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Searching for Solutions to Mexico's Skyrocketing Violence

By Amy Coonradt, Research associate, Council on Hemispheric Affairs, August 26, 2008

Mexican President Felipe Calderón (right), Mexico's Secretary of Public Security Genaro García Luna (left) and Mexican Interior Minister, Juan Camilo Mouriño (center), take part in the XXIII Session of National Public Security at the National Palace in Mexico City on Aug. 21. (Photo: Alfredo Estrella / AFP-Getty Images)

On Aug. 21, Mexican President Felipe Calderón Hinojosa held a security summit at the National Palace. In attendance were the mayor of Mexico City, Marcelo Ebrard, and Mexico's 31 state governors. Those in attendance, representing most of the nation's political parties, were still able to display a stunning show of relative harmony and cooperation in the face of dangerously mounting violence brought about by growing street gangs and more violent drug cartels throughout Mexico.

A 75-point package of security measures was unanimously adopted and will be implemented over the next three years. The package includes initiatives aimed at purging police corruption, constructing several new maximum-security prisons, and creating a database for mobile phones that the government will use to track down criminals using them.

Violence Everywhere

The unprecedented level of violence resorted to by Mexico's drug gangs has reached a fevered pitch. On Aug. 16, masked gunmen murdered 13 people in a village in Chihuahua, a state that has witnessed 1,026 deaths so far this year. The number of gang-related deaths for all of Mexico so far this year stands at 2,682, already surpassing the 2007 total of 2,673.

The escalating violence represents an ugly offensive by Mexican drug gangs retaliating against the government's increased determination to combat drug trafficking and the drug-related violence that has plagued the country in recent years. Since 2007, Calderón has ordered 36,000 troops to be deployed against the gangs throughout Mexico's 31 states, with only modest results.

Complicating the situation, Mexico's various police forces are saturated with corruption, and its tolerance of violence, systemic. Various drug cartels have taken advantage of this, bribing the authorities—particularly the intelligence service—to side with them by waging war on their rivals.

According to a congressional Research Service Report, Nuevo Laredo municipal officials have been known to kidnap competitors of the Gulf cartel, while members of the Sinaloa cartel enjoy police protection. According to the same report, in December 2005, the Mexican Attorney General's Office (P.G.R.) reported that one-fifth of its officials were under investigation for criminal activity.

This culture of corruption was starkly revealed by the Fernando Martí case, where a 14-year-old boy was kidnapped last June 4 by drug gang members masquerading as policemen. His body was found on Aug. 1 in the trunk of an abandoned car. Subsequent investigation uncovered the involvement of 14 members of the Federal District Judicial Police in the killing.

No Respite From the War's Escalation

The chronic lack of integrity displayed by the police has further weakened Mexicans' plummeting confidence in their government's ability to cope with drug gangs. A poll taken in early June showed that 53 percent of the population believed that drug gangs were winning their war against federal forces, while a mere 24 percent thought that the government had the matter under control.

Some 3,000 people from Ciudad Juárez—of mostly middle-class families—crossing illegally into the United States, do so out of fear of violence. Particularly hard hit by gang violence, Ciudad Juárez has registered 800 homicides so far this year—tripling the 2007 figure—as well as a spurt of bank and car robberies. The University of San Diego's Trans-Border Institute recently reported that there has also been an increase in acts of extortion and kidnappings that have specifically targeted the business community.

In spite of Calderón's intensified war against Mexico's drug barons and the early phase in the implementation of Washington's predictably under-funded Merida Initiative, the death toll continues to mount and there is no indication that the future will be any brighter than the past. This spotlights the inherent problems embedded in the Mexican government's strategy, such as unrestrained venality in the police force as well as in the tainted bureaucracies at the municipal, state, and federal levels.

On July 31, the government announced a shake-up in the P.G.R., with the departure of Noé Ramírez, the head of Mexico's secret anti-organized-crime unit, Siedo, and three of the P.G.R.'s deputy attorneys. This announcement followed a meeting during which the head of the P.G.R., Eduardo Medina-Mora, and public security minister Genaro García Luna blamed each other for their inability to coordinate and harness their respective intelligence-gathering units. This manifestation of ineptitude reinforced the need for Calderón's call for the government to agree on public security policies and to improve coordination among the federal, state, and municipal administrations in order to advance the nation's uphill fight against crime.

A united campaign against the drug gangs, this time with Calderón and Ebrard de facto at the helm, has been necessary for a long time, but may be too much to ask for, especially amid the current escalating levels of violence with its skyrocketing death tolls reported from many Mexican cities. A coordinated and innovative bipartisan approach on the part of all government levels, rather than any further militarization, or going easy on the purveyor of crime, may prove to be the ultimate key to stemming the country's current surge in violence. Added to this is the population's flagging confidence in the bona fides of the country's security forces.

With the Aug. 21 summit, Calderon and his colleagues may have made an initial move (albeit, a tiny one) in the right direction.

From the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.

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