Twelve Myths In The Fight Against Drug-Trafficking

Mexico has not seen violence levels with such political and social impact since the Revolution of 1910. The intricacy to understand public information and results related to the fight against drug-trafficking and organized crime implemented by the Mexican Government, has resulted in the emergence of a series of myths and fallacies surrounding the violence derived from the so-called “war against drug-trafficking”:

1. “Organized crime should not have been confronted”

Critics argue that the government’s crackdown on drug trafficking has led to an increase in violence. However, had Mexico not confronted the problem, drug traffickers would be increasingly powerful and the situation would resemble that of Colombia in the 1980s. Levels of violence demonstrate that Mexico is facing a real problem which can only be addressed with determination and prompt action. It was imperative to weaken the logistic capabilities of criminal organizations before defining comprehensive strategies and strengthening security institutions in Mexico.

2. “Mexico is “Colombianized” and it in danger of becoming a failed State”

Mexico’s violence is focalized in 6 of its 32 states and has a rate of 10 murders per 100,000 citizens, in comparison with Venezuela which has a rate of 48; Colombia 37; Brazil 25; and Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador of up to 50.

Contrary to the Mexican case, organized crime permeated more profoundly in different layers of Colombian socio-political structure and security institutions. Absent in the Colombian case, Mexico’s Government has maintained presence and control over its whole territory for over the last 40 years.  If the criterion “uncontrolled territories” was used to define “failed States”, there would be more than one dozen cases in the Hemisphere.  If this criterion was used, then the status of some US cities which are plagued with thousands of gang members operating in their territories would have to be revised.

3. “The intense debate about security is evidence of decline”

Drug-trafficking co-opts or destroys institutions and erosions liberties. There is no freedom of speech wherever organized crime maintains a stronghold. When the general public and the media are able to criticize the government, it is a sign that the power of the State prevails over any criminal organization. It is mistaken to assume that the existence of a vigorous debate related to security and the means to address violence is a sign of decline, when in fact the absence of such debate for sure be a more worrisome indication of trouble.

4. “The violence and the increasing death toll prove that the government is losing the war”

Drug-traffickers are an extremely violent and well-armed enemy, without moral constraints and with great corrupting power. Belief that this problem can be solved without confrontation and without the use of force is naive. It is important to understand that drug-trafficking can only be defeated through the use of force by the State, which in turn increases the resistance of criminal organizations and intensify their internal power disputes.

The death toll is an indicator of war. Wars are won by inflicting casualties to the enemy and they are lost when those casualties exceed what the socio-political environment can endure. The reality in Mexico is that criminal organizations have endured deaths, arrests and moral deterioration within their structures. It takes time to reduce violence, but drug-trafficking is going through a process of self-destruction that deepens when the State confronts it. This is a positive indicator that the Government of Mexico is doing things right. As General Oscar Naranjo, Chief of Colombia’s National Police has said, “once it is known that drug-trafficking has penetrated society the main problem is not violence, but the lack of it”.

5.“Three years has been a long time;  the plan has actually failed”

The demand for prompt results is based on emotional factors and not on an objective analysis of reality. The time required to control drug-trafficking in Mexico is directly proportional to its size and historical roots. This problem is determined in large part by its proximity to the United States, the biggest drug consumer in the world, and its consequences in terms of increased demand, weapons and illegal money flows.

In three years, Mexico has made more progress battling against organized crime and drug-trafficking optimizing its resources than many countries around the world. As of today, the Mexican Government has had successes such as: a) money seized amounts nearly as much as the resources approved for Mexico through the Merida Initiative; b) weapons seized totaled more than what the armies of El Salvador and Honduras have altogether; c) the number of aircraft are equivalent to 50% of American Airlines fleet; d) boats seized double the fleet of the Mexican Navy and the number of vehicles exceed the amount of police and army vehicles of all Central America. The first achievement of an anticrime and antidrug strategy is the disruption of criminal structures, not the reduction of violence. Without the former it is impossible to achieve the latter.

6.“The attacks carried out by the drug cartels provide evidence of their power”

In every war there are battles won and lost, but in the end the outcome of the war is determined by the one who holds a strategic initiative and the one capable of breaking the morale, the power and the resources of his adversary. In the case of Mexico, all these factors play in favor of the Mexican Government. The attacks’ carried out by criminal organizations in Mexico are reactive in nature; lack strategic logic and are prompted by irrational revenge. A basic rule in combat is that the continuous pressure put on an enemy, could led to desperation, errors and even terrorism.

Mexican drug syndicated cartels are strong when they maintain control without confrontation and can go unnoticed by the majority of the population. On the other hand, when they become visible their ability to control and operate fades away and internal rivalry increases. Therefore, the violence generated by these actions is not a sign of strength, but of weakness.

