By Paul Lubliner Senior Editor August 29, 2011

Despite an increasing murder rate, Mexico’s war against drug trafficking organizations shows some signs of promise for the long term.

It is hard to ignore the broad news coverage detailing the effects that drug-related violence is having on Mexican society. In December 2006, under the leadership of President Felipe Calderón, Mexico began an intense campaign to undermine the growing power of the Mexican drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) and their destabilizing effect on the country. The irony is that in many respects the campaign is destabilizing the country even more. Nevertheless, Mexico is making strides in fighting crime that may enhance its national security in the medium and long term.

One of the primary obstacles in bringing drug trafficking under control has been entrenched corruption among the local and national police. In response, Calderón began using the Mexican military to fight the cartels while replacing, vetting and training new police forces. Unfortunately, as a result of the military offensive, the Mexican government has destabilized the balance of power among the DTOs resulting in an increasing murder rate. Nearly 45,000 people (mostly cartel members) have been killed so far during Calderón’s campaign.

Simultaneously, the number of teens participating in Mexican DTOs is increasing, due in part to the lack of economic opportunities. In 2011 the Calderón administration stated that only two in every three young people entering the workforce find employment, leaving the remaining third unemployed. This leaves a large group of youth susceptible to employment by the DTOs to carry out acts of violence, including murder, for wages of $500 to $650 a month. These youth are much less experienced than the hired assassins who ten years ago were paid considerably more to kill just one person. Clearly, there is not just a security problem but also a socioeconomic problem inside Mexico.

This reality is nestled within a larger context of demand for illegal drugs in the United States. As long as there is profit to be made, drug trafficking will exist. There is a debate as to whether cocaine, marijuana or other illegal drugs should be decriminalized or legalized, in part to undermine the profits of DTOs. However, reduced profits from drugs would likely lead the DTOs to rely on other sources of income to survive—namely kidnapping and human trafficking.

Thus we are left with an organized crime problem that needs an economic-, social- and security-integrated solution. On the security dimension there is a question as to how effective the current approach is to maintaining Mexico’s national security. Some argue that the DTOs do not wish to overthrow the government because their goals are fundamentally economic in nature rather than political, and secondly because the semblance of a credible government gives the DTOs political cover from military intervention by the United States. While these assertions may be true, a corrupt government, heavily influenced by the values of the DTOs, cannot effectively govern, provide for the welfare of its people or maintain national security.

Although a multibillion-dollar effort on the part of the Mexican and U.S. governments seems to have delivered few successes so far, there is reason for cautious optimism. Despite an ill-equipped and corrupt justice system (only about one to two percent of arrests lead to convictions or time served ), massive human rights abuses and a mounting death toll, the United States has trained nearly 4,500 Mexican federal police agents during the Calderón administration and has helped Mexico capture an unprecedented number of DTO leaders. Further, Mexican and U.S. intelligence exchanges have become much more frequent and effective. In testament to an increasingly collaborative relationship between the two countries, Mexico is allowing CIA operatives and retired U.S. military personnel into the country to assist with intelligence gathering and operations planning. Mexico is getting better at fighting crime, but the full results of the steps currently being implemented are unlikely to be seen for some years to come.

The government’s goal is to reduce the DTOs from a national security threat to a law and order problem. If Mexico had begun its police and intelligence reforms before initiating a war against the DTOs, this goal would have had a better chance of being achieved sooner. Practically speaking, however, the Mexican government’s messy war against the DTOs has created the political desperation necessary to improve crime fighting, just one of the several essential variables to increasing Mexico’s national security. Ultimately, Mexico should continue its strategic security operations against the DTOs, but it must remain cognizant that a strong economy, a better justice system, good schools, and a solid working relationship with the United States are indispensible elements in the fight against the lawlessness and socially malignant values of drug traffickers.

Paul Lubliner is a graduate student at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University.

Photo courtesy of Claudio Andres via Flickr.