Last month, Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper told the U.S. Senate that "Mexico"s government remains committed to fighting the country's drug cartels and enacting reforms aimed at strengthening the rule of law."
Credit the intelligence director with providing a crisp and public description of Mexican President Felipe Calderon's two-pronged cartel war strategy: 1) fight and 2) reform.
In the towns and neighborhoods where the drug cartels intimidate the Mexican people by threat and violence, the Mexican government combats the drug gangs with armed security forces. That's the fight prong. Clapper noted that Calderon's fighters have scored successes. Police and military "operations have degraded several cartels," splintered others into factions and "disrupted" some criminal operations.
The fight, by design, puts drug lords at personal risk. Since December 2009, "23 of the 37 "most wanted" traffickers have been arrested or killed." While the DNI admitted criminal violence had increased in Mexico since the cartel war began, he also pointed out that most homicides are "trafficker-on-trafficker violence."
Clapper was subtly suggesting that who the bodies are provides crucial insight into the nature and the stakes of Mexico's struggle. Cartel gunmen are fighting among themselves for control of trafficking routes through Mexico and into the U.S. This distinguishes the cartels' high-intensity criminal brutality (organized, widespread terror to further a gang's economic interests or survival) from al-Qaida-type terrorism (terror with a political agenda).
Al-Qaida wants to establish a global caliphate, which has ideological, social and political implications of a very high order. Cartels like the Sinaloa and Los Zetas want billions in cash; they don't care if you worship Zeus or Dr. Seuss, just don't cross the gang. Defeating al-Qaida terrorists requires military action against the religious fanatics, as well as a sustained attack on their ideology. Defeating the cartels requires military and police action followed by stiff and certain criminal punishment for the crooks.
However, establishing reliable and just judicial institutions, a goal of Calderon's reform process, is even more complex than the military and police fight. In his testimony, Clapper added that the cartels fight for more than smuggling corridors; they also compete for control of "networks of corrupt officials."
Every would-be Mexican modernizer knows the cartels exploit weak public institutions plagued by corrupt practices and crooked officials. Weak, corrupt police, judicial, financial and, yes, political institutions exact economic and social costs and hinder development. Calderon made that point in a speech four years ago when he made the case for his reform campaign: "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 viability." Hence his government's insistence on systemic institutional reform to strengthen the rule of law.
Calderon's goal is laudable but so difficult. It will take years to achieve. However, time is something he doesn't have. 2012 is an election year in Mexico, and Calderon cannot succeed himself. He needs a follow-on reform president with guts and vision.
The cartels may not want to replace the political order like a terrorist or political insurgent movements, but they do seek to subvert it. No, Zetas and the Sinaloa cartel commanders don't have a rigid ideological orthodoxy, but they do have an idea of what constitutes politically favorable conditions for their operations: a weak government with corrupt cops, bought judges and a defanged military focused on parades. Add frightened reporters, since the bribed cops won't protect them, and you've got a drug lord Reconquista of Mexico, a return to the worst dinosaurio days of the Institutional Revolutionary Party.
There is little doubt that the drug cartels will use their billions to try to elect pliant politicians. The Mexican people, fortunately, will make the final choice.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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