When Felipe Calderon shouldered his presidential duties in 2006, he implemented an aggressive anti-crime strategy that has resulted in sustained conflict between the state and drug cartels in Mexico.
Casualties of the battle have been enormous — since 2006, over 55,000 people have died in drug-related violence.
Calderon’s strategy hinges on the capture or killing of high-profile drug lords. According to a recent Congressional Research Service report, the Mexican government, with US assistance, has “identified the country’s 37 most wanted criminals, and by the end of 2011, at least 22 of them had been captured or killed."
On Sunday, Mexican Marines killed the notorious Los Zetas kingpin Heriberto Lazcano, aka “The Executioner.” Last month, Ivan Velazquez Caballero, aka "El Taliban," another leader of the Zetas cartel, was captured by Mexican authorities. Other notable arrests have included Jorge Costilla and regional Zetas leader Salvador Alfonso Martinez Escobedo.
But has their apprehension made Mexico safer?
A 2011 report by Human Rights Watch criticized the president’s policy, concluding, “rather than strengthening public security in Mexico, Calderon’s ‘war’ has exacerbated a climate of violence, lawlessness, and fear in many parts of the country.”
GlobalPost spoke with Dr. Alex del Carmen, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Texas at Arlington, to find out what kind of impact Calderon's strategy is having — and what it means for Mexico and the US.
This interview was edited and condensed by GlobalPost.
Why does the Mexican government target cartel leaders?
It’s a historical tactic. Look at what the US did with the mafia. Look at what we did with Al Qaeda. The idea is to dismantle the organization by decapitating the leadership, gather intelligence, learn how the organization works, and understand the hierarchy. I think Calderon’s administration is doing that.
They’re trying to remove those who instill terror in the people. They're trying to reduce the amount of terror on Mexico’s citizens.
Are high-profile captures significant victories, or will other figures simply fill the power void and continue Mexico's drug wars as if nothing has changed?
It’s symbolic, taking out the head of a cartel movement, especially one that’s popular. There’s a symbolic gesture there, and perhaps some impact on the organization.
But we know the cartels are flexible and can adapt. They have preset leaders ready if the head of the cartel is killed or captured.
Are there other strategies the Mexican government could use to combat drug trafficking in Mexico?
Mexico has an extradition treaty with the United States. A cartel member, if they’ve committed crimes against the US, can be extradited and tried in [US] federal court. That had a significant impact on the cartels in Colombia.
But when it comes to better or best strategies — that’s the million-dollar question. How can we control the madness of drug distribution and infiltration into the United States? The obvious answer is to stop US drug consumption. That would end the drug cartels. [Editor's note: US drug users send between $19 and $29 billion a year to into the war chest of Mexican drug cartels.]
Since 2006 President Calderon has, with US assistance, effectively engaged in a war against the drug cartels. What was the reasoning behind Calderon's anti-crime policy?
There were multiple factors. Some were political. The Bush administration declared a war against terrorism and now Bush is marked as the president who fought terror. It’s the same for Calderon. His political identity was defined by fighting the cartels.
In 2006 there were a lot of rumors in Mexico about the cartel taking over the country, and Calderon wanted to be the president who defeated corruption. So he declared war on the cartels. But I don’t think he predicted the effect it would have.
What is the US role in Mexico's drug war?
In the past 30 years the US has provided a great deal of logistical, technological and enforcement support to the Mexican government. Now [the US has] drones over the border. [Editor's note: Under the Merida Initiative, a security agreement between the US and Mexico, Congress has given more than $1.9 billion since FY2008 to help Mexico fight the cartels.]
US national interest takes us into Mexico. There's an influx of illegal immigration; in addition, the US consumes a great deal of drugs that come through Mexico — Mexico is a channel from which drugs from other countries are transported into the US.
Are there indications that incoming president-elect Enrique Peña Nieto will continue Calderon's aggressive anti-crime strategy?
The better question is how will the cartel react to the new presidency. Will the perception continue to be one of the Mexican government being out to fight organized crime, or is there going to be a different way of doing business?
Only time will tell. I can tell you the perception is that it will be business as usual, as far as the cartels are concerned. But the perception of the government will change. Calderon almost personalized his fight against the cartel. The new president will likely distance himself. But I am certain that the fight against the cartels will continue.