Another Car Bombing in Mexico

CNN has coverage of the latest car bomb that has struck the Mexican border region.  This time the target was public safety complex in Tamaulipas.  No one was hurt but some police vehicles were damaged.

It seems that things are taking a turn as criminal organizations are starting to employ more psychologically shocking tactics.  So far this is the second or possibly third car bombing since Calderón declared war on drug trafficking groups.

Are we to expect more of these as the violence continues to spiral out of control?


A Transforming Threat and New Ideas

The BBC and Boz have some coverage of Mexican President Calderón’s closing words at an anti-crime convention in Mexico City.  The main point of his speech is that drug cartels are transforming themselves and the threat they pose to the state.

“This criminal behaviour has become an activity that not only defies the state but seeks to replace the state.”

Many analysts see their evolution from drug smuggling entities or DTOs to new transnational criminal organizations or networks (TCOs) that operate in more than drug trafficking, including immigrant smuggling, gun running, merchandise and intellectual property piracy, and in Mexico’s case, dealing in stolen energy resources.

Calderón mentioned that these groups are attempting to supplant the state.  Some criminal organizations maintain de facto control of parts of Mexico, providing services that the state or traditional business provide.  In the state of Michocan the La Familia organization offers loans to farmers and business men.  In other more recent news, Mexican criminal organizations, which have typically trafficked drugs, are now stealing the state’s most prized natural resource, oil.  The state controlled Pemex estimates that $3 billion worth of oil was stolen directly from pipelines and wells last year by organized crime groups and sold directly to energy companies in the United States.  Not only is this a direct affront to the state of Mexico but also proves that these groups will invest themselves in other unscrupulous activities.

Calderón is attempting to change the nature of the debate surrounding the threat, moving from criminal activity within the state to something that directly challenges the state.  Matt Pierson and I have discussed in length as to what constitutes an insurgency, but the picture Calderón is painting speaks directly to groups that are openly challenging the state.  I wouldn’t say that this is anything close to an insurgency because of the obvious lack of political or religious motivation on the part of most criminal groups. Criminal organizations are businesses.  They’re motivated by profit, not politics.  What the president is trying to do is to muster support for his continued counterinsurgency-like policy of using the military to shore up security and then finding ways, albeit minimal, to improve the economic and social situation in areas where criminal groups operate and recruit.

Another interesting point that was made this week by President Calderón is the slight chance of opening a “democratic debate” on the topic of legalizing drug use.  Calderón said that he’s open to debate on the subject in light of the upcoming proposition in California legalizing marijuana possession and use.  Though he reiterated his opposition toward legalization, it’s important to take note that a sitting president of a major drug producing country is at least open to the idea of debating legalization in a democratic and pluralistic manner.

These remarks are perhaps the start of a change in tone in both the understanding of the threat posed by criminal groups and ways in which to address such threat.

Adjusting the Numbers, Again.

The Mexican director of national security has revised government estimates of those killed due to drug violence since 2006.  The number was augmented by about 3,000, bringing the current government and accepted number to “a little more than 28,000 murders.”  This isn’t the first time the Mexican government has adjusted these numbers.  In fact, earlier this year the Mexican Attorney General’s office announced that the real figure was closer to 25,000, up from about 22,000 that the media had been tracking.  Prior to announcing the 25,000 toll, the government claimed that it kept no official estimates or tallies.  So far, they’ve revised the numbers twice in the last couple months.

Just earlier this spring politicians and analysts had long subscribed to the media’s casualty count of just around 20,000.  This adjustment comes as disconcerting as it increases the death toll and reveals the fact that the Mexican government may not be as forthcoming when calculating drug-related violence.  I’d like to know more about how drug-related murders are counted.  Are the strictly targeted killings, or do they count innocent bystanders?

Regardless of the total amount of homicides, we do know that the trend is increasing.  Mexico is facing more drug-related violence today than it did some four or five years ago.  Things are getting worse, even when the state captures or kills cartel capos; the violence continues.

