To Draw a Line in the Sand

After the storm comes the calm. The country has for years experienced an escalation of violence that is intolerable for the population. The outgoing government responded with responsibility and with conviction but not with a strategy apt to steer the country into a good port. The population supported the government because it felt threatened, vexed, and abused, but not because it perceived an improvement now or in a reasonable future. Worse yet, inasmuch as the criminal bands break up and multiply, the losers are the citizens because narcos displaced in the wars among themselves end up moving into criminal markets, those that directly contravene the most vulnerable citizenry: extortion, abduction, and the protection racket.

From this perspective, it makes no sense for the incoming government to heed calls from the Calderon administration to continue pursuing a strategy that does not deliver the desired results. The notion that endless battering will recreate an idyllic past seems no different from an attitude reminiscent of when Don Quixote recalled times past, the splendor of knights in shining armor at the apex of their dominion, solacing the spirit with memories of the age-old feats and deeds of medieval gentlemen-soldiers. What’s salient and valuable of the current strategy dwells on the fact of confronting a problem that undermined the life of the citizenship and the viability of the State. Based on the lessons of the past few years, the future will require a different approach.

Although the objectives set forth by the government to combat crime have varied, the strategy has remained constant. The scheme followed to date has been clear: take control of the regions that have ended up in the hands of the narcos and decimate the criminal cartels. Although both components have advanced, the results are not praiseworthy: first, there have been unanticipated consequences and, second, the few victories that have been achieved have not been sustainable. Among the unanticipated consequences the most evident concerns fragmentation of the criminal bands: every time the head of a mob is liquidated an internal power struggle ensues that, in many cases, translates into a multiplication of bands. The strategy would make sense in a country with strong state or municipal authorities who, when the cartels were broken up could combat them successfully. In Mexico, where there has not been functional local government since Colonial days, cartel fragmentation has heightened the violence and eschewed the historical rules of not perturbing the population. In this regard, the initial success of some of the campaigns has morphed into an inferno for the people.

Along the way three myths about narcos, organized crime, and potential tactics for combating these have gained a foothold. First is the myth of prevention. It is obvious that, to prosper, a society requires mechanisms that prevent crime and criminality in general, as well as strategies oriented toward driving economic and social development. However, prevention makes sense and is viable prior to the existence of the phenomenon: what is already taking place cannot be prevented. It is urgent to construct the capacity of the State to optimize the safety of the citizens and, once that is achieved, to prevent future criminality.

The second myth is that of negotiation. The idea is that, instead of combating too powerful an enemy or one that is affecting the population systematically (both drug trafficking as well as extortion), the government would negotiate an armistice with the criminals and would pacify the specific region. Outlining this in the abstract sounds reasonable, above all for politicians whose function it is, or should be, to forge agreements, pacts, and arrangements among dissimilar parties. However, negotiation with criminals entertains evident problems: With whom would one negotiate? What would be offered in exchange? How would the pact be made to work and enforced? How would failure to comply be sanctioned?

The third myth is that of legalization. The idea of legalizing drugs is an elegant one and exceedingly attractive because it appears to indicate that the problem of violence can be dematerialized with the flourish of the signature on a presidential decision. It is not by chance that so many nostalgic former presidents propose this very action. Much the same as the idea of negotiating, practical problems render the framing of legalization absurd: How would the drugs be distributed? Who would be responsible? How would compliance with the rules be enforced? The key lies in the latter point at issue.

Although with diametrically opposed implications, proposals such as those of negotiation or legalization are unviable in the Mexico of today. In order for them to function, both strategies would require the presence of a strong government, one capable of establishing rules, enforcing them and having them obeyed. If we accept that the current problem is the weakness of the State, then there is no way to exact compliance from those with whom agreements were reached or to regulate market functioning were there legalization of drugs. From this perspective, drugs in Mexico are already legal (in the sense that they circulate with no difficulty) because no authority controls or regulates them.  A strong State like the Netherlands can entertain such a proposition; Mexico’s today cannot.

The same would be true in the hypothetical case of the U.S. legalizing drugs: the only thing that would change would be the financial capacity of the criminals (not a lesser issue) but the criminality besieging the population such as abduction and extortion would not be affected in the least. These are problems that reflect the absence of authority, the inexistence of the State as such, as well as mediocre and incompetent police forces, and a feather-weight and corrupt judiciary. The paradox is that to be able to contemplate strategies such as legalization or negotiation, the Mexican State would have to be transformed and, if this were achieved, those strategies would become irrelevant due to their being unnecessary. The essence of the issue is the government’s capacity and authority of the government. That is why it is critical to build (or rebuild) key institutions much faster and in deliberate fashion.

The future strategy should envisage as its objective the strengthening of the State for it to be able to impose the rules of the game, that is, to draw a line in the sand. The drug business, as distinguished from that of local criminality, would not disappear, but it would find itself head to head with a government capable of imposing the law forthwith. In this, the difference with the present government would be enormous because the objective would not be to eradicate narcos but rather to force them to live in an environment controlled entirely by the State. Just like the Americans do.

The true challenge of the upcoming six-year presidential term resides in strengthening the State without attempting to return to centralized control, but within the context of a decentralized society and an incipient democracy. It is, in fact, the opportunity of building a modern and civilized nation.