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July 3, 2005
Drugs and violence in Mexico
The war on the border streets

From The Economist print

Americans' demand for illegal drugs has created powerful crime syndicates in Mexico. The country's police, only partly reformed, struggle to keep up.

IN HIS office in a small house just south of the border with the United States, Jesús Salazar Almaguer hands visitors copies of prayers for peace. Mr Salazar, the vicar-general of the bishopric of Nuevo Laredo, is tired of the violence that has beset his city. “MarÃ*a, queen of peace, plead for us,â€? the prayer reads. But Mr Salazar reckons that temporal powers can help too. “People out of work need money, so they sell drugs. The American authorities need to change their way of thinking.â€?

Mr Salazar is not alone in this belief. The failure of drug prohibition in the United States is wreaking havoc in northern Mexico. In the past, much Colombian cocaine reached the United States through the Caribbean. Repression has made that route riskier. But instead of checking the overall flow, this has merely re-routed it via Mexico. According to an assessment by the United States' government, last year 92% of cocaine entering the country did so through Mexico, up from 77% in 2003

Illegal drugs
The US Department of Justice published a National Drug Threat Assessment for 2005. Anthony Placido of the Drug Enforcement Administration recently gave testimony before Congress. See also the Mexican presidency and the AFI (in Spanish).

The story is the same for other drugs. The United States Department of Justice's latest National Drug Threat Assessment notes that marijuana production in Mexico increased by 70% in 2003 (the most recent year for which figures are available). It also gives warning that Mexico's output of heroin and methamphetamine is increasing. Anthony Placido, an official at the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), told Congress recently that methamphetamine seizures on the United States southern border are up 74% since 2001.

According to the threat assessment, Mexican criminal gangs “exert more influence over drug trafficking in the US than any other group.� Mexicans now control 11 of the 13 largest drug markets in the United States, according to an American official.

The effects of the tightening grip of Mexican organised crime are being felt south of the border as well as north of it. “It is not our problem, but we have to pay for it,� says Raymundo Ramos, a human-rights activist in Nuevo Laredo. His city, the busiest crossing on the border, has this year found itself in the middle of a turf war between rival gangs. According to reports in Mexican newspapers, at least 300 people have died in drug-related violence in six of the country's northern states so far this year. Many were the victims of execution-style killings.

Mexican and American officials agree that the rising violence stems in large part from a battle to fill a power vacuum left by the arrest of two prominent traffickers. In 2002, Mexican police detained BenjamÃ*n Arellano Felix, the head of the Tijuana “cartelâ€?; in 2003, they arrested Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, who headed the Gulf “cartelâ€?. According to Mr Placido's testimony, a group called the “Federationâ€? (also known as the Sinaloa “cartelâ€?) has been trying to capitalise on the weakness of the Tijuana and Gulf gangs to take over their territory.

Far from combating the drug mobs, the police in Mexico have all too often been their allies. In that respect, however, there are a few hopeful signs of change. The efforts of Mexico's president, Vicente Fox, to enact sweeping reforms of the police and of the criminal-justice system have fallen foul of congressional opposition. But his government has shown much willingness to try to do something about drugs. In 2002, the government formed the Federal Agency of Investigation (AFI), an elite force partly modelled on the American FBI. It is proving to be more effective than any other police body has been in the past in Mexico. And reforms of the judicial system, though blocked at the federal level, are slowly proceeding state by state.

The AFI apart, corruption and incompetence remain hallmarks of Mexico's police. It not always clear which of the two is the bigger problem. Jorge Chabat of CIDE, a university in Mexico City, notes that part of what distinguishes the AFI's members are such mundane skills as being able to use a computerâ€