Death of Insurgent Leader in Paraguay

One last small post before I go to bed…

Reports from BBC Mundo are claiming that Severiano Martínez, a leader of the Paraguay People’s Army (EPP), is confirmed to have been killed in April by government security forces.  The mysterious leftwing insurgency cropped up within the last two years.  Not much is known about the group, though speculations abound to their ties with other regional marxist insurgencies, mostly the FARC in Colombia, drug traffickers and other organized crime.  Others doubt its existence entirely, saying that the EPP is just a collection of criminals and extortionists and not a true insurgency.  Whatever the case may be, the EPP is rather small with less than a hundred men under arms (I’ve seen estimates as low as 10 and high as 60).

It’ll be interesting to see if the Lugo government can continue to contain and eliminate this small insurgency.

Massive (Mexican) Drug Bust in California

The BBC reports on a massive marijuana drug bust in the Sierra Nevada mountains in California estimated at $1.7 billion.  The three-week operation shut down hundreds of cultivation sites and netted about 100 individuals, most of which had ties to Mexican drug trafficking organizations.  I must point out that marijuana is the most profitable illicit product for Mexican DTOs, accounting for roughly more than half of their earnings.  There is a misconception that cocaine or methamphetamines are the real cash cows for these groups.

For several years now Mexican DTOs have moved cultivation and production, typically marijuana and some methamphetamine, into the US for two main reasons: 1) to avoid crossing the border and 2) to compete with growing domestic production.

As to point 1.  This strategy is generally less risky and only requires a few people to maintain and harvest clandestine cultivation sites away from population centers within national forests and parks.  This is another testament to their ingenuity and skill in avoiding law enforcement detection.  As pundits and politicians clamor for a more secure border, Mexican DTOs have responded by circumventing the border entirely.  Strengthening the border without addressing demand reduction at home will fail to curb supply.

And point 2.  Another reason Mexican DTOs are shipping cultivation north is to reduce business costs and maintain a competitive edge over domestic marijuana production.  An insightful Washington Post article from last October describes the fact that foreign supply of marijuana has dramatically fallen in the last four decades, now accounting for just under half of all marijuana consumed domestically.  In other words, the United States has nationalized its marijuana production, both legal and illegal.  As with any business, Mexican DTOs adapted to an evolving business environment.   “Now, to stay competitive, Mexican traffickers are changing their business model to improve their product and streamline delivery.”

I believe that point 1 is more of an immediate driving factor, since Mexican marijuana cultivation has been a rather successful endeavor for more than a century.  It was only until recently when trafficking it across the border became a bothersome activity did DTOs decide to move operations north.  In addition to failing to reduce drug supply, the policy of strengthening the border has effectively imported large-scale illicit production of marijuana.  What is concerning for many is that foreign criminal organizations have moved industrial sized drug production operations to protected lands within the US.  Cultivating, harvesting and processing illicit drugs, especially on this scale, is extremely damaging to the environment.

Congress and those advocating to build higher and stronger fences should also examine the repercussions and externalities associated with such a policy.

Oldest Twist in the Telenovela Book

Anyone that has spent more than five minutes in Latin America (or Columbia Heights) is most likely intimately acquainted with the experience that is the Latin American Telenovela.  Many of the soap operas are so popular that they destroy national productivity while they are on because everyone from small children to old men are glued to their televisions to see the latest plot twist in “Betty la Fea.”  If you have ever found yourself tuning in to the visual crack that is telenovelas, you will undoubtedly be familiar with one of the most popular plot tools around, the love triangle.  Maria the raven haired heroine is madly in love with the powerful Gabriel but Gabriel only has eyes for the blond bombshell Raquel, if at this point you are not on the edge of your seat, check for a pulse.

Like the telenovelas of the region, the most intense relationship in Latin America right now is the love triangle that exists between Colombia, Venezuela and the United States.  The relationship of these three countries goes back much further than I care to write about and probably further than you care to read so we can skip straight to the contemporary details, but suffice it to say, like any good love triangle, these three countries are intimately intertwined.

