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How To Beat The Cartels Without Firing a Shot

On October 17th, 2019, with pressure from the US government, the newly formed Mexican National Guard surrounded Ovidio Guzmán López’s house in Culiacán. Lopez, the son of infamous drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, had been wanted by the US government since February. Several gun battles throughout the city ensued, but Lopez and his henchmen were able to outnumber and overpower the National Guard. The government forces withdrew and were not able to arrest the younger Guzmán, nor extradite him to the U.S.— to the dismay of Washington. If the U.S. is serious about reducing cartel violence in Mexico and drug trafficking into the U.S., then it needs to revise its policy away from securitized efforts, like the Mérida initiative, and support efforts for socio-economic development.

A small fence separates densely populated Tijuana, Mexico, right, from the United States in the Border Patrol’s San Diego Sector. Image by Sgt. 1st Class Gordon Hyde © March 2007

In 2007, US Congress approved the Mérida Initiative, a $3.1 billion plan that has provided military grade planes and helicopters, ammunition, and torture training. The initiative’s main objective was to reduce illicit drug flow into the United States. However, it’s important to note that this securitized approach was not preferred by Mexico’s president Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Instead of fighting the cartels, Obrador had implemented a policy of “Abrazos, no balazos“: hugs, not bullets. He argued that access to jobs and better wages, especially for the youth and those living in rural areas, were a better strategy to reduce cartel violence than taking on the cartels directly with military force. However, this softer approach was ignored by the U.S. government.

To reduce $29 billion of illicit drugs coming into the country, the U.S. should acknowledge that the Mérida Initiative is a failure. Since the drug war officially started in 2006, violent crime in Mexico has steadily increased, with 2019 the bloodiest year on record. While Cocaine, the primary export of the cartels to the United States, continues to see a rise in its usage. A better plan would be for Congress to approve funds that focus on providing development assistance to create job opportunities, improve education inequality, and develop infrastructure. Addressing Mexico’s income inequality—among the highest for developed countries—cannot be an afterthought.

Mexico is a good example of how unemployment figures are misleading. Although it ended 2019 with 3.4% unemployment, 46% of the population remained below the poverty line. Underemployment is particularly an issue for those with higher education, as most sources of employment in Mexico do not require specialized knowledge or work experience. As a result, young Mexicans are drawn to the drug game, which is undeniably lucrative: “El Chapo” was able to generate over $ 12 billion in drug revenue before his arrest. If more jobs become available in professional fields, young Mexicans would not be forced to join a cartel or take a poverty-level wage. 

Those without tertiary education in Mexico are at a greater risk for joining a cartel. The youth is more likely to be recruited when they are not in school. This is problematic, as 50% of Mexicans do not even receive upper secondary education— more than three times the OECD average of 15%. The more young people that are not in school, the higher number of potential recruits the cartels can prey on. Government spending per student is the lowest in the OECD- compounding the problem. Rural areas, southern states, and indigenous populations are disproportionately affected as well. For example, literacy rates in the states of Chiapas and Oaxaca—home to the largest percentages of indigenous peoples in Mexico—are more than 10 times lower than in Mexico City or the northern state of Nuevo León. 

Further plaguing the marginalized rural, southern, and indigenous populations are infrastructure deficits, which exacerbate the poverty cycle and increase the appeal of joining a cartel. These communities often face a combination of unpaved roads, lack of electricity and potable water, as well as few social development programs. Since many of these settlements are established without government permission, the residents do not pay property tax. The absence of taxes disincentives the government to invest in these communities. 

Given the high level of inequality in Mexico, the U.S. would be better off working with the Mexican government to address these inequities, rather than pouring more funds into the Merida Initiative. Unfortunately, the Trump administration appears committed to fighting the cartels directly: in addition to heightened border security and the infamous border wall. Trump has even considered designating the cartels as terrorists. Furthermore, when nine Americans were killed in a highway ambush in November 2019- Trump said he was ready to “wage war”. However, history shows this strategy will only result in failure. 

Development policies deprive the cartels of soldiers more efficiently than military policies. Unfortunately, corruption in Mexico and the political appeal of military policies makes the implementation of an economic development strategy challenging. The short term will provide obstacles as the coronavirus has brought an increased military presence back to the streets. However, President Obrador has committed to promoting economic development during his presidency, while USAID has also started to change its tone. In 2018, USAID directed ten times more funds toward international narcotics and law enforcement than any other project. Fortunately, this year USAID concentrated the most funding towards workers’ rights, while narcotics and law enforcement was not even considered a top ten priority.

Lastly, Congress can also play a role by defunding the Merida Initiative and supporting the Mexican government’s efforts to create better job opportunities, improve education, and develop infrastructure. While this strategy will take time to succeed, the evidence shows that this is the best and only long-term solution to reducing cartel violence.


Pierrepont Johnson III

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