Politician’s Disappearance Raises Questions About Mexico’s Security Strategy

by Kristin Bricker

A shorter version of this article appears on the Security Sector Reform Centre’s blog.

The presumed kidnapping of Diego “The Boss” Fernández de Cevallos, one of Mexico’s most powerful politicians, has put Mexico’s security crisis in the international spotlight yet again.

The Mexican government hasn’t officially classified de Cevallos’ disappearance as a kidnapping. However, the fact that his car was found abandoned on his ranch with traces of blood and signs of struggle has lead his family to plea that his “captors” make contact in order to negotiate his release. At the time of writing, it is unknown if de Cevallos is alive or dead.

The crime itself isn’t shocking—kidnappings are all-too-common in Mexico. Nor would de Cevallos be the first politician to fall victim to violent crime—several local politicians have been killed or attacked in recent weeks as the country prepares for interim elections. What sets this crime apart from others is that the victim is one of the most powerful men in Mexico.

De Cevallos, a member of the President’s National Action Party (PAN), is rumored to be one of the main leaders of the Yunque, a secret ultraconservative Catholic organization that reportedly took control of the PAN in the 1970s and continues to direct its political agenda. He was the PAN’s presidential candidate in 1994 and has served four terms in Congress: one term in the Senate and three in the Chamber of Deputies. His associates and pupils hold key positions in President Felipe Calderón’s cabinet and the Supreme Court. De Cevallos’ law firm was key in blocking a recount in the hotly contested 2006 presidential election, which President Calderón is widely accused of having stolen from opposition candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Between 1994 and 1997, the Mexican government investigated his law firm for having represented companies linked to the Juarez drug cartel: a private hospital that performed drug kingpins’ plastic surgeries, a funeral home that held burial services for deceased kingpin Amado Carrillo, and a front company that the cartel used to launder money.

While it hasn’t been confirmed that a drug trafficking organization (DTO) kidnapped de Cevallos, his disappearance has provoked questions about the future of Mexico’s war on drugs.

Ardelio Vargas Fosado, president of the Mexican Congress’ National Defense Commission, told the press: “This act marks a turning point. Surely the way we are handling public security and domestic security will have to change… There will have to be a very detailed revision of the strategy that deals with the issue of public security and the risk and threat to the country’s domestic security.”

“Change” as defined by the Calderón administration appears to mean more of the same security strategy. Calderón, reacting to the disappearance of his colleague and close personal friend, compared Mexico to Colombia in the 1980’s:

There are phases that were present in organized crime in the 80’s and the early 90’s [in Colombia] which are presenting themselves in Mexico, and fortunately we are combating them. And even though we might have phases that in their essence could appear to be similar [to those in Colombia], we are confronting them and they will probably occur faster and we can resolve them faster. What took Colombia nearly 20 years, should take us maybe five, six, seven years or less, depending on how persistent we are in our action.”

Calderón’s comparison of Mexico with Colombia is telling. While Colombia did dismantle its major DTOs such as the Cali and Medellin cartels by killing or arresting their leadership, many more boutique cartels sprung up in their place. Cocaine continues to flow from Colombia to the United States; the only difference is that now Mexican DTOs dominate the trafficking routes. Coca cultivation increased by 15% and cocaine production increased by 4% over the course of Plan Colombia, leading the US Government Accountability Office to conclude that “drug reduction goals were not fully met” despite significant US military presence and financial and tactical aid to Colombia’s military.

Mexico appears to be headed down a similar path to failure. Like Colombia, Mexico employs a military and law enforcement strategy that aims to dismantle DTOs through arrests, killings, and seizures. The US government encourages this strategy through the Mérida Initiative, an aid package that supports the Mexican military and police in the war on drugs. One of the Mérida Initiative’s two “performance measures” for Mexico is the “number of high profile drug traffickers and criminal kingpins arrested.”

As Colombia’s experience demonstrates, demand drives the drug trade. As long as there is a significant financial incentive to traffic drugs, the industry will adjust and evolve so that the product reaches the consumer. Just as the disappearance and possible murder of one of Mexico’s most powerful politicians does not in any way weaken the federal government, killing or arresting drug kingpins does not weaken the drug trafficking industry. Just like the government, DTOs adjust to new circumstances and new people step up to fill gaps left by deaths, arrests, and disappearances. And the war continues unabated.

Regardless of how many kingpins the Mexican government kills or extradites to the United States, the industry has accommodated. Since Calderón deployed the military in late 2006 to fight the war on drugs, drug seizures have decreased and drug production has increased in Mexico. Meanwhile, the security situation has deteriorated rapidly. Over the same period, human rights violations committed by the military increased six-fold. The murder rate has increased dramatically every year since 2006, with a total of 22,700 drug war-related deaths. Ciudad Juarez is now considered to be the “murder capital of the world,” and Tijuana is deadlier than Baghdad.

The problem with Mexico’s security strategy is that it simply doesn’t have one. Neither Calderón nor the US government have clearly defined the goals that guide the drug war. Is the goal to decrease drug trafficking-related deaths? The opposite is occurring. Is the goal to completely eliminate the flow of drugs into the United States? That is impossible. Is the goal to reduce the flow of drugs into the United States? If so, exactly how much “reduction” is enough to send the military back to its barracks?

In the absence of a clear set of goals and an endgame scenario, the war on drugs appears to be a never-ending crusade. Up until now, the powerful politicians that wage this war have been immune to its effects. But, as one Mexican magazine wrote in response to de Cevallos’ disappearance, “The ruling party is beginning to harvest that which it has so dedicatedly sowed, because ‘they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind.’”

Kristin Bricker is a freelance journalist reporting from Mexico. She maintains a blog called My Word is My Weapon.

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