Many readers will remember Hillary Clinton‘s off-the-cuff claim last fall that “We face an increasing threat from a well-organised network, drug-trafficking threat that is, in some cases, morphing into or making common cause with what we would consider an insurgency in Mexico.” In “The everywhere war” (DOWNLOADS tab) I used her comment – together with a host of other sources inside and outside the state – to suggest some of the ways in which conceptions of war were being transformed in the borderlands; so too the military/policing distinction.
But a new report from the International Crisis Group, Peña Nieto’s Challenge: Criminal cartels and rule of law in Mexico, suggests that – in the midst of calls to increase the militarization of the US southern border – at least some State Department officials are having second thoughts. Indeed, the report claims that Clinton’s remark was seen at the time ‘as a misstatement by many in the State Department, aimed more at linking the kinds of violence and weapons used and the seriousness of the danger they posed rather than describing the nature of the cartels or their objectives.’ And now, in an interview with the Group, John Feeley, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, insisted:
‘The violence associated with the criminal activities of the transnational criminal organisations (TCOs) in Mexico is not a national security problem or an insurgency that threatens to destabilise the Mexican government. Clearly, the violence … is a very serious public security problem that has important social and economic repercussions.’
For all that, it’s surely more than a ‘public security problem’ and it also has the most acute political repercussions too:
The report spells out many of those repercussions for the democratic constitution of Mexico – though whether Nieto (Mexico’s new President) will pay any attention to it is another question. But its fundamental argument is captured in these paragraphs:
The development of cartels into murder squads fighting to control territory with military-grade weapons challenges the Mexican state’s monopoly on the use of force in some regions. The brutality of their crimes undermines civilian trust in the government’s capacity to protect them, and the corruption of drug money damages belief in key institutions. Cartels challenge the fundamental nature of the state, therefore, not by threatening to capture it, but by damaging and weakening it. The military fight-back has at times only further eroded the trust in government by inflicting serious human rights abuses. Some frustrated communities have formed armed “self- defence” groups against the cartels. Whatever the intent, these also degrade the rule of law.
There has been fierce discussion about how to legally define the fighting. The violence has been described as a low-intensity armed conflict, a kind of war, because of the number of deaths and type of weapons used. The criminal groups have been described as everything from gangs, drug cartels and transnational criminal organisa- tions, to paramilitaries and terrorists. The Mexican government, much of the international community and many analysts reject the idea there is anything other than a serious criminal threat, even though those criminal groups use military and, at times, vicious terror tactics. The army and marines, too, thrown into the breach with limited police training and without efficient policing methods, have often used intense and lethal force to fight the groups, killing more than 2,300 alleged criminals in a five-year period.
Within the grey world of fighting between rival cartels and security forces, there is much confusion as to who the victims of the violence are, and who killed them or made them disappear. Estimates of the total who have died in connection with the fighting over the last six years range from 47,000 to more than 70,000, in addition to thousands of disappearances. Cartel gunmen often dress in military uniforms and include corrupt police in their ranks, so people are unsure if they are facing criminals or troops. A victims movement is demanding justice and security. Mexico has also lost hundreds of police and army officers, mayors, political candidates, judges, journalists and human rights defenders to the bloodshed that is taking a toll on its democratic institutions.