Mexico's drug war: Billions of dollars, thousands of deaths
By Franz Smets and Andrea Sosa Nov 16, 2011, 10:04 GMT
Mexico-City - The numbers are staggering.
More than 40,000 lives lost.
Twenty-five billion dollars a year in criminal profits.
Close to a quarter-million people displaced by the explosion of violence that has consumed Mexico since President Felipe Calderon declared war on drug cartels at the end of 2006.
Mexico's drug war has taken on epic proportions, plunging Mexican society into fear and threatening to become an unstoppable force, five years into a war many think Mexico can't win.
'The war can't be won with military force alone. Plenty of high-ranking bosses have been shot - and nothing has changed,' Friedemann Schirrmeister, an analyst at the Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research in Germany, told dpa.
In fact, in five years, much has changed - for the worse.
Clashes between cartels and federal forces now routinely terrorize urban areas. Cartels have expanded their business into human trafficking, kidnapping and extortion. As cartel bosses are captured or killed, new ones rise up to take their places. Entire regions of the country are controlled by organized crime, and in nearly five years, the state doesn't appear to have gained much ground.
Calderon has been criticized for the 'militarization' of the conflict. But he has said widespread corruption and infiltration of local and state police forces left him no choice.
Corruption, experts say, is the original sin that allowed drug cartels to gain influence in politics and create a culture of impunity.
Malcolm Beith, author of a book on Sinaloa cartel boss Joaquin 'El Chapo' (Shorty) Guzman, says that endemic widespread corruption has led to a 'symbiosis of crime and politics' and the effective toleration of the drugs trade.
From the start, traffickers have paid off officials to turn a blind eye. Detractors accuse the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which dominated Mexican politics for 71 years until 2000, of collusion. But analysts say the problem goes deeper.
'Mexico's problem is not just the drugs trade. This is merely the imposing icing on the large cake of lawlessness,' political scientist Ricardo Cayuela wrote in a recently published study.
'The cake, however, consists of a society that tolerates breaking the law and a state that demonstrates every day in all its institutions that the law is an element that can be negotiated.'
Mexico started as a minor player, a simple transit route for 1980s Colombian cocaine traffickers.
But as the United States cracked down on Colombia, Mexicans moved in, adding Mexican-produced marijuana, heroin and methamphetamine to the river of drugs flowing north.
While Mexican drug lords have battled for turf and smuggling routes for decades, the violence exploded only in 2006, when Calderon took office and declared war on the cartels, deploying 60,000 soldiers and federal police to fight them on the ground.
Far from stopping the killing, the military operation has seen an explosion of it. Every arrest creates a power vacuum other 'narcos' rush to fill. Divisions between the cartels have grown, and factional war has sparked a level of violence never seen before.
As the killing and fear spread from rural areas to cities, it began to affect citizens who had until then felt safe.
Cities like Juarez and Nuevo Laredo, on the US border, became virtual battlegrounds. Last year, the Zetas group threatened to kill the entire town of Mier if citizens didn't clear out. (They did.) Since 2006, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council, an estimated 230,000 people have left their homes to flee the violence, about half to the United States.
The death rate is climbing. In 2007, drug wars were blamed for 2,400 deaths. By 2010, the one-year toll was more than 15,000.
And yet, somehow, life goes on.
Mexico made it through the 2008 economic crisis relatively unscathed. The economy grew 5.5 per cent last year, and forecasts show growth continuing, at a slightly lower rate, this year and the next. Foreign investment tanked in 2009 but rebounded for 2010, as did tourism, a key earner. Millions of Mexicans live life more or less as they always have, worrying more about ordinary crime than drug war killing. Predictions of a 'failed state' have, so far, not come to pass.
Calderon's term ends in 2012, and public despondency about the killings means his successor may have to propose a change in strategy.
But a drastic withdrawal of the army from the drug war seems unlikely. Five years after Calderon swore to restore 'peace and tranquility' to Mexico, the country is settling in for a long haul.
Even Genaro Garcia Luna, Mexico's public security minister and former top cop, acknowledged the limits of the fight as it began in 2006.
'Owing to the temptation, there will always be people prepared to play the game,' he said .
'There is a real market (in the US). And there is no comparable product in the world.'