May 19, 2022

The Mexican Drug Lord’s Nuclear Option

Can Mexico Win The War On Drug Dealers?

One defining characteristic of a weak central government is a weak military.  The Mexican military forces appear to be underpaid, underequiped and demoralized.  Under these circumstances, vulnerability to bribes increases geometrically.  Consider the first hand account of the wife of a Mexican army officer.

Plenty of policy makers agonize over the issue, but having lived on a military base in Mexico as the wife of a Mexican officer, I know that the biggest problem is simple — underequipped, unsupported and absurdly underpaid sailors and soldiers.

In November 2005, we moved into a house on base infested with cockroaches. They spilled out of holes in the walls and watched us from the tops of the door frames. We paid for the fumigation ourselves and then for curtains for the bare windows. The kitchen had only a sink and one counter, so we bought our own stove and refrigerator. We paid for utilities — which included space heaters in the winter and gas tanks that lasted a month and ran out midshower, and we spent a fortune on phone cards for the pay phone down the street. In the summer, we just opened the windows for a breeze. A green mold grew all over our clothing in the closets, and a black mold grew on the concrete walls.

As an officer, my husband earned about $1,000 a month. Although our family of four struggled financially, the sailors suffered much more. Their salaries, which despite recent increases are frequently under $600 a month, often have to support a wife, children and the occasional elderly parent. Many of them make extra cash sending their children door to door selling tamales and cookies that their wives make. Some take on second and third jobs.

In the spring of 2007, a Mexican marine walked up to my husband and said, forcefully, “Lieutenant Castillo, look at me!” Juan was surprised that the soldier had spoken so disrespectfully until he noticed that something about the man’s bulletproof vest looked odd. Upon closer inspection, he saw that the marine was not wearing a bulletproof vest at all, but instead had been given a life jacket that had been painted black to look like one.

This was the force that President Calderón deployed at the end of 2006 and early 2007 to rid the states of Michoacán and Baja California of corrupt police officers and fight the drug dealers directly. I thought it was the right move, despite the military’s shortcomings. The police force is notoriously corrupt, but the navy and the army are relatively free of infiltration by the cartels.

Still, a navy official once told my horrified husband that two men had offered him a large sum of money in exchange for information about the navy’s boat movements and patrol schedule. He told the men he didn’t have that information and that if they wanted it, they should go and ask the commandant of the base. When Juan tried to find out more, the official said, “The less involved you are, the safer you’ll be.”

What would make us all safer is straightforward — higher salaries and better weapons for the Mexican military. After all, the cartels already have money and weapons, which they use against those who stand in their way — to buy the ones who can be corrupted and brutally murder the rest.

When the police and military can be easily corrupted by the drug lords, the Mexican government’s chance of  winning the drug war are extremely limited.  The Mexican government seems powerless to stop the execution of government officials charged with fighting the drug war.  Many times, the police and military are outgunned in their battles with the drug cartels.  The drug lords apparently have an unlimited amount of financial resources available to defend themselves.

Since a government victory seems improbable, perhaps a classic “Mexican standoff” is the best result the government can hope for against a foe that employs the most ruthless methods available to remain in business.  The battle between being the drug cartels and the Mexican government have thus far resulted in minor collateral damage to civilians or tourists not directly involved in the conflict.  Should the Mexican government ever succeed to the point that the  survival of the drug lords is in question, that’s when ruthless desperation tactics by the drug lords could turn this battle into a nightmare.

The Cancun area produces many billions in needed tourist revenue for the Mexican government.  Anyone who has ever visited the area knows that there is a minimal military and police presence in the area.   One or two attacks on a minimally defended resort in the Cancun area that results in the deaths of tourists would quickly collapse the tourist trade to Mexico and put tremendous political and economic pressure on the Mexican government.   Given the nightmare scenario that could be generated by a handful of well armed and trained terrorists, perhaps the best outcome at this point would be a stalemate situation where neither side feels the need to deploy desperation tactics.

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