Tensions have been growing between Venezuela and Colombia in the last decade as the countries move further apart politically and the list of affronts tallies up.  The last decade has seen Colombia ruffle some feathers with a commando raid to kill a top FARC leader camped out across the border in Ecuador which prompted Hugo Chavez of Venezuela to send extra troops to the border for a few solid days of saber rattling;  Venezuela made sure to stick its nose into an internal hostage negotiation with the FARC in Colombia that ended up making a lot of people unhappy; Colombia has accused the Chavez government of harboring and aiding Colombian guerrillas to which Venezuela responded by recalling its ambassador to the country in the last couple weeks..  Throw in some blustery diplomatic insults (including my favorite of President Alvaro Uribe screaming at Chavez to “be a man” during regional talks in Mexico last February to which Chavez fired back “Go to hell!”) and it more or less catches you up to where we are at today on that rocky relationship.
Now enters the third actor in our triangle, the USA.  The US has a love hate relationship with both Colombia and Venezuela.  The US hates all the drugs that come from Colombia (or one could argue we love them too much) and it hates that Colombia can’t get its human rights act together with government linked paramilitary groups still emerging even while others sit on trial.  Venezuela and the US have not gotten along well either with the US’s, at best, tacit approval (probably had a much more hands on role though) for the brief coup that overthrew Chavez in 2002 and then constant name calling back and forth for the last ten years or so.  So things are a bit estranged between these three but not to fear because as much as they don’t get along they get along splendidly where it matters most… in the wallet.

That’s right these countries economies are so closely linked than none of them are going anywhere.  The US loves to spend money in Colombia (mostly through the anti narcotics program Plan Colombia) and it is the highest recipient of US foreign aid outside of the middle east, nearly $8 billion since 2000.  The US also loves the support it gets from Colombia diplomatically as the US’s staunchest ally in the region and the recent recipient of several new military bases after Ecuador politely asked the US to get out.  The United States also happens to love Venezuela’s oil and Venezuela loves the US’s refineries since they only have the domestic capacity to process a fraction of their daily output and no one else can handle their high sulfur oil. Venezuela and Colombia can’t get enough of each other either as oil and gas imports flow across the border into Colombia and Colombian food products pour back in to Venezuela.  Venezuela is the largest recipient of Colombian exports and Venezuela drastically needs the food since Chavez’s economic policies have not been doing so hot.

So where does this leave our trio?  In much the same place as many a telenovela romance, they can’t stand each other, but they just can’t leave each other alone either.  We should expect some more shouting and yelling for the next couple of weeks until President-elect Santos has been in office in Colombia for a while and then expect a return to the norm as none of the countries is in a position to let the other two go.

Impunity and a Weak Judiciary

Today the AP posted a story on judicial impunity in the War on Drugs in Mexico, since the Calderón Administration.  Told mostly through a series of human interest stories, the underlying theme is clear: impunity is the norm.  Though they’re hauled in front of blue and white banners that bear the symbol of the federal attorney general’s office, the majority of those arrested for involvement in the narco-trade do not face prosecution.  The Mexican judiciary has a “catch and release” policy toward arresting narco-criminals.  According to the story,

the government arrested 226,667 drug suspects between December 2006 and September 2009, the most recent numbers available. Less than a quarter of that number were charged. Only 15 percent saw a verdict, and the Mexican attorney general’s office won’t say how many of those were guilty.

Let me repeat those figures: only 15% of the 226,667 arrested during the approximate three years saw their case carried out in the judicial system to the end.

In Ciudad Juarez, the epicenter of the Mexican Drug War, things are even worse.

In Ciudad Juarez, where a war between two cartels over trafficking routes killed a record 2,600 people in 2009, prosecutors filed 93 homicide cases that year and got 19 convictions, the AP found. Only five were for first-degree murder, court records show, and none came under federal statutes with higher penalties designed to prosecute the drug war.

It’s safe to say that, at best, a small amount of the 25,000 drug-related killings in Mexico since 2006 have been solved or justice met for families of victims.  Mexico’s judicial system has long been plagued with irregularities, corruption and lack of transparency.  Transparency and efficiency should improve as the country moves from an inquisitorial judicial system to an accusatory one.  Nonetheless, will this long and tedious process of retraining judges, prosecutors, and defense lawyers wholly fix the problems facing the Mexican judicial system?  It will help, but unless corruption and fear can be weeded out in other sectors of society, I’m afraid that things won’t change all that much.  It’s likely that the big fish and cartel kingpins will continue to face trial in federal court in the United States.

