Today marks the 10th anniversary of Operation Michoacan, and to many, the start of Mexico's deadly war on drugs. But a decade later, the country's prospects for security and peace don't seem much better than they did when the massive crackdown on Mexican cartels began in 2006.
Most people point to Felipe Calderon's presidency as the moment when things began to go wrong for Mexico. In the face of rising crime, and under mounting pressure from the United States to stem the flow of drugs across its southern border, Calderon sent 5,000 soldiers and federal police officers into the streets of Michoacan state, firing the first shots of what would become a long and bloody struggle. But it is neither fair nor accurate to pin the blame for the conflict that ensued on a single decision. Crime-related violence plagued Mexico long before Calderon took office, albeit at a lower level than in the years that followed his declaration of war on the country's cartels. Moreover, Calderon was not the first president to deploy Mexico's armed forces against drug lords and their assets; he was just the first to do so on such a tremendous scale.
Cartels in the Crosshairs
Operation Michoacan signaled the beginnings of a concerted effort by Mexico City to tackle organized crime. Though day-to-day security tasks normally fell to local police agencies, corruption had become so pervasive at the lower levels of Mexican law enforcement that their federal counterparts — the army, marines and federal police — had to step in to maintain law and order in some areas. Under Calderon's orders, some 45,000 troops were deployed throughout Mexico each year to combat crime, more than twice the average manpower that Calderon's predecessor, Vicente Fox, had dedicated to the same cause. Upticks in arrests and killings of cartel members began to noticeably disrupt trafficking activities as crime groups' capabilities steadily eroded.
But the military's success came at a price. As Mexican crime groups came under greater pressure from law enforcement, they began to fight back against the government and among themselves, vying for the trafficking routes, recruits and resources that were left. Violence skyrocketed in several of the cities and regions that were vital to the drug trade and other illegal activities.
Treating the Symptoms
Ten years on, the future of Mexico's security environment looks no more promising than it did at the start of Calderon's campaign. Still, the intervening decade has brought some positive changes. From a tactical perspective, public safety has visibly improved in the areas that the government targeted because of their rampant violence, such as Ciudad Juarez and parts of Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon. Meanwhile, most of the large cartels that once controlled swaths of Mexican territory have splintered as military operations have left them leaderless and riven by infighting.
What has not changed is Mexico's proximity to the massive market for drugs that lies just north of its border. Despite the heavy blows Mexican officials have dealt to major drug trafficking organizations, the smaller fragments left in their wake have picked up where their predecessors left off. Driven by persistently high demand for the drugs they have to offer, Mexican traffickers have kept supply chains to the United States and beyond running, even as state security forces try to shut them down. Though the power of individual crime groups has faded in the face of continued law enforcement efforts, the scope, location and intensity of violence has ebbed and flowed over the years, rather than declining permanently.
This reality is unlikely to change so long as there are profits to be made. Since the United States and its foreign partners began cracking down on cocaine smuggling routes through the Caribbean in the 1980s, Mexico — situated between Central America and the United States and blessed with well-developed transportation infrastructure — has proved ideally suited to serve as a land bridge for northbound drugs. Though the use of cocaine has sharply declined since the mid-2000s, heroin and methamphetamine have taken over bigger and bigger shares of the U.S. drug market, and both are increasingly produced and transported by Mexican cartels. The emerging preference for heroin and methamphetamine has even hiked up profit margins, since the cartels do not have to buy these drugs from South American producers.
A War With No End in Sight
With foreign demand propping up Mexican crime, it is unlikely that Mexico City will retreat from its drug war anytime soon. The country's cartels pose a threat to national security that is far too great for the government to address on its own. Consequently, Mexico City will continue to rely on Washington's help, in the form of security training and intelligence sharing, to target cartel members and criminal networks. Perhaps even more important, Mexico's enduring effort to quash drug trafficking across its borders is a fundamental part of its relationship with the United States. Any attempt to scale down its operations against cartels would immediately meet with pushback from Washington.
Lacking other means of going after the country's criminal groups, Mexico's government will keep tasking federal forces with protecting the Mexican public. Over the past three years, Mexico City has tried to create new law enforcement bodies to bridge the gap between the military and local police, since soldiers do not have the writ or capacity to conduct criminal investigations and combat low-level crime. But forming and implementing these organizations will take years, leaving Mexico City with little choice in the meantime but to count on the military to protect its citizens from the criminals in their midst.
In all likelihood, Mexico's decadelong drug war will continue for decades to come. Fueled by geography and the economics of the illegal drug trade, trafficking and violence will remain a thorn in Mexico's side and a blemish on U.S.-Mexico relations. Though crime may not linger at the heights the country has seen over the past 10 years, Mexican cartels are central to the global drug market, and for now they have made it clear that they are here to stay.