Mexico: Countering Drug Violence

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Mex kidsThree weeks ago, Reynosa, Mexico–just across the Rio Grande from McAllen, Texas–exploded in violence. The Zetas and the Gulf cartels, once allies, began what may become a fight to the death. The turf war over a lucrative passageway to the United States reportedly claimed over one hundred lives, though no official headcount is available, as observers bemoan the lack of official presence–the local government as well as the army.

But what happened some eight hundred miles to the west on Saturday in Ciudad Juarez, when three U.S. consulate workers–two of them U.S. citizens–were killed in their cars in broad daylight wasn’t likely masterminded by drug cartel leaders. Such assassinations would be bad for cross-border business. Instead, this first case of serious violence against U.S. citizens in the “war on narcotraffickers” waged by President Felipe Calderon’s administration was probably committed by one of Ciudad Juarez’s gangs. Initial intelligence points to the Aztecas, a local gang of hitmen who have worked with “La Linea,” the enforcement arm of the Juarez cartel, which was also implicated in the January 31 massacre of sixteen youths at a birthday party.

In places like Ciudad Juarez, the prevalent depiction of a battle between highly organized and disciplined drug cartels is misleading. Instead, these “organizations” are sprawling networks full of freelancers who might work one day for a cartel, the next on their own or with a local gang. Some of the violence of recent years is between street toughs and gangs, often resolving local turf wars. This growing problem, while fueled by the money and guns associated with the drug trade, is distinct from the presence of multinational criminal drug-trafficking organizations.

Ciudad Juarez today presents a bleak picture. City infrastructure and manpower are overwhelmed; the dominant maquila factories offer only low-wage labor; and over 40 percent of the city’s youths are neither in school nor lawfully employed. Exclusion from the hope of joining Mexico’s developing middle class along with weak control mechanisms mean disaffected youth coalesce around an alternative source of social “status”–urban gangs.

In the aftermath of the shooting, President Obama vowed to continue to work with the Calderon government “to break the power of the drug trafficking organizations that operate in Mexico and far too often target and kill the innocent.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton vowed to “ensure that the perpetrators . . . are brought to justice,” reasserting that “this is a responsibility we must shoulder together, particularly in border communities where strong bonds of history, culture, and common interest bind the Mexican and the American people closely together.”

The United States should support Mexico during this moment–as the events of the past few weeks and this weekend show how closely tied Mexico’s stability and safety are to our own. Yes, weapons and equipment are needed for Mexico’s police forces–particularly at the local level where beat cops often patrol without bulletproof vests and in rundown squad cars. Many are even required to buy their own bullets.

But it is not just more gun power that Mexico needs. Instead, it is a functioning police and court system, a better and more open education system, and programs for early intervention, and professional development for at-risk youth. Partnerships between the United States and a wide range of agencies and stake holders at Mexico’s federal, state, and, most importantly, local levels will be vital for the coordination and pooling of resources and expertise.

This broader challenge of reknitting Mexico’s social fabric in places such as Ciudad Juarez is what Mexico struggles most with today. In light of the weekend violence, the United States should prioritize efforts that will assist Mexico in pushing through the changes that will actually matter, changing today’s violent dynamic for the long term.