Diffusion of Drug Violence

The Washington Post writes a bleak piece on the expansion of Mexican Drug Trafficking Organizations (DTOs) and their operations into weaker Central America, particularly Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.  The fact that Mexican cartels are operating with near impunity and using these states as storehouses and recruitment centers is nothing new to most analysts.  In fact, it was a logical step for criminal organizations to expand into the vast, sparsely populated and stateless territories of Central America to construct landing strips and warehouses for US-bound contraband.  What is new, however, is the adoption of violence that has been typical in Mexico for the last half decade.

It seems that local street gangs MS13 and 18th Street, collectively known as Maras, are starting to expand their operations from simple extortion to drug running and contract killings for Mexican DTOs.  Higher caliber weapons are being found at crime scenes as are telltale signs of Mexican cartel involvement, such as torture and the way bodies are disposed.

Beyond local adoption of Mexican violence, perhaps what struck me as most interesting in the article was the mention to a UN report on violence in the region that acknowledges a growth in violence outside of urban centers.  Some of the highest murder rates were not in cities, “but in provinces with strategic value to drug traffickers: along borders, coasts and jungles.”

The article continues to paint a dark picture:

Guatemala and Honduras have fewer than half as many police per capita as Mexico, U.N. data show. In Guatemala, as many as seven of the country’s 22 provinces appear to be under the control of criminals, according to the International Crisis Group report.

All of this coupled with the region’s recent history of civil war and violence has led many to surmise that this is the beginning of the end of democratic consolidation in these three countries.  Unlike Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are proportionately experiencing more violence, have weaker institutions and resources and are emerging from decades of internal struggle, leaving them awash in Cold War-era weapons.

Politicians and analysts are constantly worried about Mexico because of its geographic and economic ties to the United States.  However, it may be Central America that falls first to drug-related violence and criminality.  If organized crime prevails over democratic institutions and rule of law, then we could see an explosion in migration from the region as individuals and families escape the violence, similar to what was witnessed during the 1980s.

Hemispheric Drug Policy

Last week, Boz wrote about how most of the Western Hemisphere still favors prohibition and law enforcement to decriminalization despite of what many analysts are now calling a new trend eschewing a punitive model toward drug abuse and control.  I agree with Boz in that the US has typically manned the helm of the prohibition regime; however, countries in the region, including the US, are shifting their focus in light of newer evidence.  Though in its infancy, these new steps are changing the discourse surrounding illicit drugs.

Most recently, the Inter-American Commission on Drug Abuse Control (CICAD) finalized a new Hemispheric Drug Control Strategy that moves from a traditionally law enforcement heavy paradigm to a more comprehensive emphasis that inlcudes treating and rehabilitating users.  Secretary General Isulza’s op-ed from last month outlines the change from incarceration to rehabilitation:

This month, the member countries of the Organization of American States (OAS) adopted a new hemispheric drug strategy that will help countries develop policies to focus not only on supply and control, but also on drug dependence. The strategy explicitly recognizes that drug dependency is a chronic, relapsing disease that must be dealt with as a core element of public health policy. It is a disease on par with diabetes, hypertension or asthma that requires proper medical care to treat the underlying causes.

This new OAS strategy goes hand in hand with the recent shift in drug policy announced by the United States. President Barack Obama’s pledge to allocate more resources to drug prevention and treatment parallels the hemispheric view that drug abuse and dependence are public health issues, and not just criminal acts. We welcome this evidence-based policy shift, which is guided by sound principles of public health, safety and the respect for human rights.

With this new emphasis, small steps have been taken to change the paradigm from law enforcement to public health, something that Boz’s analysis doesn’t mention.  Nonetheless, countries still are not clamoring to repeal enforcement laws against traffickers and producers (though the region has seen an overall relaxation of laws for end-users).  These are small shifts that will continue to take many decades of success and failure to better understand what type of drug policy works and what balance between enforcement and treatment is needed.  Boz is right to infer that regional and national organizations that combat illicit trafficking and production will always have a place.  However, the region, including the US, is shifting its understanding of drug use as something that is not only treatable but will also help in reducing illicit production and drug-related violence.

*Full disclosure, I’ve worked for CICAD in the past.