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Mexico Is Becoming the Next Colombia, Cato Foreign Policy Briefing No. 87

Mexico Is Becoming the Next Colombia, Cato Foreign Policy Briefing No. 87

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Published by Cato Institute
Executive Summary

Mexico is a major source of heroin, marijuana,
and methamphetamine for the U.S.
market as well as the principal transit and distribution
point for cocaine coming in from
South America. For years, people both inside
and outside Mexico have worried that the
country might descend into the maelstrom
of corruption and violence that has long
plagued the chief drug-source country in the
Western Hemisphere, Colombia. There are
growing signs that the
Executive Summary

Mexico is a major source of heroin, marijuana,
and methamphetamine for the U.S.
market as well as the principal transit and distribution
point for cocaine coming in from
South America. For years, people both inside
and outside Mexico have worried that the
country might descend into the maelstrom
of corruption and violence that has long
plagued the chief drug-source country in the
Western Hemisphere, Colombia. There are
growing signs that the

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Published by: Cato Institute on Mar 26, 2009
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05/10/2014

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 Mexico Is Becoming the Next Colombia
by Ted Galen Carpenter
Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of six books on international affairs, including 
Bad Neighbor Policy: Washington’s Futile War onDrugs in Latin America 
(Palgrave/Macmillan, 2003).
No.87
Mexico is a major source of heroin, mari- juana, and methamphetamine for the U.S.market as well as the principal transit and dis-tribution point for cocaine coming in fromSouth America. For years, people both insideand outside Mexico have worried that thecountry might descend into the maelstromof corruption and violence that has longplagued the chief drug-source country in theWestern Hemisphere, Colombia. There aregrowing signs that the “Colombianization”of Mexico is now becoming a reality.That tragic prospect is a direct result of Washington’s policy of drug prohibition. Aprohibitionist strategy inherently creates a huge black-market premium for trafficking inillegal drugs. The enormous potential profitalso attracts the most violence-prone criminalelements. It is a truism that when drugs areoutlawed, only outlaws will traffic in drugs.If Mexico goes down the same path asColombia, the consequences for the UnitedStates will be much more severe. Colombia isrelatively far away, but Mexico shares a bor-der with the United States and is closely linked to this country economically throughthe North America Free Trade Agreement.Chaos in Mexico is already spilling over theborder and will adversely impact the UnitedStates—especially the southwestern states.There is still time for Mexico to halt andeventually reverse the Colombianizationprocess, but for that to occur Washingtonmust make dramatic policy changes. Formore than three and a half decades, theUnited States has pursued a vigorous waron drugs that has produced major socialpathologies both here and abroad. It istime to rethink the entire prohibitioniststrategy.
November 15, 2005
Executive Summary 
 
Introduction
For many years, U.S. anti-drug policy in theWestern Hemisphere has concentrated oneradicating illegal drugs flowing out of theprincipal drug-source countries: Peru, Bolivia,and Colombia.
1
Washington was especially concerned about Colombia, where radical left-wing insurgent groups used the drug trade tofinance their armed struggle against the gov-ernment in Bogotá. Washington’s nightmarescenario was the emergence of a narcotraffick-ing state allied with extremist political ele-ments and terrorist organizations. The Bushadministration seems to be sufficiently wor-ried about that possibility that it intends tocontinue America’s extensive anti-narcoticsaid to Bogotá for several more years.The fears about Colombia are not unfound-ed, although the government of President Alvaro Uribe has successfully weakened theprincipal insurgent groups in recent years. Inany case, U.S. policymakers have a serious prob-lem brewing much closer to home—in Mexico.The prominence of the drug trade in Mexicohas mushroomed over the past decade. As farback as 1999, Thomas Constantine, then headof the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration,told Congress that the power of Mexican drugtraffickers had grown “virtually geometrically”over the previous five years and that corruptionthroughout the country was “unparalleled.”
2
Matters have grown substantially worse sincehis testimony.Mexico is now a major source of heroin forthe U.S. market as well as the principal transitand distribution point for cocaine coming infrom South America.
3
Indeed, there is evidencethat Mexican drug organizations have lever-aged the profits they earned from managingthe delivery routes for their Colombian part-ners over the years to wrest control of the over-all trade from the Colombians. “Today, theMexicans have taken over and are running theorganized crime, and getting the bulk of themoney,” contends John Walters, director of theU.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy (the White House drug czar).
4
Indeed, there areindications that Mexican drug cartels are evenplaying a greater role in the South Americandrug-source countries themselves, increasingly displacing Colombian traffickers.
5
People both inside and outside Mexicohave begun to worry that the country may descend into the maelstrom of corruption and violence that has long plagued Colombia.Indeed, Mexicans now openly speak of the“Colombianization” of their country.
6
True, Mexico does not face a large-scaleradical political insurgency like that afflictingColombia. The absence of such an insurgency is an important difference because it meansthat there are no significant anti-Americanpolitical forces that can exploit the illegal drugtrade for revenues to fund their cause.Nevertheless, the similarities between the situ-ations in Colombia and Mexico are greaterthan the differences, and Washington hasbeen slow to react to that troubling reality.
Shifting Alliances anda Spike in Violence
One consequence of the increased promi-nence of the Mexican cartels is a spike in vio-lence. Although there are nearly a dozendrug-trafficking organizations in Mexico,four groups are especially powerful: the Gulf cartel headed by Osiel Cárdenas; the Sinaloa cartel run by Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán;the Tijuana cartel, which for many years hasbeen run by the Arellano Félix family; and the Juárez cartel headed by Vicente Carrillo.Those groups battle law enforcement agen-cies and one another for control of the accesscorridors to the lucrative U.S. market.During the past year, there have been indi-cations that the Gulf and Tijuana cartels have joined forces to battle the Sinaloa cartel, whichhad been attempting to expand its share of thetrafficking business. To a lesser extent, thenew allies have also fought to resist incursionsby the Juárez cartel.
7
The turf battles have beenferocious. On one especially bloody day inFebruary, the bodies of 12 men were found inclusters along an 80-mile stretch of highway in
2
The prominenceof the drug tradein Mexico hasmushroomedover the pastdecade.
 
