La Vida Loca

Mexico’s Disastrous Drug War ‘Success’

Mexican authorities keep capturing drug lords, but violence is spreading in new, dangerous ways.

Edgard Garrido/Reuters

MEXICO CITY — Back in December 2006, when Mexican President Felipe Calderón decided to launch an unprecedented attack against the drug cartels that had taken over parts of Mexico, the government’s strategy consisted mostly of reckless improvisation. The Calderón administration ignored the scope of the problem, the violence it would unleash and the Herculean effort it would take to control it. But one thing was certain: The main priority would be to capture (or kill) as many drug lords as possible.

After a series of ambitious operations and raids that started in Calderón’s home state of Michoacán, the Mexican government published an ambitious list of 37 names. It was March 2009. Rewards of up to 30 million pesos ($2.5 million, give or take) were offered for “useful and relevant information” that could lead to the downfall of famous cartel leaders like Joaquín “Chapo” Guzmán or lesser-known but dangerous figures like Heriberto Lazcano, the cruel ex-army officer who led the “Zetas” along the Gulf of Mexico.

At least politically, the strategy made sense. Calderón had just emerged from a contested election and badly needed legitimacy. The embattled president simply followed one of the basic rules of the political playbook: When in trouble, either build (visible) infrastructure or enforce the law with noticeable strength.

It didn’t take long for the first kingpins to start falling. Arturo Beltrán Leyva, leader of the eponymous cartel, was shot dead in a dramatic operation led by Mexican marines in Cuernavaca in late 2009. His body was then photographed, completely covered in bloody $1,000 pesos bills. Four months later, the army detained “El Teo,” a portly fellow who had made a habit of submerging his victims in acid until dissolved into unrecognizable sludge, and had terrorized the city of Tijuana for years. In August 2010, federal police apprehended Edgar Váldez, “La Barbie,” an American-born blond with a taste for Polo shirts and torture. When presented in front of the cameras, “Barbie” smirked with Joker-like glee. Then came “El Amarillo,” “El Chango,” “El Grande,” and the dramatically named “Tony Tormenta.” In 2012, the Zetas lost Lazcano, killed by the navy in the northern state of Coahuila. And so the story went for several other drug dealers, henchmen, and middlemen. By the time Felipe Calderón left office, 25 of the 37 most wanted men in Mexico had been either captured or killed. The figure was completely unprecedented.

Enrique Peña Nieto, Calderón’s successor, has followed the same strategy, albeit in a more discreet fashion. Peña Nieto has refrained from the wretched theatrics of parading the detainees, but his government has stayed the course, relentlessly pursuing the remaining drug lords, especially the infamous “Chapo” Guzmán, who had become a celebrity ever since his daring escape from prison in 2001. In a scene reminiscent of U.S. General “Black Jack” Pershing’s legendary—and sterile—pursuit of Pancho Villa in 1916, “Chapo” had been both everywhere and nowhere. Nowhere, that is, until he was found somewhere: The most famous drug dealer in Mexican history was finally apprehended in February of 2014 in Mazatlán, Sinaloa. His arrest triggered street protests in several Sinaloa municipalities, where hundreds demanded his release.

Since then, the Peña Nieto government has kept going, detaining other cartel bosses, the latest ones being Servando Gómez, “La Tuta,” a loquacious ideologue who headed “La Familia” and “Los Caballeros Templarios” in Michoacán, and Omar Treviño Morales, a ruthless “Zeta” leader with a taste for luxury. The combined manhunt led by Calderón and Peña Nieto has been so successful that only two major cartel figures remain at large: Juan José Esparragoza, “El Azul” (who some say died of a heart attack a few months ago), and Ismael “Mayo” Zambada. Both work for Guzman’s Sinaloa Cartel, still the strongest criminal organization in the country.

The track record is, indeed, impressive. Peña Nieto recently boasted that, with people like Gómez and Treviño behind bars, Mexico remains “on the right track.” Calderón’s tone was similarly triumphant when checking names off his kingpin list. Both insist their shared roadmap has been a resounding success.

