Here’s a conundrum: last year President Felipe Calderon deployed almost 10,000 troops to Ciudad Juarez, the city that sits across the border from El Paso, in response to a plague of drug-related violence. The result: more murder, not less. How bad has it gotten? The Wall Street Journal noted at the end of last year: “In 2008, 1,600 people were killed in drug-related hits. This year, more than 2,500 have died. By some estimates, Juárez’s approximately 165 deaths per 100,000 residents make it the murder capital of the world. That compares with 48 violent deaths per 100,000 residents of Baghdad.” The situation isn’t improving this year. Among the recent victims are a pregnant employee of the U.S. consulate and her husband, and the husband of another consulate worker.
Why isn’t the army getting the job done? It’s possible to point to deficiencies in training, doctrine, and equipment among Mexico’s conscript forces. Under the Merida Initiative, signed in 2007, the U.S. agreed to provide substantial aid and equipment to the Mexican armed forces, but the supplies have been slow to arrive. But there is a more fundamental problem lurking in plain sight: the Mexican army’s rotation policies. As the Journal notes, “Most troops rotate out after two-month assignments.” Two months? Give me a break. No wonder the Mexican army can’t get a handle on Juarez or other violence-plagued areas. The key to successful counterinsurgency — and that’s what is required here — is knowledge of the local area. You can’t acquire that knowledge in two months even if you’re operating in your own country. Bad guys who don’t wear uniforms find it easy to give the slip to clumsy security forces that lack good intelligence on their movements. That’s a lesson the U.S. armed forces learned the hard way in Iraq, and that the Mexican military is now learning in its own cities.
The good news is that failure isn’t an option. While it’s quite possible that the U.S. could have left Iraq unpacified, it’s inconceivable that the Mexican government could allow major parts of its own territory to spin out of control indefinitely. Sooner or later a more effective response will have to be formulated. It should begin with an end to the revolving door for troops. If the army is going to be effective, units have to be deployed for extended periods. Oh, and lose the reliance on conscripts. They’re not as effective as professional volunteers.