There are no short cuts in resolving Mexico’s spiraling violence

The burnt wreckage of a bus is seen a day after cartel gunmen clashed with federal forces, resulting in the release of Ovidio Guzman from detention, the son of drug kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, in Culiacan, in Sinaloa state, Mexico October 18, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer - RC1F249503D0

A weak rule of law has been one of Mexico’s Achilles heels for a long time now, and the monopoly of violence by the state has been called into question there on several occasions since 2005 when organized crime started challenging the government of Vicente Fox.

But at no point had it been put to the test so severely — and failed so dramatically — as in Culiacán (the capital of the state of Sinaloa) this past October, following an operation to arrest Ovidio Guzmán, son of jailed kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzman, and the subsequent decision to release him in response to the violence unleashed by the Sinaloa criminal organization. The havoc wreaked there was the culmination of a week defined by deadly violence in the states of Michoacán and Guerrero and the lack of a clear plan by the almost one-year old administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to confront it. Moreover, the deployment of just 30 troops, with no secure perimeter and no air support, suggests the operation in Culiacán was poorly planned. It’s as if Mexican forces brought knives to a gunfight. Contrary to what President López Obrador seemed to suggest in justifying his decision to pull back, lives are not saved by spur-of-the-moment decisions during an operation; they are saved by careful and meticulous planning.

The decision to cave-in and release Guzmán could have far-reaching consequences for Mexico’s long struggle against violent crime, and for relations with a U.S. president who’s itching to pick a fight with Mexico on drug policy — and who will continue to use my country as an electoral piñata — on the road to 2020. That this coincides with the lack of coherent and forward-looking Mexican and U.S. government strategies to tackle violence in Mexico and confront transnational criminal organizations operating on both sides of our border makes it all the more problematic.

And just a few days later, when the dust hadn’t even started to settle in Culiacán, the severity of the problem was manifest in an even more painful way: with the horrific tragedy of the murder of the LeBaron family, dual Mexico-U.S. citizens, killed as they traveled along a dirt road between the states of Chihuahua and Sonora, across the border from Arizona and New Mexico. The LeBaron family also represents the myriad and profound cross-border ties and connections that characterize the complexity and richness of the U.S.-Mexico relationship, making the incident all the more distressing.

And now, what happens?

How all this translates into policymaking in Mexico in the coming weeks and months though is still to be seen. A survey released by newspaper El Financiero on October 22 and conducted in the immediate wake of the Culiacán operation shows that 67% of Mexicans still approved of the job López Obrador is doing as president, a rate essentially unchanged over the last six months. But by mid-November, another survey — by newspaper El Universal — showed that the president’s approval ratings fell 10 points from August to November, from 68.7% to 58.7%.

But beyond mere approval ratings, a deeper problem for his administration is starting to emerge. Polling conducted by newspaper Reforma in the aftermath of Culiacán but before the heinous LeBaron murders was already showing that 56% of those surveyed think that the government’s security policy is failing, and half of those surveyed believe the government should not negotiate with drug traffickers. Like in the aforementioned survey, a majority of Mexicans still believe in and trust López Obrador personally, but they increasingly do not believe in the government’s public security strategy.

Beyond the failings of Mexican law enforcement — as well as the frightening possibility that Culiacán could well signal a de facto Pax Narca in Mexico, underscoring that “ungoverned spaces” aren’t ungoverned, they just aren’t governed by the state — recent tragic events are also a reminder that the drug trade in North America is booming. U.S. consumers of cocaine, meth, and opioids funded a big share of all those gunmen and weapons deployed by organized crime. The Arizona border, near where the LeBaron family was attacked, is one of the key chokepoints for northbound opioids and therefore the locus of a fight to the death between rival criminal organizations vying for control of trafficking routes to the United States. Alex LeBaron, a family member and spokesman for the community there, couldn’t have captured this better when he tweeted to President Donald Trump:

A key factor in Mexican law enforcement being outgunned — in Culiacán and elsewhere across Mexico — are those Barrett .50-caliber sniper rifles and other assault weapons that continue to make their way illegally across the U.S. border and feed the firepower of criminal organizations. Mexico’s violence is fed in part by U.S. gun shops: Between 2007 and 2018, more than 150,000 firearms seized in Mexico had been sold by U.S. gun shops and gun shows. In 2014 alone, roughly 70 percent of all traceable illegal weapons recovered in Mexico were traced back to licensed U.S. vendors. Approximately four out of 10 of these weapons originated in Texas.

Le Baron’s tweets hit the nail on the head. In many ways, his family is a victim of failed and flawed policies on both sides of the border: In the U.S., it’s the woeful inability to reduce consumption and the unwillingness to stem the flood of guns and bulk cash into Mexico; on the Mexican side, it’s a broken social contract, and an endemically weak rule of law and a public security strategy that is neither here nor there. And in both capitals, it’s the persistence of a failed paradigm undergirding our common efforts to confront violent transnational organized crime: focusing, jointly, in going after kingpins, which led to the events in Culiacán with El Chapo’s son.