But has it?

Since the inception of the current conflict, the Mexican government set one main goal for its war on drugs: to reduce drug-related crime in Mexico and return the rule of law to those areas corrupted and terrorized by drug gangs.

And on that crucial front, it has failed.

The Mexican government might have succeeded in dismantling most of the cartels’ upper management, but some of the consequences have been extreme. At first, the plan seemed shrewd: “decapitating” every criminal organization would lead to a process of what Eduardo Guerrero, Mexico’s foremost expert on the drug war, calls “factionalization”: fragmenting the cartels into smaller, more manageable cells.

What ended up happening was quite different. “After all of these high-profile arrests,” says Guerrero, “a multitude of middlemen deserted and gave birth to new criminal rackets, no longer focused on high-stakes trafficking but rather on other profitable criminal activities, like petty drug dealing, kidnapping, and extortion.”

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Many of those former cartel members voraciously fought over control of smaller territories. “There was an astonishing increase in violence after 2008,” Guerrero says, pinpointing the moment when drug groups began fighting over cities like Ciudad Juárez, which soon became the most violent city in the world. Carnage then erupted in the northeast, where the battle between the Cartel del Golfo and the Zetas turned the area into a war zone.

With no one to answer to, cartel offshoots became increasingly resourceful and unpredictable. Extortion, impunity, and graphic violence became commonplace. That was the case on January 25, 2010, when Mexico witnessed an outburst that would become emblematic.

During a squabble inside a bar along Avenida Insurgentes in southern Mexico City, a man who went by the nickname of “El J.J.” nearly killed Paraguayan footballer Salvador Cabañas, arguably the most famous sportsman in the country. “J.J.” (real name, Jose Jorge Balderas) “had been a member of the Beltran Leyva cartel,” says Eduardo Guerrero. “After the cartel leader’s death, he came up with his own small organization, traveled to Guatemala for a few grams of cocaine, and set up shop in some of the nightclubs along Insurgentes.”

That’s where he met Cabañas. Balderas shot the Paraguayan striker on the head and walked calmly out of the bar, a suave master of his domain. He was caught a few weeks after the shooting and interviewed extensively on TV, wearing a nifty Polo shirt. Cabañas made a miraculous recovery, but never played competitive soccer again.

In the years since the Calderón administration, Mexico has indeed seen a decrease in the number of gangland executions (that’s the grisly way “progress” is measured in a country immersed in a drug-fueled civil war). But there are a couple of revealing caveats. Executions in non-metropolitan areas have remained fairly constant and violence has spread from the border region into central and southern Mexico.

According to Guerrero, 53 percent of the drug-war executions registered between 2012 and 2014 happened in municipalities not associated with any large urban area. The trend is disturbing because it reveals the one variable that Calderón, Peña Nieto—and their supporters, in Washington—failed to consider when they green-lighted the strategy focusing on the country’s drug lords: Mexico’s local police forces were not—and still aren’t—ready for the immense burden of the struggle.

“In the United States, one of the keys to defeating criminals organizations was the implementation of strategies designed and successfully carried out by local police corps,” says Guerrero. “Such was the case of what happened in cities like Boston, Baltimore, Chicago, and Los Angeles during the ’90s.”

In Mexico, quite the opposite is true. Local police forces are frequently compliant with organized crime. In many areas of the country, the difference between the cartels and the police is hardly noticeable. Thanks to that dynamic, extortion, disappearances, and unfathomable carnage have continued to thrive with absolute impunity. That’s what happened recently in Iguala, when 43 students were kidnapped by local police and handed over to a local cartel (one of those “manageable cells” the government was hoping for), tortured, killed, and then burned, never to be heard from again. To make matters worse, it was the town’s mayor who gave the go-ahead. That is the kind of violence that’s still growing in Mexico, threatening to strangle the country’s rural heartland.

That’s a fact no high-profile arrest can hide.