Is Mexico Losing the Battle for Rule of Law?

US Government Photo

Q: Mexican authorities in early March announced that they had killed Nazario Moreno, a.k.a. "El Más Loco," the former head of the La Familia drug cartel and a leader of the Knights Templar cartel. Mexican troops this year also captured high-level drug cartel leaders Dionisio Loya Plancarte, "El Tío," of the Knights Templar and Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, leader of the Sinaloa Cartel. Do these developments represent a significant advance for Mexico in the fight against drug trafficking, or are they just minor setbacks for the cartels? How would you rate President Enrique Peña Nieto's efforts to address the country's security situation? Is there more his administration should be doing that it is not?

A: Arturo Sarukhan, former Mexican ambassador to the United States and board member of the Inter-American Dialogue: "Arresting drug kingpins has never been, and won't ever be, a silver bullet that in and of itself magically shuts down transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) or structurally alters the dynamics of how they operate thus reducing public insecurity and violence. One need not be a rocket scientist to figure out that as long as the demand for drugs is completely inelastic and the supply for drugs is completely elastic, constraining the supply and transshipment of illicit narcotics will only create incentives for new or additional players--drug traffickers--to enter the market. Nonetheless, the arrest of Joaquín Guzmán--and the subsequent arrests and takedowns of kingpins--have unreservedly been a major law-enforcement coup for the Peña Nieto administration. Guzmán had become a symbol of impunity, and the repeated efforts to nab him had only spawned the conspiracy theory that he was untouchable; it has put that shibboleth to rest. In all likelihood, his arrest will also tend to temporarily disrupt the command, control, communications and intelligence capabilities of the Sinaloa TCO, and in that process, provide a brief window of opportunity that could allow Mexican law-enforcement and security agencies to gain tactical traction as the Sinaloa organization adjusts its protocols, operations and reshuffles its hierarchy. Moreover, the arrest is compelling proof that the intelligence-sharing and analysis framework and capabilities designed and forged by Mexico and the United States over these past years--under the aegis of shared responsibility--can continue to deliver the goods. But ultimately, the only way to stop playing Whac-a-Mole and transition from a situation in which TCOs pose a national security and institutional challenge in Mexico to one where they become simply a law-enforcement issue will require the sustained and wholesale strengthening of the rule of law."

A: Beatrice Rangel, member of the Advisor board and director of AMLA Consulting in Miami Beach: "Scarcity value has nurtured the CEOs of the drug business' leading cartels, which enjoy stratospheric margins. As a consequence, the incentive to fill the void they leave when apprehended by authorities is high. Successful operations such as those recently undertaken by the Mexican government take into account the fact that the apprehended leaders will eventually be replaced, and that between apprehension and the consolidation of a new leadership, violence will erupt. Authorities usually prepare for these outcomes when planning the operations. I believe the Peña Nieto administration has prepared for these events by fine-tuning the Mexican intelligence apparatus and by taking control of the potential drug war theatre, primarily in the northwestern states. Insofar as it is able to control collateral damage, it will succeed in this impossible fight against the drug scourge. Overcoming the scourge is another matter, for it springs from the basic functioning of economics, as Professor Milton Friedman reminded the heads of state of the world on the United Nations' 50th anniversary."

A: Raúl Benítez Manaut, professor and researcher at the Center for North American Studies at the National Autonomous University of Mexico: "The capture of 'El Chapo' Guzmán and the offensive against the Knights Templar cartel mark a new phase in the Mexican government's war against organized crime. 2013 was a year of adjustment between the legacy of Felipe Calderón's strategy and the new design of Enrique Peña Nieto. The success in capturing the top leader of the Pacific Cartel is attributed to the Mexican Marines and intelligence collaboration with the United States. In the case of Michoacán, the so-called 'self-defense' groups were organized in 2013 in the Tierra Caliente region, and in January 2014, decreed an offensive against the cartel. The government has made alliances with the self-defense groups, brought them into the rural defense groups of the army and decreed a multi-sectoral federal occupation. But the weakening of the Knights Templar corresponds mainly to the self-defense groups and to a lesser extent the official military forces. There are more than 500 criminals captured from all ranks, among them main leader Nazario Moreno. It is difficult to think that successes in the war fronts in Sinaloa and Michoacán signify the beginning of a new phase since other criminal organizations remain alive: the Gulf Cartel in Tamaulipas; Los Zetas in various states of the north and the gulf region; the Juárez cartel La Línea; the Beltrán Leyva family in the south Pacific; the Arellano family in Tijuana; the New Generation Cartel in Jalisco (an ally of the Sinaloa); and other medium and small cartels. However, capturing the major criminal leaders has a psychological and international value that is also important. In a short amount of time, the Peña Nieto government has had major successes."

A: David A. Shirk, director of the Justice in Mexico Project at the University of San Diego and global fellow at the Mexico Institute of the Wilson Center: "The security situation under President Enrique Peña Nieto--who hails from Mexico's prodigal ruling party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI)--is still far from adequate, and I would say that his record is still mixed after just over a year in office. In contrast to his predecessor, Felipe Calderón (2006-2012) of the National Action Party (PAN), Peña Nieto deliberately downplayed Mexico's security problems. Yet, despite some definitive successes and much-needed improvements in certain parts of the country, the overall security situation in Mexico remains much worse today than a decade ago, at least as measured by the rates of homicide, kidnapping and extortion. All of these things point to the still powerful influence of organized crime groups--which account for roughly half of all homicides in Mexico--and the institutional weakness of the Mexican state's criminal justice sector, which allows 90 percent of crimes to go unresolved. Peña Nieto's mantra for improving public security in Mexico has been 'coordination, coordination, and more coordination,' which is his party's code for 'centralization, centralization, and more centralization.' This is not the answer. Effective, modern criminal justice systems are founded on the fundamental principles of democratic governance: transparency, accountability and community engagement. Thus, Peña Nieto must demonstrate a more serious and sustained commitment to providing access to reliable information, police and judicial sector professionalization and community-based crime prevention. Doing so would establish a lasting foundation for strengthening the rule of law, the sine qua non for Mexico's economic and democratic development."