Measuring Success in the Drug War: Criteria to Determine Progress in Mexico’s Efforts to Defeat Narco-traffickers

Diana Villiers Negroponte
Diana Villiers Negroponte Former Brookings Expert, Public Policy Scholar - Woodrow Wilson Center

May 25, 2010

President Felipe Calderón, who has just ended a successful state visit to the United States, is the first Mexican president to declare a “war on drugs.”  His predecessors Vicente Fox, Ernest Zedillo and Carlos Salinas did use the Mexican federal police and army to contain narco-traffickers in the states most affected by drug-traffickers. However, the difference is that Calderón is confronting the drug lords head on with a determination to crush them, destroy their cartels, and limit the sale of drugs to Mexico’s youth.

Since the beginning of the Calderón administration in December 2006, we have witnessed increased intentional homicides, kidnapping, car-napping, property theft and extortion. For Mexican citizens, the cost of the “drug war” has become intolerably high. Homicides may occur principally between cartels and against public officials with allegiances to opposing cartels. However, property crimes that support local syndicates have risen in states far from the northern border, as well as among ordinary citizens travelling to and from work.

Calderón’s goal is to convert the “war on drugs” — where currently the federal government is directing all its resources to destroying cartels — into a law and order problem that the police can contain. We should consider the criteria by which to measure Calderón’s success in the “war on drugs”.  Progress can be measured against five benchmarks:

1.   Number of intentional homicides. Currently, the northern state of Chihuahua reports the highest murder rates in Mexico with 143 per 100,000 citizens. This compares with 320 in Medellín and 124 in Cali during the height of Colombia’s war against the narcos and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). On average, 14 people die in Ciudad Juárez every day due to drug-related violence. Mexican police authorities claim that 80 percent of these deaths occur as a result of intra-cartel violence. Seven percent are attributable to assaults against public officials, but it is difficult to ascertain whether their deaths are related to their allegiance to one cartel or another. The remainder of the murders is of journalists and innocent people caught in the crossfire.

2.   Trust in the police, courts and politicians. Latinobarometro measures levels of trust below 30% in these public institutions on the grounds that officials are either in the pay of the cartels or so frightened that they are ineffective. Impunity has undermined the state’s capacity to control the violence or gain citizen support. Therefore, background checks, twice yearly polygraphs and bank account inspections are needed to turn around public officials. Progress in this area can be measured through regular public opinion surveys. 

3.   Return of a free press. Journalists, editors and publishers have been terrorized into writing stories of the gruesome murders. However, investigation into suspects leads to criminal threats to the individual journalist, their colleagues and family members, and firebombing of newspaper installations. Progress can be followed by the ability of Mexican journalists to return to investigative journalism and the willingness of editors to name names in their opinion columns. Progress will occur when journalists can identify corrupt public officials and investigate links to criminal syndicates.

4.   Public capacity to express criticism and community needs. When citizens retreat into their private worlds through fear of violence and no longer express criticism, the narcos and criminal syndicates can claim dominance. As trust in state institutions and the press grows, citizens regain their ability to protest and express their needs. Increased public expression will indicate more than courage. It will indicate a lessening of a generalized fear and a greater confidence that state institutions can respond effectively.

5.  The removal of “drug capos”. The removal of “drug capos” and the fight by less experienced and more brutal lieutenants to replace them indicate a splintering among the drug cartels. The experience of Colombia teaches us that as the cartels fragment and reform, violence increases. Also, the nature of the violence becomes more atrocious because successors demonstrate their power through vicious acts of terrorism against citizens. Mexico is currently living through this stage of its ‘war on drugs.’ To many, the brutality indicates that the federal government is losing. However, Colombia’s war in Medellín, Cali and Bogotá demonstrated that splintered organizations are more prone to state penetration. It sounds counter-intuitive, but the nature of Mexico’s murder rate in 2010 must be understood as an indicator of cartel fragmentation and relative weakness.

The war in Colombia has lasted 16 years and is still not over. Mexico’s war is nearly 4 years old and there is still a long way to go. Political consensus and determination to continue the fight is needed before the Mexican government can demonstrate to its citizens that slowly and steadily violence declines, public criticism grows, and trust in state institutions creeps upwards.