Five years after the President Felipe Calderon deployed 50,000 soldiers to confront Mexico’s drug cartels, the country is divided about how well the fight is going. To half the country, the president included, there are clear signs of success: countless drug kingpins have been apprehended and the security forces are stronger than ever. To the other half of this country of 107 million, the war on drugs has only worsened insecurity, increased impunity, and weakened the state. And now, after years of public support for the battle, it’s unclear whether Mexican voters will continue to support the drug war.
What changed over the last half decade was both the extent and the brutality of the violence sweeping across Mexico. Some 40,000 people have perished in the fighting, and more than 5,000 are missing. But what’s more alarming are the trend lines: the death toll has increased every year since 2006, with 2010 alone seeing more than 15,000 victims. One out of every six Mexicans personally knows someone who has died. And all the while, the number of municipalities affected by the violence has risen fourfold. Whereas insecurity was once concentrated along drug routes, today it is the overwhelming norm.
Back in 2006 when Calderon came into office, he vowed that his war on drugs was the only way to prevent Mexico from falling into the hands of organised crime. Yet the harder the government has fought, the higher violence has risen, raising questions about whether that strategy is working.
“There is a sense that, in fighting the drug war, the government may actually have made things worse,” explains Arturo Borja, a political analyst and researcher at Mexico’s Center for Economic Investigation and Instruction (CIDE). By bringing in bigger and more guns, the military has set a precedent for controlling territory and communities through the use of brute force, opponents of the president argue.
Opposition to the government’s strategy, however, raises the question of what other options Mexico really has, short of a compromise with organised crime. Many alternative solutions aimed at rooting out the cartels’ base through economic growth and better government would take years. More immediately, the government could refocus its attention toward ending the violence through anti-gang policies such as those implemented in US cities such as Boston or Los Angeles, argues Eduardo Guerrero, a political scientist and former adviser to the Mexican presidency.
With the troops deployed, and a presidential election on the way in 2012 however, it is unlikely that changes in strategy are on the cards – at least for now. But the conversation about how Mexico’s drug war is going – and whether and how it should continue – is just beginning. As more citizens than ever are exposed to the violent conflict, increasing numbers are taking to politics to join the conversation.
“Calderon always says that the presidency is a place for all Mexicans,” says Araceli Rodríguez, whose son Luis Ángel León Rodriguez, a federal police officer, was abducted by unknown assailants on 16 November, 2009. “My message to Calderon is that I need to have a president who I feel supports us, the victims. Calderon would not like to live through what we the victims are living.”
First published in Monocle.