Last Saturday, a stray bullet flew across the Rio Grande from Mexico and into a school door in El Paso, Texas. It was suspected of coming from a shoot-out between police and a gang in Ciudad Juárez, a mile or less away.
Juárez is the murder capital of Mexico while El Paso is one of America’s safest cities. This latest spillover from Mexico’s war on drug lords set off fresh concerns in the United States, with Texas Gov. Rick Perry quickly asking for more federal help in security.
Security, however, is more than border agents, fences, and other types of law enforcement. Just look at Mexico’s military campaign against organized crime. Launched in 2006 by President Felipe Calderón, more than 28,000 people have been killed so far, most of them related to the drug trade. And yet, the end of this struggle for supremacy is not in sight.
In fact, the tactics of the drug groups has shifted. They now resemble those of the Taliban, using car bombs and other high-profile weapons. And the aims are more aggressive, with big-name politicians targeted.
“The behavior of the criminals has changed and become a defiance to the state, an attempt to replace the state,” President Calderón said this month.
When the war began, the state was supposed to reassert its authority in largely lawless cities essentially ruled by the big drug cartels. In Juárez, a city of 1.3 million people, more than 10,000 soldiers and national police were deployed to reduce the drug-related violence, but it hasn’t worked.
One hope for Juárez lies in a different concept of security: a reknitting of the city’s social fabric with $270 million in government spending on schools, drug-treatment, health care, housing, and public entertainment. The spending has only begun, but if it succeeds in giving local citizens a sense of civic cohesion, then the city can rebuild a government and a police force that might be less corrupted by drug barons.
The United States, whose appetite for drugs feeds this war, was supposed to be aiding Mexico’s community and social development with $1.6 billion from the so-called Merida Initiative. But Mexico has seen very little of those funds, and most were slated for security hardware, such as helicopters, surveillance aircraft, and lie-detectors.
Mexico is in need of many basic reforms beyond security. Social and legal reforms would create stronger public support for keeping drug gangs at bay. But national politics has stymied many reforms, especially those needed for the national oil company Pemex. And Calderón is due to leave office in two years with no clarity on whether his successor will pursue the war in the same way.
Until both the US and Mexico put more into the soft side of this war – uplifting people's lives with greater justice and civic hope – the war may not be won. And more bullets will fly north into the US.