2012 Will Be a Decisive Year in Mexico’s Deadly Drug War

2012 will be a decisive year in Mexico’s deadly drug war, writes Larry Kaplow in Mexico City.

The Executionmeter began counting the deaths almost as soon as 2012 began.

New Year’s Day in Mexico saw six bodies discovered in five different places, apparent victims of drug-related organized crime. All of the bodies were male. Most of the victims had been shot to death apparently in cartel violence. It was actually a peaceful day by Mexico’s blood-drenched standards. But it registered on the Executionmeter—a graphic on the website of Mexico’s Reforma newspaper that acts as a grim reminder of this country’s bloody internal war.

This year, 2012, will be a pivotal year for determining the direction of Mexico’s and, by proxy, America’s drug war. While there is bipartisan agreement in the United States that the war is needed to interdict drugs and shore up Mexico’s stability, the war is sure to come under further debate in Mexico, where the price is paid on the ground in killings and decapitations.

That price continues to be high, according to the Executionmeter, or Ejecutometro, as it runs in Spanish and counts the deaths since President Felipe Calderon launched the war in December 2006. Reforma reported Monday that there were 12,359 killings related to organized crime or the battle against it in 2011, up 6.7 percent from the year before. The daily said the number of beheadings rose to 595 from 389 and noted an increase in brazen displays of corpses hanging from bridges. Another major daily published a study by an organized crime expert saying drug gangs exercised some type of control—enough to operate openly—over local institutions in 71 percent of the country’s municipalities.

And responding to doubts about the war, Joaquin Villalobos, a former Salvadoran guerrilla commander who advises Calderon on strategy, published a 10,000-word defense of staying the course in the Mexican intellectual journal Nexos. “The violence is inevitable,” wrote Villalobos, warning that a pause, downsizing or negotiation could create a “status quo that gives criminals an advantage over citizens.”

True, Mexico is a large country of about 113 million people and most Mexicans see little cartel violence. You could read the figures as leveling off, since killings rose a staggering 76 percent (to 4,996 murders) from 2009 to 2010. Reforma counts a total of about 38,000 killings over the five years while others put the figure several thousand higher. In an interview, respected security analyst Eduardo Guerrero said violence levels could decline very slowly this year. But as some notorious areas have improved, violence has spread to new ones like Acapulco and Cuernavaca, close to Mexico City. The killing surges as cartels fight each other, branch into new turf and enterprises—from drugs to extortion to kidnapping—and as security forces pursue them. It creates an unpredictable whack-a-mole dynamic.

In July the country will elect a new president who will surely size up the war’s progress and popularity before taking office in December. An October poll showed that only 18 percent of Mexicans believe the government is winning. But heavy majorities still support the military deployment and other anti-crime operations. About a third want to negotiate with the cartels or legalize drugs.

Last year saw the birth of an antiwar movement, headed by poet Javier Sicilia after his son was killed with six friends. His rallies aim to show that innocents are getting killed, not just warring narcos. A series of high-profile massacres drove that point home, such as in August when 52 people, mostly middle-aged women, were killed in a Monterrey casino torched by extortionists. A mother and two teen-aged daughters from Ft. Worth, Texas, dual U.S.-Mexican citizens, were killed in December during an attack on their bus as they visited the coastal state of Veracruz. Human Rights Watch documented 170 cases of torture and 63 killings or disappearances by security forces. Some leftists see the war as a U.S.-backed pretense to militarize Mexico and stifle activism.

Of the alternatives, experts warn that the criminals are too divided and unruly to make pacts with them, which would, in any case, just perpetuate their corrupt hold on police and politicians. But there are strategic changes being floated, from concentrating law enforcement on the most violent actors rather than emphasizing the capture of kingpins, to addressing the bad schools and poverty that produce gang soldiers. Everyone agrees local institutions are too weak. Calderon has focused increasingly on rooting out corrupt police and often disbands or arrests entire local police departments in areas where soldiers are deployed—a tactic that seems to help but requires months for vetting of new cops.

American officials warn that if Mexico becomes a narco-state, the border will open to even more smuggling or, possibly, terrorist infiltration. About half of $1.4 billion in promised U.S. nonlethal aid, like helicopters, has been delivered. Calderon adviser Villalobos writes that the war has splintered the cartels into smaller factions that can be more easily eliminated. He blames the cartels’ criminal ambitions, while others blame the splintering, for most of the violence. He boasts that more than 150,000 criminals have been detained, which could either be a sign of the war’s progress or of its futility. Calderon advisers say the war could continue several more years and, reading the public mood, most politicians vow to press on in some form after he leaves office. But what regular Mexicans hope for most of all is to see a drop on the Executionmeter.