How can Mexico break the cycle of violence?

The Mexican state is not strong enough to wage a war on the cartels or strike peace with them; so what is the solution?

Mexico violence Reuters
A burning bus is pictured during clashes between cartel gunmen and federal forces following the detention of Ovidio Guzman, in Culiacan, Sinaloa state, Mexico on October 17, 2019 [File: Reuters]

Criminal violence in Mexico has swept back into the headlines, staining the streets of the country with blood. The country’s new administration, led by President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, is facing its first major security crisis. This time, however, the country is not threatened by another turf war between cartels, but instead an open confrontation between a cartel and the federal government.

On the afternoon of October 17, the Mexican army detained Ovidio Guzman, son of the infamous drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, in the city of Culiacan. His detention led to violent retaliation from the Sinaloa cartel, which set up roadblocks in different areas of Culiacan and engaged in shootouts with security forces.

The hitmen attacked the facilities of the Ninth Military Zone, where the families of the military personnel involved in the operation reside. After two hours of skirmishes, the security cabinet of the president released Ovidio Guzman. “In the desire to obtain a positive result, [the ministerial police] acted in a precipitous manner, with insufficient planning and a lack of awareness of the consequences,” stated Mexican Secretary of Defence General Luis Cresencio Sandoval.

The final toll of the clashes between the cartel and the army was 14 dead, including four civilians. Additionally, amid the confusion, a riot broke out at the nearby prison of Aguaruto, where two guards were killed and 49 prisoners escaped. 

The level of violence in Mexico has reached record levels in the last few years, and its growth seems unstoppable. According to Mexico’s National Statistics Institute, there were 35,964 murders in 2018, making it the most violent year in modern Mexican history. Criminal violence first surged in 2006 when President Felipe Calderon declared a so-called “war on drugs”.

Before President Calderon’s administration, Mexico experienced roughly 10,000 homicides per year on average, less than a third of the present figure. Not only has the violence skyrocketed since 2006, but the number of cartels has also increased from six to 37, generating total estimated revenues of $29bn. The dramatic increase in the number of cartels and criminal groups operating in Mexico is largely due to President Calderon’s policy, which focused almost exclusively on arresting the leaders of the cartels, fragmenting the previously consolidated criminal groups.

Today, Mexican policymakers are divided between those who propose violently cracking down on drug cartels and those who propose a peace agreement. Both strategies, however, are limited. On the one hand, the Mexican state must not tolerate criminal groups or their activities. On the other hand, the government cannot risk a further increase in violence in the country.

The war on drugs is nothing like a conventional warfare. First of all, a war of all-against-all between cartels and the state resembles more a civil war, than a conventional one. Secondly, the problem of fighting the cartels is that they operate in the desert, in the jungle, as well as in highly populated urban areas. Therefore, security forces must be equipped and trained to operate in several different contexts at the same time.

Also, a drug war poses high risks for the population, which can be affected by the military operations, or be used as shields or hostages by the cartels. One should also consider that a drug cartel will never “surrender” like a state in a conventional war. Cartels are highly fluid, and they easily fragment, atomise, and reorganise according to the conditions of their environment (arrests, internal divisions, death of the leadership, etc). Wars are expected to finish, at some point, but as El Chapo has noted: “drug traffic will never end”. The only effect of war on organized crime is to plunge Mexico into a cycle of interminable violence.

Considering that the “war” on cartels is clearly a failed strategy, how viable is a peace process? First of all, the government would need to negotiate 37 different peace deals, one for each cartel and criminal group, which is essentially impossible. Add to this the volatile instability of the cartels and it becomes clear that a pact – such as a treaty to end the war – is impossible to reach. Any agreement with a criminal group will inevitably be short-lived. At some point, the chronic inefficiency of the municipal police and the justice system will allow the cartels to expand their margins of autonomy, further crippling the authority of the Mexican state. 

At the present stage, neither peace nor war is a viable solution. The Mexican state is too weak to wage an infinite war against numerous cartels, yet is also too weak to set the conditions for an eventual peace negotiation.

In order to emerge from this stalemate, Mexico must reverse the balance of power that currently favours the drug cartels by strengthening its institutions. The Mexican justice system has an extremely high rate of impunity – 99.3 percent. Trust in the justice system is so low that only 10 percent of crimes are reported to the authorities, and of these, only 14 percent result in a conviction.

Also, police officers are poorly trained, which often results in detentions invalidated based on technicalities. For instance, on the October 24, a judge released 31 members of the criminal gang La Union Tepito for false arrest, even though the operation led to the seizure of 2.5 tonnes of drugs, and a huge number of assault weapons.The strength of the drug cartels does not come from their money or weapons, but rather from the weakness of Mexican public institutions.

In response to the ongoing security crisis, the current administration has adopted generous redistributive policies aimed at reducing the vulnerability of the most marginalised sectors of society. This is definitely an appropriate policy, however, its effects will only be reflected in the long term.

The government must elaborate a progressive strategy in order to address this emergency and ensure that it is not repeated. In the short term, the government should reinforce the operational capacity of its security forces and finally decide whether it will continue to use the army to conduct police operations or replace it with a civilian security force. In the medium term, Mexico must strengthen and reinforce its police, justice, and prison systems. Doing so is the only way out of this crisis.

The problem in Mexico is structural. The country will remain in a state of constant emergency until its institutions reduce the grey areas in which crime prospers. And the necessary changes will take much longer than the six years of a presidential mandate. It is not enough for this administration alone to implement the correct policies; the subsequent administration must ensure their continuity.

Mexico does not allow for presidential re-election, which jeopardises the ability to establish a clear, long-term strategy. That is why it is crucial for the Mexican political elite to converge on the need to strengthen public institutions and finally establish a common vision for the country.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.