Mexico's Larger Drug War

The capture of trafficker Juan Garcia Abrego masks the difficulty of cutting through Mexico's history of official corruption and criminal enterprise

MEXICO'S recent capture of Juan Garcia Abrego, a leading narcotics trafficker, is being hailed as more than a breakthrough in the war against drugs. Because many US critics have linked Mexico's progress in combating the drug trade to all other aspects of policy, key commentators and officials have described the arrest as a significant contribution to overall US-Mexican relations.

Unfortunately, there is good reason to doubt that the arrest will significantly reduce the flow of Colombian cocaine to the United States or diminish the role of Mexico in the illicit traffic. In fact, this triumph could quickly become a long-term detriment to US-Mexican relations if it simply leads to a new cycle of disappointment and recrimination as law-enforcement agencies report on new criminal organizations in Mexico and document the continued flow of drugs across the border.

Mexico's vulnerability

The problem is that key characteristics of Mexico's society and institutions make the country uniquely vulnerable to narcotics trafficking. They also impose sharp limitations on what even an honest administration can hope to achieve. Any realistic US foreign policy toward Mexico must begin by understanding the causes of that nation's vulnerability.

A substantial part of Mexico's territory, for example, is rugged mountain or jungle terrain, often distant from major towns or paved roads. These areas, well suited to drug cultivation and clandestine airfields, have traditionally been ruled by close-knit rural elites that unite a few large landowners, key politicians, the chief of police, and often the local military commander around a single powerful "boss" or "caicique."

In these regions, the police and Army's primary task has always been to defend the rural elite from any challenge. In the 1920s the threat came from bandits, but the police and Army were later deployed against peasant organizations, groups seeking to expropriate large estates, and political parties attempting to challenge the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

Given this history, many Mexicans are likely to view reports of provincial police or Army units protecting drug-filled airplanes or illegal crops with resignation, not surprise.

Lack of police training

Another factor favorable to narcotics trafficking is the scarcity of formal training among Mexican policemen, both urban and rural. Most obtain their jobs through personal contacts or by making cash payments. Their primary loyalty is to the superior who hired them rather than to the public.

The result is a two-tier system of justice. On the one hand, small-time criminals have been physically abused to extract confessions, and ordinary citizens extorted for petty bribes. On the other hand, major criminals who pay for protection, or individuals with connections to powerful figures, have frequently enjoyed virtual immunity from arrest and prosecution. The two tiers extend to the judicial system as well.

Corruption among public officials and politicians in Mexico has equally deep social roots. After World War II, the Mexican government played a major role in building roads and other physical infrastructure and initiated large-scale ventures with private firms. Any large private-sector project required a variety of government permits, and a specialized class of intermediaries emerged simply to broker deals between private companies and government agencies.

Public officials often received equity in the resulting ventures, or a variety of fees and commissions, in return for their sponsorship. These payments became so commonplace that for many they ceased to seem corrupt or unethical. The resulting system established a powerful precedent for the protection payments that drug traffickers typically employ.

The long tradition of smuggling along the US border was another contributing factor. After World War II an entire profession evolved to transport illegal Mexican workers to the United States. An even larger occupational group smuggled US goods into Mexico, avoiding high government tariffs and import restrictions. These illegal importers built elaborate transportation and distribution networks reaching to every corner of the country.

How drug smuggling grew

When US demand for marijuana skyrocketed in the late 1960s, many of these large smuggling organizations joined the smaller drug gangs that specialized in cannabis and heroin. They faced relatively little public opposition within Mexico because marijuana use there remained confined to a very small and marginal sector of the population. Many Mexicans actually viewed the traffic as relatively benign - poor Mexican peasants improved their incomes and US dollars entered Mexico while the negative social consequences were exported. By the mid- 1970s Mexican drug organizations had established elaborate production and transportation systems across the country.

Thus, by the early 1980s, when US interdiction efforts in the Caribbean led the Colombian cocaine cartels to seek alternative routes for their product, Mexico appeared an almost ideal choice. It offered vast isolated areas controlled by powerful and unaccountable regional bosses, poorly trained and unmotivated police forces accustomed to accepting petty bribes, public officials with a tradition of accepting payments for the support and protection of private ventures, and highly sophisticated networks for transporting drugs and smuggling them across the border.

These factors clearly suggest that Mexico's narcotics traffic will not be controlled by a few high-profile arrests. It will require gradual and extensive reforms in many areas of Mexico's society and institutions. US policy must be based on the patient encouragement of those reforms and not simply on demands for dramatic arrests or other quick fixes.

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