The end of Mexico's war on drugs

The war on drugs is over.

At least, that’s what I’m told by a few high-level officials in Mexico. (I can’t name them, but two are former PGR and now occupy other posts.)

This moment has been coming for some time now; the government, realizing it cannot possibly stop drug trafficking completely (both Eduardo Medina Mora and Genaro Garcia Luna admitted this in the past year or so) has been seeking other ways to frame its apparent quest for a more stable and democratic Mexico. It has decided to go after organized crime.

Of course, the Mexican government has always been going after organized crime, but now, the focus will not be on the drugs, but human trafficking, I’m told.

For the past two years, we’ve seen increasing reports about Los Zetas, in particular, getting involved in human smuggling. They are apparently involved in underage prostitution rings, too. Contrary to news reports, this isn’t actually all that new; Chapo and the Sinaloa cartel have long been involved in extracurricular activities like people-smuggling.

But still, the media’s increased focus on human smuggling is the right one – especially in the eyes of the government. The government wants people to stop thinking about the drugs and start thinking about the people. Smart move: if you really want to get the Mexican people to hate organized criminals, make them or their relatives the victims. Innocents dying in shootouts isn’t enough; it’s random and still doesn’t happen all that often. The government tried to push the argument that drug consumption was rising here in Mexico – so the stupid gringos weren’t the only ones suffering from production – but that failed, because critics argued very vocally that consumption/addiction isn’t really all that high.

So turn ordinary Mexicans trying to get to el otro lado into the victims.

And go after the money, which I understand is the real key part of the next phase of this war.

And ignore (or at least, not obsessing about) the violence. Both Medina Mora (who’s now ambassador to the UK) and Garcia Luna have also downplayed the violence numbers recently, claiming that fewer people are getting killed than in the 1990s. That’s sort of true: back then, the official homicide rates were lower. BUT… hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people are believed to have been killed during those years, yet not recorded. Local media didn’t always run out and cover each corpse back then; investigations were non-existent.

The reason for this is that the government doesn’t necessarily want its people to think they are in the midst of a war anymore. I understand this: the bloodshed – and reports of it – has hurt business, tourism and society. It is pretty much confined to certain parts of the country (juarez, tijuana, culiacan, michoacan, durango, parts of guerrero) and that’s it. So why scare people to death with daily reports of killings?

As they change the war on drugs to the war on organized crime, the authorities are also changing their definition of the war. As one former PGR guy tells me, it’s all about how you look at it. (He refuses to call Mexico’s current state a “war” by the way.)

The authorities are starting to look at organized crime through a new paradigm. Instead of thinking of the enemy as crooks, and trying to put them in jail, the government is going to increasingly look at organized crime as a business. Not an illegal business, but as a business.

And instead of focusing on putting them in jail, they’re going to try and put them out of business.

“Let’s bankrupt these motherfuckers,” says one former PGR official. “We have the advantage,” he adds, “We are the government. It’s 10 times easier to put someone out of business. If you want to freeze a business, you freeze a business.You can do it, they can’t.”

The end goal: disrupt the money and cartels will no longer exist. (If you don’t like the term cartels, let’s call them organizations or syndicates.) You will simply have hundreds of bands of criminals (drug dealers, extortionists and the like) running around the country, which is just normal crime, and which the authorities believe is controllable.

This strategy still leaves some things unanswered, however. If you take away all the money from Mexican drug traffickers, won’t someone else step in and take control over the drug trade – which will still going strong? The FARC and paramilitaries took over in Colombia after the fall of the Cali and Medellin cartels, someone would surely take over Mexico – not for production necessarily, but because that border is just too attractive and porous.

And lastly, what happens to the Mexican economy if as much as $40 billion a year is frozen? I think we’d start hearing talk about a “failed state” again.

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