One side effect of the American political habit of fighting metaphorical “wars”—the war on poverty, the war on drugs—is the blurring of distinctions. But the war on drugs stands apart as trickier case: it may be a metaphorical war here, but it is very real once that war stretches beyond our borders. The situation in Mexico is a perfect example, where Ciudad Juarez became one of the most dangerous and bloody cities in the world.
And paradoxically, in Mexico losing the war doesn’t seem all that different from what a victory might look like. The Washington Post reports:
It was one of the most sensational killing sprees in recent history, with 10,500 people left dead in the streets of Juarez as two powerful drug mafias went to war. In 2010, the peak, there were at least 3,115 homicides, with many months posting more than 300 deaths, according to the newspaper El Diario. Mexico is still struggling to make sense of the bloodshed.
But the fever seems to have broken.
Last month, there were just 48 homicides — 33 by gun, seven by beatings, six by strangulation and two by knife. Of these, authorities consider 40 to be related to the drug trade or criminal rivalries.
Authorities attribute the decrease in killings to their own efforts: patrols by the army, arrests by police, new schools to keep young men out of gangs and in the classroom.
Yet ordinary Mexicans suspect there is another, more credible reason for the decline in extreme violence: The most-wanted drug lord in the world, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, and his Sinaloa cartel have won control of the local narcotics trade and smuggling routes north.
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.