Mexico: Looking For An Endgame

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March 27, 2011: After five years of war with the drug gangs, nearly a quarter million Mexicans have fled their homes because of the drug cartel violence. Nearly half have fled to the United States, usually illegally. The violence has shut down legal economic activity in many border towns, and whole neighborhoods of some border cities look deserted.

The government believes that its Cartel War has damaged the big narcotics organizations. Critics argue that when the government began its strike on the cartels (December 2006) there were four major organizations. There are now seven major outfits (Gulf, Juarez, Los Zetas, La Familia, Tijuana, Sinaloa, and Beltran Leyva), or at least six and a half if you believe the Beltran Leyva cartel has been hammered (and it has). There is also another line of analysis that says, yes, the government has to a degree pressurized (that’s the term) the environment in which the cartels operate, but the attacking the cartels is a form of playing Whack-a-Mole. What these critics mean is that the cartels shift their operations. They point to cartel activity in Guatemala as a case in point. They also argue that when a senior cartel commander is removed by either arrest or death, there are plenty of sub-commanders ready and willing to move up.

Now a counter-counter argument has emerged; sure, the drug cartels are slippery, but the move from four to seven major cartels represents fractures and divisions. Essentially the bad guys are killing themselves. The Zetas fighting with their former employers in the Gulf cartel are an example. Indeed, the cartels shift to vulnerable areas (like Guatemala) when their preferred areas of operations get uncomfortable. The cartelistas are smart. But shifting ops is an indication they are getting hurt. The fight between the Zetas and the Gulf cartel is also escalating. Allegedly, the Zetas have signed a non-aggression treaty with the Beltran Leyva, Juarez, and Tijuana cartels.

March 25, 2011: This is very interesting. Mexican media and U.S. media in towns along the U.S.-Mexico border are reporting that Mexican media outlets have agreed to a set of principles that will guide their coverage of the Cartel War. One item in the new guidelines includes making sure that reports do not portray drug lords as either heroes or victims. A lot of Mexican media have taken this kind of Hollywood narrative angle, as if the big time drug organization killers were Robin Hood. Another guideline is that police operations against cartels not be compromised. Why the guidelines? For the last three or four years, U.S. journalists working the border have complained that some Mexican news media have pulled their punches and failed to report honestly on the drug cartels. Moreover, there have been complaints on both sides of the border that these Mexican media outlets have romanticized (again, the Robin Hood comparison) the cartelistas. Some of those complaining have gone as far as accusing the Mexican media of being bought out or bribed by cartel drug lords. So now we’re seeing some Mexican media try to respond to the charges. Have drug lords compromised media coverage? Based on five and a half years of covering the Cartel War, we think so.

March 22, 2011: For the last couple of weeks reports have been circulating of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) being involved in a very messy undercover surveillance operation that went very badly. Allegedly, BATF let a few thousand (yup, a few thousand) weapons from the U.S. enter Mexico so their agents and other security agencies could track them. The new (and ironic) term for this is gun walking, instead of gun running. Essentially, BATF agents were letting weapons go across the border. The U.S. government is now calling the operation a serious mistake. U.S. sources admit that one of the things that led to the revelation that BATF was conducting the operation was that a number of the weapons involved in crimes in Mexico could be traced back to Arizona (checks included serial numbers). One U.S. media source claims that two AK-47s that BATF agents let be shipped to Mexico were used in the murder of a U.S. Border Patrol agent. If there was ever an Operation Backfire, this is it.

March 20, 2011: The U.S. ambassador to Mexico resigned. The reason? Wikileaks. In an exposed wikileaks document the ambassador expressed doubts that Mexico is defeating the drug cartels. The Mexican government was not pleased. Here is one of the juicier tidbits from the January 29, 2010 cable: “(President) Calderon's bold plan for ten ambitious areas for reform, announced in September, has yet to translate into politically viable initiatives. His personal popularity numbers have dropped, driven largely by massive economic contraction and a public sense that there is little strategy to create new and sustainable jobs. Overall, Calderon's approval ratings are still well above 50 percent, sustained largely by his campaign against organized crime. Increasingly, Mexicans realize that combating DTOs (Drug Trafficking Organization) is a matter of citizen security, and thus support a tough stance. Yet the failure to reduce violence is also a liability.” Here’s another one: “…Calderon has aggressively attacked Mexico's drug trafficking organizations but has struggled with an unwieldy and uncoordinated interagency efforts and spiraling rates of violence that have made him vulnerable to criticism that his anti-crime strategy has failed. Indeed, the government's inability to halt the escalating numbers of narco-related homicides in places like Ciudad Juarez and elsewhere - the nationwide total topped 7,700 in 2009 - has become one of Calderon's principal political liabilities as the general public has grown more concerned about citizen security. Mexican security institutions are often locked in a zero-sum competition in which one agency's success is viewed as another's failure, information is closely guarded, and joint operations are all but unheard of. Official corruption is widespread, leading to a compartmentalized siege mentality among "clean" law enforcement leaders and their lieutenants. Prosecution rates for organized crime-related offenses are dismal; two percent of those detained are brought to trial. Only two percent of those arrested in Ciudad Juarez have even been charged with a crime…” The cable acknowledges that Beltran Leyva has been hit hard. It insists that the Mexican military needs modernization.

March 16, 2011: The government acknowledged that U.S. drones (eg, Predator) are conducting intelligence missions over Mexican territory. The government said that it is in control of the drones' missions. The government said that the drone operations are conducted with the authorization, oversight and supervision of several Mexican agencies, including the Mexican Air Force. Another government statement said that the drones give Mexican security agencies a technological edge in their war on the drug cartels.

March 15, 2011: The U.S. government will end the emergency U.S.-Mexico border deployment of an additional 1,200 National Guard soldiers in June 2011. Boiled down, the U.S. government statement means it will quit paying for the Guardsmen. Presumably individual border states could pick up the tab after June 30. The U.S. government had described the deployment as a stop gap operation (or bridge operation) until more Border Patrol officers were available.

March 8, 2011: A major battle between rival drug factions broke out in Tamaulipas state. Eighteen people were killed in the battle in the town of Abasolo. Mexican security sources said the firefight erupted between a gang associated with Los Zetas and elements of the Gulf drug cartel.

 

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