No, Mexico’s Not Winning the ‘Drug War’
Six years after President Felipe Calderón first declared war on the country’s drug cartels, U.S. and Mexican media are heralding the alleged killing of Heriberto “El Lazca” Lazcano by Mexican marines as an important triumph for the country's government. The AP called it, “one of the most significant victories in Mexico's militarized battle with organized crime.”
Lazcano was a leader in Los Zetas, one of Mexico's most powerful and brutal cartels. Zetas pioneered the now-standard cartel practice of displaying their beheaded victims’ bodies in public, and Lazcano is personally credited with expanding the cartel’s influence, as well as with orchestrating the 2004 murder of Tijuana newspaper editor Francisco Ortiz Franco, who reported on the drug war.
But the narrative of "victory" was immediately undercut when armed paramilitaries stole Lazcano’s corpse from a funeral parlor. And though the U.S. now says it identified the body as that of Lazcano before it was taken, marines maintain they had no knowledge of the body's identity, the Mexican people remain unconvinced Lazcano is gone for good. "In Mexico, we can believe in chupacabras, in UFOs and even in Saint Death. But we will never believe what the authorities tell us,” Mexican Maria Olmos told the Los Angeles Times.
The theft illustrates yet again the government's inability to rein in the cartels, despite millions spent on the drug war.
President Calderón took credit for the killing at a speech in Guanajuato state, as President Obama was quick to do after the assassination of U.S. Public Enemy No. 1, Osama bin Laden. Calderón praised marines for their role in the takedown and added, "With this, Mexico has neutralized, during my government, 25 out of 37 of the most wanted criminals in the country."
While the Mexican government’s strategy of targeting drug “kingpins” has indeed seen some success, it is unclear whether the strategy slows drug commerce, especially in decentralized cartels such as the Zetas, an organization split into small semi-autonomous cells able to continue operations under lower-level leaders. Even if Zetas is weakened by Lazcano’s death, some argue the shift will simply allow the rival Sinaloa cartel to expand its influence, rather than stemming narcotraffic.
But President Calderón’s battle against the cartels has seen results, if not always the desired ones. There have been over 50,000 deaths since Calderón took office in 2006. The Calderón administration, widely accused of deemphasizing “collateral damage” in the war on drugs, militarized the country's drug war by granting Mexico's armed forces policing powers, which may have upped the violence levels. Some credit these drug war casualties with bringing Mexico’s long-ruling PRI back to power, as PRI was perceived as more effective at keeping cartels' violence in check.
When PRI's Enrique Peña Nieto takes office in December, the president-elect says his administration will carry on an altered version of Calderón's drug policies. Peña Nieto already hired ex-chief of the Colombian National Police, Gen. Oscar Naranjo, as top security adviser for the administration. Despite Peña Nieto's insistence his PRI administration will not negotiate with organized crime, the party's ability to control the cartels in the past has been largely chalked up to deals and truces with narcotraficantes.
Combined, the U.S. and Mexico were offering roughly $7 million for information leading to Lazcano’s capture, a figure indicative of the massive monetary cost of the drug war. Some estimates indicate the United States spends about $50 billion per year on the ever-escalating war. $1.6 billion in U.S. funding has been funneled into Mexico since 2008 under the auspices of the Mérida Initiative, a security agreement christened "Plan Mexico" by critics for the its similarity to the notorious Plan Colombia. Activists continue to target the initiative for its alleged links to disappearances, paramilitary abuses and torture.