Heavy lifting needed on both sides of the border

If the U.S. administration and Congress truly wish to turn off the gun-trafficking tap flooding Mexico, the status quo of legal sales — which account for the majority of the weapons that land in the hands of criminal organizations — needs to change. The solutions are indisputable: implementing universal background checks, a ban on assault weapons, and a comprehensive sales registry; making gun trafficking and straw purchasing federal crimes; increasing access to international gun trafficking data; and requiring the reporting of multiple sales of long guns.

But even if Washington is unwilling to pursue any of these, improving oversight of southbound outbound traffic at border crossing points would go a long way toward limiting the international trafficking of weapons. Not least, it would also reflect Washington’s respect for and consistency in implementing joint responsibility. That has been the key paradigm undergirding bilateral ties since 2007, and seems to be so sorely missing these days in the White House. Such U.S. efforts would signal a clear quid pro quo for Mexico’s efforts to stem northbound drugs.

And the U.S. must avoid knee-jerk and simplistic attempts to solve the problem with one-size-fits-all policies, whether it’s with ill-advised mentions of U.S. military operations and “boots on the ground” in Mexico, or the pervasive and recurrent temptation to designate transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) operating on Mexican soil as terrorist organizations (as some in Congress have suggested and as President Trump threatened).

When your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. The toolbox needed to confront TCOs is different from the one you need to confront terrorists, no matter how violent and despicable criminals and drug traffickers become. Neither of those two approaches would solve the structural causes of an endemically weak rule of law, impunity, and a torn social contract in Mexico; or the factors feeding a voracious consumption of illicit drugs in the U.S.; or the weapons and bulk cash flowing into Mexico from across the U.S. And contrary to terrorist groups, criminal organizations do not want to destroy the state; they need it, though certainly weakened,  as a parasite needs a host, to conduct their business.

One could also make the case that if criminal organizations in Mexico are terrorists, then U.S. consumers and U.S. gun shops are accessories and accomplices to terrorists. And if the U.S. did indeed resort to designating organized crime in Mexico as terrorists, the trade and economic consequences for America’s number-one trading partnership would be severe. Moreover, using the U.S. military in Mexico or designating TCOs as terrorists would scupper the bilateral security cooperation that has been so painstakingly been built since the 9/11 attacks, and that plays such an important role in supporting U.S. homeland security.

On the Mexican side of the border, Mexico needs to ensure that its customs service (part of the Servicio de Administración Tributaria, or SAT) truly morphs into a border-security and domain-awareness-driven agency with enough resources, technology, and manpower to inspect inbound cargo, vehicles, and trucks and to stop guns from arriving illicitly. Moreover, Mexico’s new National Guard, designed to rein in organized crime, is now overstretched and overpowered, in part because so many of its members have been diverted (at Trump’s insistence) to stop Central American migrants and asylum seekers from reaching the U.S. border. This needs to stop.

The Mexican government should immediately adopt a two-pronged strategy:

  • It must publicly state that given de facto, state-by-state legalization of cannabis in the U.S., it will, as a matter of principle and public policy, no longer spend resources or manpower in eradicating or interdicting cannabis on its way to the U.S. market. Rather, it should — despite President López Obrador’s statements and policy decisions (and his mantra of “hugs, not bullets”), dedicate those resources and manpower to taking on and confronting the more violent groups and the more pernicious drugs. And,
  • It needs undoubtedly to jettison the so-called kingpin strategy that prioritizes arrests of the leaders of criminal organizations.

In Mexico, the government, political parties, and the general public need to understand that the debate raging there over violence and human security is not about more military or less military. It’s about a strategic and appropriate use of the armed forces as a temporary, stop-gap measure, balanced with improved institutions, civilian police, better prosecutors, a stronger judicial system, an effective prison system, greater human, social and institutional resilience, and enhanced intelligence and law-enforcement cooperation with the U.S.

Like its immediate predecessor (the Peña Nieto administration), the current Mexican government wants to keep U.S. security support at arm’s length. The results, in terms of rising levels of insecurity and violent homicides over the last six years, are there for all to see. Policymakers in Mexico need to understand that the Mérida Initiative — launched by both governments in 2007 to enhance bilateral law enforcement cooperation and then revamped and holistically broadened in 2009 — is more than just the transfer of hardware or capacity building for law enforcement, public security and the rule of law in Mexico. Rather, it’s about process and protocols: of dialogue, communication, intelligence exchange, and interagency coordination. Standard operating procedures on both sides of the border are and should be the cornerstones of effective, symmetrical, and bilateral collaboration and shared responsibility.

Mutual recriminations will do us no favor; in this bilateral relationship, if you point one finger across the border, three fingers will be pointing back at you. The choice is simple but stark: The United States and Mexico need to stop being accomplices to failure and instead become partners to success.