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Feature Articles


December, 2010
The Mexican Drug War

      By Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus


Mike La Sorte is a professor emeritus (SUNY) and writes extensively on a variety of subjects.

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     In Mexico, the fight against narcotrafficking has been the central focus of the government. Record amounts of money and drugs were confiscated in 2007, four drug lords were extradited, 13,700 traffickers were arrested, extraditions increased by 43 percent over 2006, with 86 persons transferred to the United States. Despite these actions the traffickers remain active and strong. The cartels have morphed into “micro-organizations,” numbering more than 300. Mexico shows signs of becoming a failed state where corruption is ubiquitous and criminality widespread.

     Some forty years have passed since President Nixon first targeted drug production and consumption as a national priority. Since then, the “War on Drugs” has spread to the South American Andes, the Mideast, to Asia. Every country now has persisting drug enforcement problems. Since Nixon’s tenure the demand for controlled substances either agricultural in origin, like heroin, or chemical, like methamphetamines, has remained steady.

     With the drug trade there are power plays and violence. This is especially true of Mexico. In the past four years deaths attributable to the drug war exceed 31,000. The overall murder rate in the country is fourteen per 100,000 population. In those cities on the U.S./Mexican border it is a much different story. Ciudad Juàrez has a 189 per 100,000 rate with comparable runaway violence in Tijuana, Reynosa, and Nuevo Laredo.

     The Mexican drug conflicts, clan against clan, began over the fight for the right to move drugs through the border cities. Illicit drugs are smuggled into the United States across desert territories in vast quantities. More recently, and more efficiently, under-border tunnels have been utilized as well as Customs check points, sometimes with the connivance of corrupt inspectors. Various techniques are employed: drugs concealed with legitimate goods; disguised as eggs in crates; hidden in stuffed animals; melted into candy bars; or tamped into hollowed-out chairs. As one method is uncovered, another takes its place. Substantial bribes smooth the way.

     The worker migration flow from the southern Mexican states brings to the international border a steady influx of unemployed laborers who are willing to make a much better living by driving or walking contraband northward. The movement of contraband is facilitated by the Mexican heavy duty trucking industry, which can provide the traffickers storage facilities, effective concealment, and large-scale transport.

     According to Juan Carlos Garzòn (Mafia & Co.: The Criminal Networks in Mexico, Brazil, and Columbia, 2008), the trafficking enterprises have evolved and adjusted procedures in view of changing conditions. The criminals, for example, are adopting a network structure, over a pyramid structure, to monopolize illegal economies. The changes include “the configuration of cells that specialize in certain parts of the production chain or in a specific market, like the protection market.”

     The traditional big boss system of organized crime has been replaced by leaders who have the contacts and the connections to develop a web of significant specialists. The weakness of the capo-in-charge organization is that if the capo disappears (for whatever reason) a process of fragmentation will occur, with rival clan conflict over territory, and a successor often unable to maintain the cohesive structure. The network form with cell configurations can eliminate the organization-disorganization-reorganization cycle, which is disruptive to the smooth functioning of the criminal enterprise.

     The situation in Mexico is sufficiently dire that the term “mafia state” can apply, or more precisely “narco-mafia state,” a condition whereby the drug traffickers become significant players in the affairs of state, spreading corruption at many levels. Bureaucratic weaknesses, which were already evident, reach a point of breakdown. The police are easily bought, civility crumbles, the distinction between organized crime and the government becomes blurred, and segments of the countryside essentially come under the jurisdiction of criminal elements.

     A mafia state is a condition in which a free press is under threat, public services do not properly function, normative standards decline, the citizenry becomes apathetic and cynical, and the government cannot enforce the rule of law or guarantee the safety of the public everywhere in the nation.

     The current Mexican administration’s approach to the drug cartels is to wage an all-out war. To date, this has not brought results as the drugs continue to flow and the violence does not abate. Whether any strategy can work is questionable as long as a global demand persists for recreational substances, and the profits from narcotrafficking are well worth the risks. It is also well to note that the swift profits are very enticing for the disfranchised that otherwise have no access to legitimate avenues that lead to social and economic mobility.


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