This Friday, Mexico’s national security spokesperson Alejandro Poire will talk about his country’s public safety strategy at the University of Texas at Austin. I can already tell you what he’ll tell the audience: Mexico is winning its war against the drug cartels. This has been Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s consistent message despite the more than 34,000 bodies and counting since he launched his offensive against the drug cartels in 2006.
Increasingly, the public on both sides of the border is finding Calderon’s reassuring message hard to digest. A poll released in early January by Mexico’s national statistics institute found that more than 70 percent of Mexicans polled believed the security situation had worsened since 2009, according to an article today in the New York Times. For the first time, Mexicans are more worried about safety than about the economy.
On Friday, Poire no doubt, will highlight the number of drug cartel leaders captured and killed. He’ll argue that the Mexican government is dismantling these powerful cartels one capo at a time. But anyone who has been to Tamaulipas, Morelos, Chihuahua or Monterrey recently will tell you that the blood is still flowing in the streets and it doesn’t look like anything close to victory for Mexico’s government.
Instead, the military offensive has revealed the country’s weaknesses for all to see: it’s broken judicial system, the high rates of impunity and poverty. To be fair, Calderon inherited these problems from more than 70 years of PRI dictatorship. It’s not all his fault as Carlos Pascual, the American ambassador, pointed out in the Times article.
“The vast majority of the violence we’ve seen over the past decade in Mexico is not because it has arisen as a result of taking on organized crime,” he said, adding, “It’s that you’ve had impunity within the country because there has never been a legacy of investing in state and local police and in a judicial system that was able to crack down and contain it.”
The problem is Calderon put the cart before the horse. How can Mexico win a war against the drug cartels when there is no mechanism to bring them to justice? In northern Mexico, the jails operate more like turnstiles. It’s to the point where the Tamaulipas Governor Eugenio Hernandez had practically begged Calderon last year for federal help to beef up his state prisons. Any time a cartel needs reinforcement it simply springs some of its members from one of Tamaulipas’ jails.
And now the Mexican military and armored convoys are rolling into Ciudad Neza and Mexico City to root out the Zetas and La Familia cartels. After having seen the devastation in northern Mexico, one can only lament the bloodshed that will ensue as soldiers fight on city streets among innocent civilians in one of the world’s most populated cities.
Something needs to be done about the growing plague of organized crime, but is Calderon’s strategy really working? And are we really getting the truth from both Mexican and U.S. officials about how dire things really are? How can gunmen repeatedly rob and sometimes kill people unimpeded on the highway to San Fernando, Tamaulipas for more than a year? How can Ciudad Juarez still be one of the deadliest cities in the world after so many government promises to stop the killing? And there are countless other cities where the cartels rule and the government stays sidelined, like Acapulco where a street vendor tells the Times reporter after yet another massacre in his city: “It is clear the criminals did this to Acapulco, but we do not know why the police cannot control it. I have to pay a bribe to the gangs every week or I will have trouble.”
How can this be winning when the government can’t seem to quell the violence and in many cases only makes it worse? Everyone wants to hear a message of victory, but at the same time we don’t want to be lied to. As the 2012 election in Mexico grows closer, Calderon is staking his political legacy on the success of his war. Poire will no doubt make the case Friday that they’re winning it. Now, if they could only get the facts to agree with them.