by Austin Bay
December 17, 2008
If you've ever been stationed at Fort Bliss, Texas, in El Paso, you knowthe neighboring Mexican city of Juarez is a great place to get a steak. Earlierthis year, however, Fort Bliss' commander put Juarez off-limits, and it remainsoff-limits. Why? Juarez is a bloody battlefield in Mexico's Cartel War.
The Cartel War, launched by Mexican President Felipe Calderon in December2006, is entering its third year. Sensational headlines dubbing Mexico "the Iraqnext door" tend to distort both Mexico's and Iraq's complex circumstances. Forexample, 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 comparativeferocity. This week, StrategyPage.com editor James F. Dunnigan noted that on an"average day" (in Iraq) 26 Iraqis are killed in criminal and terrorist-relatedviolence. With the warning that the Mexican statistics are based on reported andinvestigated murders -- which means that the actual number of murders isprobably higher -- November 2008 was the Cartel War's deadliest month, with over700 people slain.
Do the math. In November, Mexico averaged 23 deaths a day from "crime andterror" incidents. Estimates for the total number killed from January throughNovember 2008 run from 4,900 to 5,100.
Thus Juarez is off-limits. Even bureaucratese-riddled State Departmentwarnings about travel in Mexico are pretty stiff. For example, from October:"The situation in northern Mexico remains fluid; the location and timing offuture armed engagements cannot be predicted. ... While most of the crimevictims are Mexican citizens, the uncertain security situation poses risks forU.S. citizens, as well."
I will agree that the Cartel War is, on a grand historical level, likeIraq and our long struggle we call the War on Terror, for they are all wars forthe terms of modernity. There are scores of others, and they are much more aclash of systems than civilizations.
President Calderon -- the man in the cauldron -- sees his war as a warfor systemic change, with his goal the democratic rule of law.
In a recent speech, Calderon addressed what he saw as the deep challengein Mexico: corruption. Calderon understands corruption has security consequencesas well as economic and political penalties. "Instead of faltering," Calderonsaid, "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 alltypes of crime, but the drug cartels essentially began carving out "drugduchies," where they were the law. This is one reason Calderon decided to usethe 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, butthe people of Colombia have come to know it as a criminal gang in the narcoticsand 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 oilbusiness to foreign investment) and "structural reforms" (something of anall-encompassing code word for reforming the police, the judiciary andpolitics). His own words drive the point home: "Nowadays, we are experiencingthe consequences of years of indifference to the cancer of crime, impunity andcorruption. This scourge became a threat to the peace and well-being of Mexicanfamilies and constitutes a challenges to the state'sviability."
In August, Calderon made the goal of purging local, state and nationalpolice forces the centerpiece of his special national conference on crime. Oneof the biggest sources of public discontent in Mexico is the knowledge thatknown criminals are protected by corrupt police officials.
With four years left in his term, Calderon is proving to be a world-classpolitical talent, a brilliant combination of democratic statesman with long-termstrategic vision, a savvy domestic political leader who addresses the Mexicanpublic's aspirations and can work with a volatile national legislature, and awartime leader with extraordinary personal courage.