From “failed state” to “feasible outcomes”: security in Mexico, long and short term

Por: MA. Clara Franco Yáñez
Master en Asuntos Internacionales, por el Instituto de Posgrados en Estudios Internacionales y del Desarrollo en Ginebra, Suiza

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The events of October 2019 in Culiacan – where a failed attempt to capture the son of El Chapo Guzman caused an armed confrontation between the Mexican Army and members of the Sinaloa Cartel, ending with the Army’s surrender and letting the famous drug lord’s son go free – were reported in the media with ominous headlines which portray a supposed “turning point” in Mexico’s security situation. Titles abounded with phrases such as “The day Sinaloa saw awaken the monster that rules over it”, or “The day Mexico truly exhibited its weak security strategy”. Comments and opinions also went on about the “failed state” which supposedly “is now actually losing the war on drugs” (all peppered with many gendered comments about the president or military having lacked the “male attributes” to do their task). I remain unconvinced that this is anything new, or a turning point. Mexico has been clearly losing a war which, in itself, cannot really be won – at least not while we remain neighbors to the most powerful and drug-hungry country on the continent.

I don’t really have any conversations with security experts or government officials in charge of security policies. I do often have conversations with academics and professors who are experts on drug policies, the history of Latin American countries’ drug policies, society and violence, and the like. I am not aware if my opinions here would be well received by the public at large; if they’d be “unpopular” or how feasible would government officials consider them. However, I honestly fail to see any “turning point” for a country that has long been de-facto governed by cartels, with the connivance of a considerable part of politicians.

A “war on drugs” cannot really be won – at least not by Mexico and not in present times – and we really should stop fighting it already. Today, almost fourteen years after having begun a “war on drugs and criminal cartels”, violence is worse than it has ever been, and drug production and consumption are at an all-time high in Mexico and in the USA. The Mexican “war on drugs” has been a mistake since day one; and thankfully, some US government officials and United Nations experts are finally beginning to admit that pretending to have “a world without drugs” is not a realistic expectation, let alone achieving it through “war” (as was mapped out in the seventies and eighties, when the drug hysteria was at an all-time high).

This is, by the way, not a defense of the current government, which in my opinion is doing a bad job. But that day in October, it was the right choice to free Ovidio Guzman. How many lives would have been an acceptable price for the sake of capturing one criminal leader?

Have we not learned by now, that drug cartels operate like well-run corporations and will not die out just because one particular leader is gone? (violence increases when several leaders are fighting to fill a power vacuum). The government could get rid of every single criminal leader today; but so long as the demand for drugs exists, someone new and more violent will have replaced every one of them by noon tomorrow.

A massacre in Sinaloa and one extradition would not have solved anything. What to do then, in the short and long term? It would of course be a bad idea to drive the military out of the streets suddenly. The short-term strategy would have to be a continuation of what the past governments were trying to do, since violence should be contained as much as possible. In the longer term, however (here go the personal and probably unpopular opinions), it will probably be necessary to legalize and regulate all or most drugs, as we do alcohol and tobacco. Drugs clearly aren’t going anywhere, anytime soon. Prohibition didn´t work with alcohol for a reason: prevention needs to come from education and a focus on public health. Perhaps, do what the PRI party had been doing during the much more peaceful decades before 2006: realize that this huge market cannot be suppressed and come to regulatory agreements to cease the violence. Violent crimes should be prosecuted but drug trafficking in itself will not be suppressed by means of weapons and military power.