7.“It is necessary first to eradicate corruption and poverty”

Many studies indicate that the reduction of corruption and poverty is a necessary step to resolve insecurity. In this sense, it might be true that the security problem requires comprehensive plans that address all aspects of the problem, including the use of force by the State as well as those social issues relevant to security. However, it is a mistake to believe that a precondition for the creation of a safe environment is to resolve poverty and corruption, because that would amount to the acknowledgment that there is no solution to the problem. By definition, to establish that one must prevail over the other is an error that results from different ideological perceptions based on the rationale that the priority of groups to the right of the political spectrum is repression, while of the left is prevention.

Territorial or social links between poverty and drug-trafficking do not exist as a precondition for drug violence. The activities of criminal organizations in Mexico are concentrated in regions that offer strategic advantages and not necessarily in impoverished regions. Therefore, drug-trafficking organizations have concentrated its activities mainly in the northern parts of the country, due to the geographic proximity to the United States. Additionally, there is no direct relationship between poverty and the lack of security. Nicaragua is the second poorest country of the Hemisphere, but the third safest while the increased social spending in Venezuela goes hand in hand with the deterioration of its public security.

8. “Powerful politicians and businesspeople are behind drug-trafficking”

This myth is based in conspiracy theories, which feed upon soap operas, movies and pulp fiction. As a result, many US citizens presume that all Mexicans are corrupt while some Mexicans believe that the business of drugs is controlled from Wall Street. This is the story told by Hollywood. However, most often drug dealers emerge from lower middle class backgrounds with little education; they build their organizations from within family groups as a way to ensure loyalty (“the family”), and recruit socially downward mobile people.

When they become financially strong their social network expands and they begin to intimidate and subjugate public officials. Criminal organizations seek firstly to corrupt police institutions to then move to the judiciary branch, the press and the economic and political power. In the process, drug-traffickers end up on top of the social pyramid, and use violence and death as a means of exercising power.

The nature of a businessman or a politician is incompatible with the drug dealers. Infringement levels as the ones once found in Italy were the result of decades of Mafia organizations’ power. In contrast, the crime phenomenon in Mexico is relatively young.

9. “The only solution is to negotiate with the drug dealers”

This fallacy is based on the belief that negotiation was the method used by preceding Mexican Administrations in order to maintain peace, therefore concluding that violence erupted when the new government abandoned this approach.  As a national security threat, drug trafficking is relatively a new phenomenon since it basically began in the second half of the 90s when it actually strengthened its financial power. Currently Mexico faces a strategic threat as criminal organizations seek to impose their authority over the State.

Any suggestion of negotiation falsely assumes that criminal organizations are a coherent enemy with control over their structures that operate according to clear rules and limits. However, the reality is that drug-trafficking is a fragmented enemy, with no control over its own personnel and with no rules on the use of violence. The idea of negotiating with the cartels is a fantasy, as was demonstrated when the Colombian Government negotiated with Pablo Escobar if he surrendered himself to justice, which ended in an erosion of legitimacy of the Colombian authority.

10.  “The strategy should be directed to the legalization of drugs”

By and large, legalization is sought as a possible solution to minimize the problem; as a choice between public health or violence. From the point of view of “the lesser evil,” legalization makes sense. However, it is a myth to assume that this approach can be successfully implemented by the countries affected by the violence generated by the production and trafficking of drugs.

Drug legalization would require a simultaneous agreement with the consumer countries. Without the participation of the US and Europe, the implementation of this type of strategy in Mexico or Colombia, would be “suicide” for the security of these countries. The US and Europe continue playing the “tolerance card” on consumption, in part because the increasing violence levels of drug distribution networks have not yet become a strategic threat for these countries.

11. “The participation of the military is negative, it should withdraw”

The disapproval of military involvement in the fight against drugs is based on assumptions such as: public security is out of their mandate and they are not prepared to address this sort of endeavor; they violate human rights, etc. However, none of these assumptions take into account the reasons that prompted the government’s decision to bestow the armed forces with a central role in this fight.  Some of these reasons are, among others: the transnational nature and scope/size of the problem; corruption and fire-power of criminal organizations and insufficient federal police forces to tackle the phenomenon. To face a problem of such magnitude with 30,000 men rather than with over 200,000 is certainly a totally different situation.

Drug-trafficking is a challenge that surpasses the law enforcement domain, representing a threat to State sovereignty. If the army withdraws, the cartels would quickly fill in those gaps and the threat could reach critical dimensions. The strategic solution is to rebuild, reform and strengthen police institutions, but while such process is taking place it is essential to use the army to efficiently combat organized crime.

12. “The most effective way to confront drug trafficking is to confront it through vigilantism”

Drug cartels are not bound by any rules and the differences among them are solved by violent means. In contrast, the State privileges and therefore seeks justice and the rule of law. The premise that a swifter way to recover security can be accomplished by murdering criminals is false. A lethal confrontation could end-up dividing communities and in a worst case scenario, expanding the problem. The State’s obligation is to restore its authority and to guarantee its monopoly over the use of force. The creation of paramilitary groups represents a handling of authority to private groups that undermine the authority of the State. International experience shows that paramilitary activity has been a serious mistake, as demonstrated in both the cases of Colombia and Guatemala.