Struggle Continues in Mexico's Drug War

By Patrick Homan
October 25, 2009

The drug war in Mexico, an issue that dominated the U.S. media and the minds of policymakers in the spring of 2009, continues unabated despite falling out of the international media spotlight. Evidence of the ongoing struggle and its incredible violence continued to surface last week when Mexican police found the bodies of ten men who had been dismembered and left in plastic bags on an isolated road in western Mexico. Further complicating the situation, Mexican cartels have begun to target and assassinate some of the country’s top investigators - hampering an already inept law enforcement and judicial system.

Soon after taking office in 2006, Mexican President Felipe Calderon launched an army-led assault with more than 45,000 members of the military to fight the country’s drug cartels and eradicate what he called the “cancer” consuming Mexico. The offensive ignited an extremely violent reaction from the cartels and more than 14,000 people have died in drug-related violence since its inception. Like the bodies that were found last week, most casualties are a result of rival drug gangs or cartels battling for key trafficking corridors into the United States.

Despite the ongoing violence, more than 50,000 people have been arrested on drug charges since the anti-drug offensive began in December 2006. The large number reflects not only the sheer number of crimes that are taking place in Mexico, especially murders, but also the overwhelming toll the offensive has taken on the nation’s law enforcement and judicial system. Some reports suggest that only about a quarter of crimes in Mexico are ever reported and that only a small fraction ever result in convictions. At times, police release suspects after paraded them before the news media.

This troubling situation is the product of a number of challenges that Mexico’s law enforcement and judicial system are trying to overcome while battling the cartels. The Mexican police force has more than adequate numbers with around 400,000 officers throughout the various levels, yet the ranks suffer from a lack of professionalization, training, and inadequate equipment. Investigators often complain that both police officers and soldiers are unfamiliar with how to preserve a crime scene, the rules of evidence, and other law enforcement basics.

Another severe problem within Mexico’s law enforcement agencies is corruption. Recently, in both Tijuana and Juárez, two of the most violent cities in Mexico, officers were fired in mass after being linked to organized crime.

The Mexican government has tried to combat some of these internal problems by reorganizing its federal police agencies to improve oversight as well as opening up a new police-training institute. Furthermore, in 2008 Mexico approved a sweeping overhaul of its judiciary system, which is in dire need of improving its efficiency and effectiveness. However, revamping these systems is no easy task, especially while trying to fight a violent, nation-wide war, which continues to bring in a flood of cases.

The U.S., which is both the source of most of the weapons being used by the cartels and the destination for the majority of its drug trading, has tried to do its part in helping its neighbor to the south. The largest area of cooperation has come via the Merida Initiative, an assistance program aimed at providing funds for needed judicial reforms, police training, and new drug fighting equipment throughout Mexico and Central America.

President Obama has continued the Initiative, initially negotiated by the Bush administration in late 2007. In June 2009, President Obama signed into law a Supplemental Appropriations Act that included $420 million in funding for the Merida Initiative in Mexico. This brought funding up to $1.12 billion, including the $400 million in the FY2008 budget and the $300 million in the FY2009 budget.

However, the U.S. Congress has been slow to release some of these funds because of concerns related to human rights abuses made by Mexican soldiers. The U.S. also wants assurances that the equipment they provide will not end up in the hands of corrupt police officers working for drug gangs.

Another important area of cooperation between the U.S. and Mexico has been in cross-border law enforcement, particularly in the area of extradition, which has targeted some of the major drug kingpins. Just last week, a top lieutenant of a Tijuana drug cartel pleaded guilty in San Diego after being extradited to the U.S. last year.

Despite these successes, many lawmakers and experts on both sides of the border believe that Washington's lax gun laws and inattention to decades of drug use by Americans has played a central role in the crisis. In hearings this spring, Congressional leaders admitted to their failures and the need to do more. In response, U.S. lawmakers have begun to consider and implement ways to reduce U.S. demand for drugs through treatment, deploying more federal agents to the border, and other methods.

While improvements are necessary on both sides of the border, many see cooperation between the U.S. and Mexico as better than ever. Some believe that the increase of violence in Mexico is actually a sign of success because it exposes the cartels as wounded and vulnerable. The future for Mexico remains unclear, but for now it seems that both the U.S. and Mexico are taking the right steps towards tackling their enemy in the drug war.

This article is a revised version of the article published on October 25, 2009.


It will be interesting to see how this struggle continues to progress into the next decade. At some point we will have to infiltrate the Mexican Judicial police to expose the corruption which is surely running rampant. It's a scary thought that the funding may actually be fueling this violence at the hands of corrupt law enforcement

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