In Mexico, a drug war of choice?
Here is a short history of Mexico’s drug war, as told to a joint session of the U.S. Congress by President Felipe Calderon on May 20.
In 2004, a U.S. ban on the sale of assault weapons to civilians was lifted. High-powered firearms started flowing south across the 2,000-mile border. Violence increased. “One day criminals in Mexico, having gained access to these weapons, decided to challenge the authorities in my country,” he said.
Calderon did not say what happened on that “one day,” by implication the day the president had no choice but to fight back.
There is another version of history, which goes as follows: Calderon won elections in 2006 with a margin so thin (0.58 percent) that it prompted cries of fraud, persuaded his left-wing opponent Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to declare himself the real winner, and gave Mexico the unusual and embarrassing spectacle, for weeks on end, of two men claiming they were the legitimate president.
So, ten days after eventually being sworn in, Calderon announced that he had ordered the army into his home state of Michoacan to make war on Mexico’s drug cartels.
One of Calderon’s most vocal critics, former foreign minister Jorge Castaneda, loses no opportunity to say this was a war of choice, not prompted by any specific outrage but by a perceived need to legitimize a contested presidency.
Calderon badly misjudged the strength of the criminal mafias, the alternative version goes, and now is stuck with a war he cannot win, not even with U.S. support. The death toll in the wars the cartels are fighting against the state and against each other stands at around 23,000 and is rising by the day.
To staunch the bloodshed, Congress should consider reinstating the assault weapons ban, Calderon told Congress.
“If…you do not regulate the sale of these weapons in the right way, nothing guarantees that criminals here in the United States, with access to the same weapons, will not in turn decide to point them at U.S. authorities and citizens.”
Calderon’s remarks all but guarantee that the National Rifle Association (NRA), one of the most powerful lobbies in the United States, will redouble its efforts to prevent the ban from being reinstated. While the Obama administration is in favour of doing so, the chances of that happening in an American mid-term election year are remote.
The NRA launched a pre-emptive counter-attack weeks before Calderon’s arrival on a two-day state visit, with an essay on its website saying that Mexico’s crisis was being used as a pretext for restrictions on gun ownership. Whatever one might think of America’s lax gun laws, it’s probably safe to assume that Mexican drug criminals by now have enough weapons to keep murdering each other and the forces of law and order for a long time before needing resupplies from the north.
FAST-GROWING ARMY OF CRIMINALS?
Unless, of course, the Mexican army of criminals is growing very fast, which would be evidence that Calderon’s frontal assault is failing and help explain why a majority of Mexicans, according to opinion polls, think the traffickers are winning.
Nobody knows just how many people are involved in the drug trade — as foot soldiers, runners, lookouts, accountants, money launderers, communications experts and a wide variety of other functions. Cartel recruiters have a deep pool to draw from — Mexican unemployment stands at around 2.5 million and at least 15 million people work in the “informal sector” made up of street vendors and other casual workers.
Add family members of cartel criminals and officials lured by the generous bribes the cartels can offer and the number thrown out by Ismael Zambada, a fugitive leader of the Sinaloa drug cartel, begins to look more than a mere figure of speech.
Zambada, for whose capture the U.S. has offered a $5 million reward, said in a rare interview with the Mexican news magazine Proceso in April that there was no way the cartels could be defeated.
“Millions of people are involved in the narco problem,” he said. “How can they be overcome…this is a lost war.” The interviewer asked, “Why lost?” Zambada: “The narco has roots in society (just) like corruption.”
Another estimate on the strength of the trafficking organizations has come from the Washington Times, a conservative newspaper with good contacts in the military that last year quoted an unnamed senior defense official as saying the Pentagon believed the number of cartel foot soldiers matched that of the Mexican army – about 130,000.
In Washington, policymakers have begun to wonder aloud how vigorously the war against the cartels will be fought once the conservative Calderon, who has been a close U.S. ally, leaves office (Mexican law provides for a single six-year term).
Judging from present polls, the left-wing Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) has a good chance of winning back the presidency in 2012.
And then what? Possibly an end to the extradition to the U.S. of wanted drug lords, considered an affront to national sovereignty under the rule of PRI presidents. Even worse, from a U.S. point of view, would be a return to greater tolerance of moving drugs into the United States as long as the cartels keep the peace at home.