President Felipe Calderón visited Washington earlier this month amid a significant escalation in drug-related violence in Mexico and strained relations with the United States. However, it is critical that dissatisfaction on both sides does not give rise to purely symbolic actions aimed at placating concerns rather than achieving real results in ending the Mexican drug wars. Neither the United States nor Mexico will benefit from more frequent but less strategic hits against Mexico’s drug gangs. Ramping up of the campaign against Mexico’s drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) without being truly strategic may satisfy some critics, but it will not enhance the necessary development of law enforcement, justice and corrections institutions in Mexico that are needed to make real headway in ending the Mexican drug wars. Counterproductively, non-strategic action will likely further increase the violence and decrease Mexican public support for the effort in the long term.

The shooting of two U.S. law enforcement agents in Mexico last month marked another escalation of the bloody drug war that has claimed more than 34,000 lives since Calderón came to power. Statements by U.S. officials questioning Mexico’s capacity and stability have angered Calderón. He recently lashed out against what he described as U.S. distortions and exaggerations while blaming the United States for failing to stop the flow of U.S. guns to Mexico and reduce demand for drugs.

Reducing demand in the United States would be enormously helpful not only for law enforcement, but also for decreasing other social costs of drug use. The Obama administration has emphasized demand reduction and modestly increased demand-reduction spending. But even with a bigger budget and better knowledge about the effectiveness of various demand reduction policies, reducing demand in the United States will take a long time. Moreover, Mexican DTOs are already branching out into other rackets, such as extortion of businesses, human smuggling and kidnapping.

While investigations show that 90 percent of identified weapons used by Mexican DTOs originate in the United States, focusing on the weapons flows as the mechanism to reduce the violence in Mexico is a red herring. The Obama administration has undertaken several initiatives to combat the weapons flows. But U.S. gun laws make increasing the interdiction rate difficult, and stopping guns at borders is as hard as stopping drugs at borders. The global market of small arms is fully integrated — even if U.S. law enforcement was able to shut down the flows, Mexican criminals would buy the weapons elsewhere. Most importantly, weapons availability does not seem to greatly influence strategic violence by criminal organizations. Analyses of violence levels after changes in weapons laws and weapons-collection drives show that smaller availability of weapons does reduce unpremeditated violence, including domestic or street disputes escalating into armed assaults. These are important improvements. But there is little indication that such anti-gun measures reduce strategic warfare among criminal organizations or against the state. In the United States, the same Mexican DTOs operate with even a greater access to weapons, but are nowhere as violent as in Mexico.

A key reason for the violence in Mexico is the way interdiction operations have been carried out – focusing the hollowed-out law enforcement and justice sector on high-value targets, such as top capos, and arresting tens of thousands of foot soldiers, while the middle layer of DTO operators has not been severely affected.

After decades of underdevelopment and corruption, neither the judicial nor the corrections systems in Mexico have caught up with the drug-trade challenge. Many petty drug pushers end up doing a year-or-two stint in overcrowded prisons that serve as higher education for criminals and more deeply anchor them in the cartels’ grasp. A complete overhaul of the justice system could not be expected to proceed rapidly. Police reform in Mexico, given the level of corruption, technical deficiencies and complexity of police institutions, was bound to take at minimum a decade.

Non-strategic, high-value targeting on the basis of incremental intelligence without consideration of what kind of turf wars it will provoke is one reason behind Mexico’s violence. Without prior or simultaneous arrests of middle commanders, DTO leadership easily regenerates. The temporary weakening of a DTO that just suffered the arrest of a narcojefe tempts other groups to try to take over its turf. To reduce such regeneration, interdiction operations in the United States frequently arrest hundreds of cartel members at once, including as much of the middle layer as possible, often having built up intelligence over several years. But the lack of strategic intelligence capacity in Mexico and the fear that intelligence will leak out prematurely put a premium on quick, high-value targeting.

Expanding targeting to the middle layer needs to become a key feature of the strategy in Mexico, along with a steadfast institutional development and social policies to reduce communities’ vulnerability to crime. Reducing violence equally needs to be integrated into strategy – otherwise, public support in Mexico will continue to weaken and temptations by local officials to strike deals with the narcos will increase.