Are Mexico's federal troops doomed to fail in fighting drug violence?

Some say Mexico needs to learn from its experience in Michoacán by recognizing it has no reliable partners among state and local forces, who are often in cahoots with drug gangs.

By , InSight Crime

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    Mexican army soldiers stand guard at a check point on the outskirts of Culiacan, northern Mexico, Jan. 29, 2012.
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InSight Crime researches, analyzes, and investigates organized crime in the Americas. Find all of Patrick Corcoran's research here.

The recent wave of killings that has made the state of Tamaulipas one of Mexico's main drug war battlefields has prompted plans to send in federal troops to try and bring the region's underworld to heel. But can such a deployment ever loosen the grip of organized crime?

A recent spike in violence has brought Tamaulipas back to the forefront of Mexico's security debate after months of calm. Reports of gunfights in Nuevo Laredo and Reynosa, two lucrative border crossings that the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas have long fought over, have again grown common. Over the course of the month, the state registered 75 murders according to the National Public Security System (the SNSP, for its initials in Spanish), the highest total since 2012. One gunfight alone in Reynosa left 17 people dead in late April.

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After years of suffering with some of the highest rates of violent crime in the country, Tamaulipas was one of Mexico's happier stories in 2013. The SNSP registered just 555 murders throughout the year, a drop of nearly 50 percent from 2012. The overall murder rate was just 17 per 100,000 residents, lower than Mexico's national average and significantly better than many American cities. Coupled with the crippling of the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel, this appeared to be a decisive step forward against organized crime in Mexico's northeast.

The violence has sparked calls for the federal government to implement a security plan in Tamaulipas, like the ones it has pursued in Guerrero, Chihuahua, and the area known as la Laguna that straddles Coahuila and Durango. Earlier this month, during a visit by Interior Secretary Miguel Angel Osorio Chong, the government of President Enrique Peña Nieto implied that a redoubled federal operation, which would supplement the Federal Police and Mexican marines that already operate in the region, was in the offing.

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The proximate cause of the violence in Tamaulipas is a matter of debate, but it's striking that the increase over the past several months has coincided with the downfall of some of the area's most prominent criminal leaders. Among the fallen are the Zetas Nuevo Laredo boss Juan Fernando Ramirez Cortes and Zetas founder Galdino Mellado Cruz, who were, respectively, arrested and killed earlier this month.

While the arrest or death of Mexican capos provokes a variety of responses, in this case, the old cliche that nature hates a vacuum appears to be holding true: as rivals and allies avenge their bosses' demise and jockey for position in a shifting landscape, Tamaulipas as a whole has grown far bloodier.

The reports of a coming federal operation have provoked questions about the soundness of the response and its capacity to actually address both the immediate and deeper causes of Tamaulipas insecurity.

For instance, a recent piece from Jose Ortega, published on the website of Security, Paz, y Justicia, takes aim at the proposed objective of improving coordination between the local and federal security agencies. The problem, he says, is that local police bodies are so thoroughly corrupted there is no hope of productive collaboration with them at all. Jose Manuel Lopez Guijon, the chief of security for Governor Egidio Torre Cantu, serves as a perfect demonstration of the degree to which the local authorities are untrustworthy; earlier this month, Lopez Guijon was implicated in the assassination of the head of the state's police intelligence unit, a crime allegedly carried out on behalf of the Zetas.

Against such a backdrop, there is no reason to suspect that a federal deployment would be capable of pushing murder rates back down to their prior levels, much less that they would reverse the patterns of corruption and extortion that currently prevail.

Instead, Mr. Ortega says, the federal government needs to learn from its experiences in Michoacán, and recognize that it has no reliable partners among the state and local forces. As a consequence, the goals should be to work around or even to replace such bodies.

The typical federal intervention, which is a somewhat improvised and amounts to little more than a mass deployment of Federal Police or armed forces, is particularly ill-suited to a place like Tamaulipas. There, the surge in violence is ultimately the product of long-standing factors; the local government is among the most thoroughly infiltrated by organized crime, and has been for decades. A pattern of behavior that stretches back a generation or more is not going to be modified by the temporary deployment of several thousand troops.

Most of the areas where federal troops are called upon are not unlike Tamaulipas in this respect, which suggests that Mexico needs to rethink its approach to federal deployments. Swooping in for a much publicized show of force, which criminal groups eventually find a way to work around or simply wait out, is akin to fighting weeds with a lawn mower. Mexico needs to find a way to destroy the root, and the recent coming incursion into Tamaulipas suggests that it is not there yet.

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of Latin America bloggers. Our guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. To contact us about a blogger, click here.

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