The headlines from Mexico are alarming: Former presidential candidate kidnapped; U.S. consular official gunned down in broad daylight; Arizona rancher murdered by Mexican drug smugglers. Mexico is in the midst of a battle against powerful drug cartels, the outcome of which will determine who controls the country’s law enforcement, judicial and political institutions.
In the last two decades, Mexican drug cartels have acquired unprecedented power to corrupt and intimidate. Three factors account for their rise: pre-existing corruption, the inability of weak law enforcement institutions to counter them, and the demand for illegal drugs in the United States.
Drug trafficking and cross-border smuggling existed in Mexico before the 1980s, but then the trade was chiefly confined to marijuana and small quantities of heroin. In 1984, in response to the United States’ increasingly successful interdiction strategy in the Caribbean, the Colombian cartels forged a connection with major Mexican trafficking organizations. Within just a few years, 80 to 90 percent of the cocaine being smuggled into the United States was flowing through Mexico.
At first, the Mexican cartels acted primarily as transporters for the Colombian traffickers, but by the early 1990s they had created their own supply chain and distribution networks. The major cartels have evolved into vertically integrated, multinational criminal groups, headquartered in Mexico but with distribution arms in over 200 cities throughout the United States. Their primary business is cocaine and, more recently, methamphetamines, but they also engage in other criminal activities, including human trafficking, kidnapping and extortion.
During the 1990s, Mexican governments made sporadic attempts to rein in the drug cartels, but they lacked any systematic strategy or sustained effort.
A major turning point came in 2000, when Vicente Fox of the National Action Party was elected president. The end of 70 years of one-party rule was a game changer for the drug cartels. The acquiescence of the federal government could no longer be taken for granted in a democratic state in which most of the public abhors the culture of impunity fostered by the drug cartels.
Under Fox, there was a sharp increase in the extradition of drug traffickers to the United States. The government’s campaign escalated dramatically after Felipe Calderón took office in 2006. Relying heavily on the military, Calderón’s initiatives have begun to destabilize the cartels, and several cartel leaders are now dead, captured or on the run. Calderón has also taken action to tighten security at Mexico’s ports and southern border in order to disrupt the inflow of cocaine, weapons, and drug precursor chemicals.
The situation in Mexico today, including the violence, is similar to the one that Colombia faced 20 years ago. In 1990, two enormously powerful Colombian drug cartels — in Cali and Medellín — dominated the world cocaine trade.
The cartels worked by bribing police, politicians and judges. Those who could not be bribed were intimidated; the cartels threatened to kill them and their families, and often did. By the end of the 1990s, both cartels were eliminated.
There are several lessons to be drawn from Colombia’s successful campaign. First, since the cartels were vertically integrated, transnational organizations, the campaign against them required the involvement of more than one country. A multinational approach, with strong support and assistance from the United States, was essential.
Second, the goal must be clear. In Colombia, the objective was to destroy the Cali and Medellín cartels — not to prevent drugs from being smuggled into the United States or to end their consumption. Indeed, there are still drug traffickers in Colombia, and cocaine is still produced there, but these cartels no longer pose a threat to Colombian national security.
Third, a divide-and-conquer strategy can be effective. The Colombian government chose to attack one cartel at a time rather than fighting a two-front war. Importantly, Colombia and the United States used the “kingpin strategy” to dismantle the cartels; a strategy that hinged on locating, capturing and incapacitating the kingpins and key lieutenants, while vigorously attacking the vulnerabilities of their organizations, including disrupting their cash flow and sources of supply.
In the longer term, law enforcement and judicial institutions must be reformed. Success in Colombia required strengthening the capacity and integrity of the country’s policing, prosecutorial and judicial institutions.
Moreover, the limits on the usefulness of the military must be understood. The Colombian military played an important part in the defeat of the Cali and Medellín cartels, yet it did not play a decisive role — the Colombian National Police did. Militaries are ill-suited to carry out the law enforcement actions necessary to ultimately bring down criminal organizations, including investigations and the use of informants and electronic surveillance to gather evidence.
Finally, extradition is essential. Imprisonment in the United States was the only thing that Colombian traffickers truly feared. If Mexico takes these lessons to heart and continues to show strong leadership and firm political will, it will rid itself of the cartels for good.
Robert C. Bonner, senior principal of the Sentinel HS Group, was administrator of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration from 1990 to 1993 and commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection from 2001 to 2005. A longer version of this article appears in the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs.