder in Mexico brings the drug war home

When politicians talk of a “war” on drugs they rarely mean it literally. Yet in some parts of Mexico the “drug war” is more than metaphorical. On taking office as the country’s president in December 2006, Felipe Calderón launched 45,000 army troops against trafficking gangs, declaring that “organised crime is out of control”.

Since then some 18,000 people have died — and there is no sign of any let-up in the violence. Worst hit is Ciudad Juárez, a sprawling city of 1.3 million people in the Chihuahuan Desert rammed up against the border with Texas. One of the most important industrial centres in North America, it has now become one of the world’s most violent cities. Despite the presence of 10,000 troops and federal police, there are eight to ten murders every day in Juárez. The latest victims were a pregnant employee of the American consulate, her husband and the partner of another consular worker.

Most Mexicans still support Calderón’s crusade. But many are starting to ask whether he is winning. All this is not happening in Africa. Mexico is the world’s 13th- biggest economy, the US’s third-biggest trading partner (after Canada and China) and a sophisticated middle-income country.

Yet the carnage just across the border prompted the US Joint Forces Command a year ago to bracket Mexico with Pakistan as the countries most at risk of becoming “failed states”. That judgment is exaggerated. Mexico is not Yemen. But it does provide a stark warning of the immense criminal power generated by the trade in illegal drugs.

There are two main reasons why Mexico finds itself in this predicament. The first is that in the drug business, like any other, closeness to the customer is a paramount advantage.

In the late Eighties, America’s drug warriors shut down the island-hopping route across the Caribbean previously used by Colombian drug barons. The Colombians began sending their cocaine through Mexico to the US. At the same time the Mexicans grabbed control of its distribution in many American cities, giving them the upper hand over the Colombians.

Second, Mexico’s police forces were long corrupt and ineffective — a legacy of seven decades of one-party rule that ended only in 2000. Calderón chose to make the security issue his top priority, partly to stamp his authority on the country after winning a narrow and disputed election.

His officials accept that they cannot end drug trafficking — as long as Americans snort coke that would be impossible. Instead, they define victory as turning organised crime from a national-security crisis into a routine policing problem. To do that they first have to create an effective police force. But progress is painfully slow, partly because of bureaucratic turf wars. Officials expect to continue to rely on the army’s boots on the streets for the rest of Calderón’s six-year term.

They insist the violence is a sign that they are squeezing the traffickers. Some four fifths of the dead are narco foot soldiers killing each other in a vicious battle for shrinking territory and business, they say.

The killings of the Americans looks like a desperate gambit by the local Juárez mob, whose turf has been invaded by the powerful Sinaloa “cartel”. But the longer the army is deployed the more it is accused of abuses — and risks becoming corrupted.

If Mexico is partly a victim of its own lawlessness, it also has legitimate grievances against the US. Not only is the market north of the border, but also the traffickers freely arm themselves in American gun shops. In 2004 a ten-year ban on the sale of semi-automatic weapons lapsed. That means AK47s and armour-piercing sniper rifles can be bought as if they were groceries.

The Obama Administration has offered soothing words about “shared responsibility” for the drug problem. The US is sending hardware and training costing $400 million (£265 million) — a pittance compared with the $7 billion (£5 billion) that Mexico is spending on law enforcement, or the $15-23 billion of drug money that finds its way across the border to the gangs. The consular killings may force Obama’s people to get more involved.

To make matters worse, America’s economic bust hit Mexico hard. Its economy shrank by almost 10 per cent in the year to June, although recovery is now under way. The traditional safety valve of migration has shut: crossing the border is harder and there are no jobs for those who do.

Remarkably, Mexico is not facing social disorder. Nor does it risk civil war. But officials admit that the battle against organised crime could last a generation. Watching this war without end against the drugs mafias, many Latin American political leaders are starting to call for drug legalisation. They are right: Mexico’s suffering shows that prohibition is far deadlier than drugs.

Michael Reid, Americas editor of The Economist and author of Forgotten Continent: The Battle for Latin America’s Soul.