Over the last two decades, Mexico has struggled to address high insecurity levels and the impact of criminal activities in day-to-day life. Dealing with drug cartels and the activities they are now involved in –many of transnational nature– has been the bulk of the task. The outcome could hardly leave anyone satisfied. One number sums it up: homicides in Mexico reached 34,500 in 2020. This figure translates into a homicide rate of 29 per 100,000 population, a number not much different from previous years and high by international standards.
Public debate in Mexico has unfortunately centered on the so-called “war against the narcos“. More specifically, Mexican politicians and pundits argue among themselves about who purportedly started the war and who ended it, namely the Calderón and the López Obrador administrations. Politicizing the issue certainly does not help but is understandable. Mexican politicians of different colors have now faced the same type of security challenges with not very different results. It would be wise if they did not use insecurity as a weapon in political fencing. Mexican society would welcome a common ground from which to move forward and to act with a minimum of unity.
Far less attention has been given to the type of phenomenon Mexico is confronted with, if not by choice by necessity. If Mexico had not confronted the reality imposed by criminal organizations back in the 2000s it would have had dire consequences as it does now. I also believe it is an asymmetric conflict –allow me to use this term as to contribute to depoliticization. Understanding the kind of conflict Mexico is face with has profound implications on how it can be waged.
Asymmetric conflicts take place between two sides with significantly different power, capabilities and strategies. The power of the Mexican state and its security forces -specially the military- is, and will continue to be, far superior to that of crime organizations. It is unlikely then, that Mexico could ever become a narco-state as sometimes it has been suggested. Nevertheless, the inferior side (the criminal organizations) exploit the stronger side’s weaknesses and, therefore, it can still inflict significant damage specially in some geographical regions of Mexico. The fact that criminal organizations do not attempt to conquer the entire Mexican state means that conflict can persist for awfully long periods of time. Here lies an important reflection: we should have known better that confronting organized crime would take a long time. It also means, that the strategic objective has less to do with absolute victory than with containment.
The ability of Mexico to contain the threat of organized crime depends on many factors. I will focus on one: the strength and size of Mexican security forces. Early in the 2000s, the Mexican government began to build Federal Police capabilities, relying on the military in the meantime. This occurred as the country was transitioning and decentralizing politically, as market conditions for illicit drugs were changing (mainly due to the preeminence of synthetic substances instead of plant-based) and as criminal organizations were morphing. I do not think that the López Obrador administration’s decision to disband the Federal Police in 2019 was a good idea. However, having the Mexican government taken that step, I fully support the creation and role of the new National Guard. Effective institutions are normally built in the long run. They need to be purged and improved constantly, but not reinvented every so often. Criminal organizations inflict a terrible toll in blood and treasure because they can do it. They will not be contained until Mexico has sufficient and decently trained police capability. The Federal Police reached 40,000 members at its highest point. The National Guard is now at around 100,000 troops and set to reach 150,0000 by the end of 2021. This “surge” would point in the right direction, but one question remains. What is the number of forces needed specially in those Mexican states that are uncapable or unwilling to develop their own police capabilities?
Geography and logistics matter. The Mexican government not only faces the challenge of building an appropriate police capability at the federal level, but it also needs to make sure it can be deployed for fairly long periods of time throughout the country. Deployment of police forces to crime hot spots for short periods of time and without sufficient logistic support has proven to be a wrong strategy, one that can very well result in more violence once they withdraw. Current government efforts to build barracks for the National Guards across Mexico seems to me like a particularly good step.
Mexican officials have always felt uncomfortable when some analysts use the words “criminal organizations” and “insurgency” in the same sentence. We have preferred to view drug cartels as common criminal organizations seeking to make money and not pursuing political objectives. This might have very well been the case in the past, but it seems it no longer applies. In recent years, as its common in asymmetric conflicts, Mexican criminal organizations increasingly rely on propaganda, offer protection, and even provide goods and services to broaden their social base of support. This fact should not be overlooked and underscores the importance of addressing poverty and social marginalization. President López Obrador often touts that social policy is a central element of the government’s efforts against organized crime. This is certainly needed, but beyond the narrative, a successful strategy requires a sustained integration and coordination of a wide variety of capabilities and agencies and levels of government.
Reality confronts those who seek quick fixes to complex social problems. Successfully addressing organized crime and its associated effects remains the single most important challenge to Mexico’s sovereignty and economic development. The concept of an asymmetric conflict is centuries old and applies to many contexts, but its core elements provide a helpful framework on how to think about the Mexican case.