by Austin Bay
December 17, 2008
If you've ever been stationed at Fort Bliss, Texas, in El Paso, you know
the neighboring Mexican city of Juarez is a great place to get a steak. Earlier
this year, however, Fort Bliss' commander put Juarez off-limits, and it remains
off-limits. Why? Juarez is a bloody battlefield in Mexico's Cartel War.
The Cartel War, launched by Mexican President Felipe Calderon in December
2006, is entering its third year. Sensational headlines dubbing Mexico "the Iraq
next door" tend to distort both Mexico's and Iraq's complex circumstances. For
example, Iraq's emerging democracy faces armed and unstable external challengers
-- like Iran -- while Mexico's emerging democracy does not.
Iraq's body count does serve, however, as a crude gauge of comparative
ferocity. This week, StrategyPage.com editor James F. Dunnigan noted that on an
"average day" (in Iraq) 26 Iraqis are killed in criminal and terrorist-related
violence. With the warning that the Mexican statistics are based on reported and
investigated murders -- which means that the actual number of murders is
probably higher -- November 2008 was the Cartel War's deadliest month, with over
700 people slain.
Do the math. In November, Mexico averaged 23 deaths a day from "crime and
terror" incidents. Estimates for the total number killed from January through
November 2008 run from 4,900 to 5,100.
Thus Juarez is off-limits. Even bureaucratese-riddled State Department
warnings about travel in Mexico are pretty stiff. For example, from October:
"The situation in northern Mexico remains fluid; the location and timing of
future armed engagements cannot be predicted. ... While most of the crime
victims are Mexican citizens, the uncertain security situation poses risks for
U.S. citizens, as well."
I will agree that the Cartel War is, on a grand historical level, like
Iraq and our long struggle we call the War on Terror, for they are all wars for
the terms of modernity. There are scores of others, and they are much more a
clash of systems than civilizations.
President Calderon -- the man in the cauldron -- sees his war as a war
for systemic change, with his goal the democratic rule of law.
In a recent speech, Calderon addressed what he saw as the deep challenge
in Mexico: corruption. Calderon understands corruption has security consequences
as well as economic and political penalties. "Instead of faltering," Calderon
said, "we have taken on the challenge of turning Mexico into a country of laws."
Corruption in the police and judiciary provides the "dirty space" for all
types of crime, but the drug cartels essentially began carving out "drug
duchies," where they were the law. This is one reason Calderon decided to use
the Mexican military. Calderon saw a situation similar to that in Colombia,
where at one time the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)
organization openly claimed territory.
FARC started out with political aims and still claims political aims, but
the people of Colombia have come to know it as a criminal gang in the narcotics
and kidnapping business. Mexico's drug cartels skipped the political stage,
though they love buying politicians.
Calderon is also pursuing economic transformation (e.g., opening the oil
business to foreign investment) and "structural reforms" (something of an
all-encompassing code word for reforming the police, the judiciary and
politics). His own words drive the point home: "Nowadays, we are experiencing
the consequences of years of indifference to the cancer of crime, impunity and
corruption. This scourge became a threat to the peace and well-being of Mexican
families and constitutes a challenges to the state's
In August, Calderon made the goal of purging local, state and national
police forces the centerpiece of his special national conference on crime. One
of the biggest sources of public discontent in Mexico is the knowledge that
known criminals are protected by corrupt police officials.
With four years left in his term, Calderon is proving to be a world-class
political talent, a brilliant combination of democratic statesman with long-term
strategic vision, a savvy domestic political leader who addresses the Mexican
public's aspirations and can work with a volatile national legislature, and a
wartime leader with extraordinary personal courage.