By Tomiwa Adeyemo, Staff Writer
I want you to take a few minutes to picture the following scene:
Thick smoke wafts across a city as burning cars obstruct certain roads. On some of those very same roads, mutilated, dead bodies lay sprawled across the ground. And for the past several minutes, the air has been punctuated with the near nonstop sound of gunfire as two groups of people engage in a firefight.
Now, I don’t know about you but when I generated that image in my mind, I immediately associated it with one of two things: a war-torn region in the Middle East or an ultra-violent Hollywood film like The Expendables or Sicario. Beautiful, sunny Mexico would have been my last thought.
Everything I described in that scene happened on October 18th in the Mexican city of Culiacan, where Mexican soldiers and members of the national guard launched an operation to capture Ovidio Guzman Lopez, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman’s younger son and one of the leaders of the powerful Sinaloa cartel. Lopez was indeed captured, but only briefly, as cartel members led by El Chapo’s older son, Ivan, rallied to save their boss. They essentially laid siege to the city, blocking its entrance with burning vehicles, attacking government buildings, and even freeing inmates from the local prison. To top it off, they also took eight of the federal officers hostage after surrounding the house Lopez was captured in. In the end, at least ten people were killed, and Mexican forces were forced to release the drug lord, conceding that they were outgunned and outmatched.
Think about that. Mexican security forces, agents of a sovereign state tasked with the responsibility of defending the nation and protecting its national interests, were outgunned by a single drug trafficking syndicate. In my opinion, this event proves a theory I had initially been hesitant to accept: it’s the cartels’ country and the Mexicans are all living in it.
It sure doesn’t seem that way does it? It sounds like hyperbole, particularly when every summer and/or spring break, hordes of college students flock down to Mexico without a care in the world. But to close observers of the situation over there, my statement is anything but hyperbole. The cartels repeatedly act with brazen impunity, the aforementioned firefight in broad daylight being just one of many examples. In 2010, the Los Zetas cartel massacred 72 migrants they had kidnapped as they tried to make their way to the U.S. Four years later, in an incident that attracted global attention, 43 college students at a rural teacher training school disappeared, abducted by police officers working with criminal gangs. They are still missing and presumed dead. Last month, a week or so before the Culiacan assault occurred, more than ten police officers were ambushed and killed by Jalisco cartel gunmen while they served a warrant in Michoacan. And now we can add the terrible murder of 6 women and 3 children of a Mormon border enclave to the list. For the Mexican government, it’s been humiliation after humiliation and black eye after black eye. If this were a boxing fight between the government and the cartels, the referee would have stopped the fight a long time ago.
So, what can be done? Some people, including former Mexican president Vicente Fox, argue that the legalization of drugs is an effective way to combat the cartels. Proponents say drug legalization (particularly marijuana) will “choke off a black market dominated by violent gangs” while critics say the cartels will simply focus their efforts on more lucrative drugs like heroin and methamphetamine. I’m with the critics on this. The decline in marijuana seizures at the Mexican border correspond with an increase in meth seizures. And no one is seriously considering legalizing meth and heroin, another lucrative income source for the cartels. Additionally, the switch by cartels to more dangerous drugs could also exacerbate the violence as the same number of cartels will now be fighting for their share of a smaller pie.
This is the section of the article where I would usually propose a potential solution, a hypothetical source of light at the end of a dark tunnel. But the truth is, in this case, there aren’t any that I know 0f. The Merida Initiative, a security collaboration between the U.S., Mexico and other Central American companies continues to yield little to no results, perhaps because it utilizes the kingpin strategy, which has been shown to actually worsen the violence by creating power vacuums.
At this point, the cartels are so deeply entrenched in Mexican society that uprooting them would be a Pyrrhic victory, as former President Felipe Calderon discovered when he launched a crackdown on the cartels in 2006. True to Newton’s third law, there was a backlash from the cartels which incited one of the bloodiest eras in Mexico’s history. In 2011, a year before Calderon left office, one person died of a drug related homicide every thirty minutes. From 2007 to 2014, more people died from the drug wars than had died in the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts combined. Currently, there have been over “three hundred thousand homicides since anti-drug campaigns began in 2006,” according to The Council on Foreign Relations. The sad fact is, that for some poor soul in Mexico, every day is a Dia De Los Muertos.