After four years of war, Mexico is exhausted.  Mexico’s struggle against its indigenous drug cartels have led to the deaths of over one thousand police officers, judges, and prosecutors, while fifty-eight reporters and over thirty-thousand civilians have also lost their lives.  Perhaps most disconcertingly, the government seems further away from victory than ever before and deaths have been increasing by nearly fifty percent year-on-year.  It may not be surprising that a war with such a heavy human cost would also have a high economic one, but the Mexican government’s $7.2 billion expenditure over the first eighteen months of its war on drugs still comes across as startling.  Those statistics may seem horrifying to Westerners with little experience of drug violence, but they barely register a response in Colombia, the country most affected by drug violence in the world.  Colombia serves as a potent warning sign of things to come if Mexico cannot shift its strategy and turn the tide against the drug cartels.

Colombia and Mexico have long been hotbeds for revolution and violence.  Like Mexico, Colombia was colonized by the Spanish in the early 1500s and in both cases indigenous populations were quickly destroyed by diseases like smallpox or through a combination of force and superior technology.  Both states achieved independence from Spain in 1821 and suffered subsequent upheaval and revolution, but there were key differences in their development that led to Colombia’s rapid descent into anarchy.  Mexico’s development was greatly aided by its proximity to the United States of America.  America provided Mexico with access to the world’s largest economy and created jobs by way of cheap Mexican labour.  Mexico was also able to achieve a relatively stable political system by the 1920s and this led to a serious commitment to primary education.  By the 1940s, investments in primary education led to the ‘Mexican Miracle’ a period of sustained economic growth of between three to four percent year-on-year from the 1940s until the 1970s.  During this same time, Colombia was experiencing a period of intense conflict known as ‘La Violencia’ that had claimed two hundred thousand lives by 1964.  It can be said that Mexico prospered under conditions of ‘mango corruption’, in which corruption is relatively high, but the economy grows at a rate that appeases the populace.  Unlike Mexico, Colombia has never been able to achieve anything close to resembling a stable political system and is hampered by the control of an elite upper class whose interests are out of touch with the majority of the populace.  Given these conditions, Colombia suffered under ‘baobab corruption’ where corruption is high and economic growth low.  These twin pressures led to the creation of left-wing paramilitary groups whose original aim was to fight the right-wing elite.

Emerging in the 1970s, drug cartels developed in Colombia from paramilitary groups looking for easy cash to finance their political goals.  Soon groups from all sides of the political spectrum entered the drug trade due to the lure of ever increasing profits.  This process was aided by the weakness of the Colombian government and its inability to control and police its own territory, factors also present in Mexico.  However, it is important to note that the success of the drug cartels was directly proportionate to the insatiable American appetite for cocaine and marijuana.  These factors were also present in Mexico during this time, but were partly assuaged by the greater economic growth seen in that country.  Furthermore, the creation of powerful drug cartels in Mexico was initially hampered by the total domination exercised by Colombian cartels.  Colombian cartels, especially the Medellin cartel, grew and manufactured the drugs and used Cuban and Mexican gangs to smuggle them into America.  This arrangement allowed the Medellin cartel to earn over sixty million dollars per day during its height in the 1980s.  The Medellin cartel and others were able to control large swaths of the Colombian countryside as their own personal fiefdoms and exercised tremendous influence over all branches of government whether through bribery, extortion, or violence.  Colombia would eventually achieve marginal success against the cartels through an extensive military and police campaign that was aided by the support of the United States Army Delta Force and the CIA ‘CENTRA SPIKE’ intelligence team.  However, cartels were able to make a sham out of the demobilization process that began in 2005 and turned in few guns and fewer members.

However, the government of Colombia’s efforts against the drug cartels were not a complete failure and indirectly led to the creation and development of ever more powerful cartels in Mexico.  Today, Colombian cartels still grow the majority of cocaine for export to the world market, but these drugs are now imported, distributed, and sold in America via Mexican cartels through a porous border.  Colombian cartels began to offer their Mexican counterparts a payment-in-product scheme, which saw Mexican cartels given thirty-five to fifty percent of cocaine shipments for their own sales.  This has allowed Mexican cartels to become significant distributors in their own right and has led to the Sinaloa and Gulf cartels taking over Colombian cocaine trafficking to the world market.  Mexico’s lack of control over its territory and its proximity to the United States (the world’s largest drug market) has allowed the cartels to amass untold amounts of money, which finance and strengthen cartels’ resolve to protect their territory.  As seen in Colombia, these immense profits allow cartels to find new and willing recruits extremely easily.  All while making it possible to equip these recruits with weapons that eclipse those of the armed forces and police.

This is why despite four years of struggle between the Mexican armed forces and drug cartels, the Mexican government finds itself battling the status quo with no solution in sight.  Some have claimed the cartels have infiltrated the government and use their influence to stop cartel leaders from being arrested.  Whether these rumours of such blatant corruption are true remains to be seen, but it is clear that the Mexican people do not and should not expect much from future government efforts to stop drug violence.  America is beginning to offer its assistance and expertise, but likely face a much tougher battle in Mexico than the one they waged in Columbia.  Colombia was mainly controlled by the dominant Medellin cartel and all their resources went into its destruction.  Mexico has over seven cartels organized into two loose coalitions: The Juarez Cartel, Tijuana Cartel, Los Zetas, and the Beltran-Leyva Cartel constitute one faction, while the Gulf Cartel, Sinaloa Cartel, and La Familia cartel comprise the other.  These cartels conduct their business while warring against rival factions, each other, and the Mexican government for control of an industry that creates an estimated $13.6 to $48.4 billion dollars in cash profits annually.

The magic bullet cure for cartel violence has yet to be discovered, but the example of Colombia shows us that a military and police effort that operates without political or economic reforms is doomed to failure.  Cartels will simply use their influence to negotiate terms to their advantage or continue indefinitely their campaign of violence, intimidation, bribery, and extortion.  Some have argued that the fractious nature of drug trafficking caused by the numerous competing cartels in Mexico has led to increased violence and that a domination of the drug trade by one cartel would lead to greater order.  There are even those who claim that the Mexican government is encouraging this outcome and providing assistance to the Sinaloa Cartel.  While this could possibly lead to a reduction in violence it does nothing to address the issue of drug trafficking or corruption and amounts to sweeping the problem under the rug.  Legalization of drugs has also been touted as another possible solution.  Under this view, the legalization of the growth and manufacture of drugs leads to legitimate business driving out illegal cartels, but without the support of the United States this kind of policy is most likely doomed to be unsuccessful as the cartels would still operate illegal smuggling routes into America.  While it can be argued that legalization would stop the cartels from waging war on the state, levels of violence could simply shift to the cartels battling each other for the now legitimate growth and manufacture of drugs, as well as the previously mentioned problem of the illegal importation of the drugs into America.

The military and policing strategy currently employed by Mexico is a logical and necessary first step response to drug cartel violence, but such a strategy cannot achieve its objectives when taken alone.  Successful change can only come from profound economic, social, and political reforms that reduce corruption, restore the ability of the state to control its territory, and renew the people’s trust in their government.  Mexico has suffered four years of misguided policy; the question is whether they can survive another four.