the state of Sinaloa between the capital,Culiacán, and the well-known beach resort of Mazatlán.
8
The Sinaloa episode may have beenextreme, but hundreds of individuals haveperished in less spectacular incidents of vio-lence related to drug trafficking during 2005. And there is no sign that the pace of the car-nage is lessening.The principal hit men for the various car-tels have increasingly come from a onetimeelite force in Mexico’s military, the Special AirMobile Force. Those ex-military renegades,known as the Zetas, were originally sent tothe border with the United States to combatdrug trafficking. Instead, many of thembecame assassins for the cartels.
9
Mary  Anastasia O’Grady, editor of the
Wall Street  Journal 
’s Americas column, describes the tac-tics of the Zetas. Noting that they are ofteninvolved in execution-style slayings of traf-fickers from rival organizations, O’Grady emphasizes that they have other functionsand serve a larger purpose.The Zetas are also known for theirintimidation of police and city officialsand extortion practices against localbusinesses. Their success depends heav-ily on terrorizing the population, whichexplains why slayings have now become very public events. Such brutality demonstrates that compliance with thedrug traffickers is not always a matter of greed. It can also be a matter of survivalfor public officials and their families.
10
That pattern bears an eerie resemblance tothe situation in Colombia—especially duringthe peak of drug-related violence in the late1980s and the 1990s. There, too, intimida-tion was a key goal of the cartels, and they were all too successful. For example, a succes-sion of Colombian governments evaded U.S.demands for the extradition of drug king-pins. The trafficking cartels had made it clearthat thwarting extradition was a high priori-ty and that lawmakers or other officials whodefied them on that issue risked incurring a death sentence.
The Nuevo Laredo Fiasco
The worst instance of both violence andcorruption in Mexico appears to exist in thenorthern border city of Nuevo Laredo, a metropolis of 350,000 across the Rio Grandefrom Laredo, Texas. Of the 850 killings overthe past year that Mexican authoritiesattribute to drug-trafficking violence, 228have taken place in Nuevo Laredo or the sur-rounding state of Tamaulipas.
11
The level of  violence—and the level of police corruption—reached the point in early June that Mexico’snational government suspended the entireNuevo Laredo police force and sent in thefederal police to patrol the streets.
12
ForPresident Vicente Fox’s administration, thefinal straw came when Nuevo Laredo’s new police chief was assassinated on June 8, justhours after his appointment.
13
Federal authorities proceeded to purgethe city’s police force. After being required totake polygraph exams, 305 of the 765 policeofficers were dismissed. Indeed, 41 of themwere arrested for attacking the federal policewhen those units arrived in the city. The “new and improved” Nuevo Laredo police were putback on the streets in late July, wearing new uniforms with white shirts. White was cho-sen deliberately, according to Mexican feder-al authorities, to demonstrate that they werea trustworthy new entity.
14
Those officialsapparently were serious. Aside from the considerable doubt thatthe purge of the local police would have any lasting benefit, the federal takeover of law enforcement had no meaningful impact onthe violence in Nuevo Laredo. Indeed, thenumber of drug-related killings actually went
up
during that period.The situation has remained extremely vio-lent since the restoration of the local policeforce. “There really is a feeling that you can getaway with murder in Nuevo Laredo,” Michael Yoder, the U.S. consul general in NuevoLaredo, said in mid-August.
15
Tony Garza, theU.S. ambassador to Mexico, closed the con-sulate in Nuevo Laredo for a week in late July 
3
The principalhit men for the various cartelshave increasingly come from aonetime elite forcein Mexico’smilitary.

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