17 April 2010

Mexico -- drug war or civil war?

What is usually described as Mexico's drug war is beginning to look like something rather more serious. Despite the deployment of 50,000 troops and the detention of 121,000 drug suspects, the situation worsens. Since 2006 when President Felipe Calderon launched a government crackdown on drug gangs, almost 23,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence. In Ciudad Juarez, a centre of drug violence, 10,000 businesses have closed down in the last 18 months with over 100,000 jobs lost.

Now the violence has taken on an even deadlier turn. Three of the cartels have joined forces to fight the infamous Zetas. The Zetas are former members of elite military units in the Mexican and Guatemalan armies who went rogue to work as enforcers and hit men for the Gulf cartel. With members who received training from American, French and Israeli counterinsurgency experts and the recruitment of federal, state, and local police officers, they are considered the most technologically advanced, sophisticated and violent paramilitary group in Mexico. Their victims include the police chiefs of three Mexican cities and the Secretary of Public Safety. After killing the police chief of Nuevo Laredo, they told his replacement they would kill more and more people until he stepped down. After personally discovering three bodies on the side of a city street, he resigned.

Earlier this year, the Zetas decided to set up shop on their own and have become arch rivals of their former employers. Now, as their range expands, they have become a threat to all the cartels. They have established a presence in the U.S., contacts with the 'Ndrangheta in Italy and training camps in Guatemala. The cartels, normally deadly enemies, are collaborating to deal with the threat. Banners have appeared in the border state of Tamaulipas, announcing the unity of the cartels against the common enemy, one going so far as to urge Mexico's army to get out of the way and let the cartels exterminate the Zetas.

Aside from the Zetas, President Calderon's military approach seems to be failing. Most Mexicans believe the cartels are winning and the army is now contributing to public insecurity rather reducing it. Many are demanding he focus more on crime generally and less on the drug trade which they see as primarily an American problem. The Zetas, picking up on this, have boasted they will eliminate petty crime if left alone to conduct their business to the north. Nor is Calderon immune to the public mood. In Ciudad Juarez, for example, he announced a shift toward investing in social programs and job creation to address the underlying causes of crime. He seems to be shifting focus, and well he might ... before his country is torn apart.

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