InSight: Bad News Could Be Good News at Mexican Drug Summit

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There was both optimism and pessimism at an anti-drug summit in Mexico. A U.S. official said rising violence is a sign that organized crime is getting weaker, while Mexico’s most prominent drug warrior said it could be seven years before the mayhem begins to subside.

“It can seem otherwise, but this level of violence seen here unfortunately is a sign of success in the fight against the cartels; they are like caged animals and like animals they are attacking each other, and we are putting more pressure on them,” Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) head Michele Leonhart said at the opening of the International Drug Enforcement Conference, which kicked off on Tuesday in Cancun.

In a television interview while in town for the same event, Mexican Secretary of Public Security Genaro Garcia Luna said that, based on other countries’ experiences, this grim symptom of success will continue for another seven years. “In seven years, a downward tendency in the violence will begin, in at least that time,” he said. Other comments by Garcia Luna seemed to contradict the initial analysis, suggesting that by 2015, Mexico’s violence could be tumbling downward.

Taken together, the two officials’ comments reflect one of the central problems of the Calderon administration’s crime policies: two of the main objectives — safer streets and weaker gangs — appear to be in conflict. As Braun indicated, gangs become more aggressive as they lose market share, their smuggling networks are interrupted, growing numbers of their members are arrested and killed, and local populations become more willing to report them to authorities.

But while there is likely some truth to it, the argument that the violence is a sign of success loses force at a certain point, because the public becomes so frustrated by the bloodshed that it is unwilling to pay the price for weaker gangs. With a spate of anti-crime marches and polls demonstrating rising anger about crime, a significant segment of the Mexican population seems to have reached this threshold. Support for the drug war in the abstract is not ebbing, but Mexicans seem to be rejecting the idea that thousands of deaths represent good news.

From a messaging standpoint, this leaves the government without any good options. For its part, the Calderon administration has never really made up its mind on its explanation for the violence, choosing rather to frame its arguments according to the expediency of the moment. In the past, it has repeatedly embraced the idea that violence is a sign of success. However, when violence drops in one region or for a short period of time, the government often trumpets the news as a sign of things getting better.

The inverse relationship between gangs’ strength and their tendency to violence is not a permanent state — eventually, the government’s twin objectives will cease to work at cross-purposes. Indeed, in the long term, a sustainable improvement in public safety must be coupled with the reduction in the capacity and the will of the gangs to wreak havoc and challenge the government. But in the short term, the violence is such that support for aggressive action against organized crime risks being undermined.

Garcia Luna presumably had this in mind and was seeking to reassure an unsettled nation with his estimates. While providing a light at the end of the tunnel may help restore confidence among the citizenry, offering an easily identifiable milestone years ahead of time is also a dangerous practice for the government. The reason, of course, is that Garcia Luna is not a soothsayer, and even if his logic is impeccable, predicting the future of a hidden industry with hundreds of thousands of actors and scores of gangs will generally lead to mistaken prognoses.

Then again, even if the violence is worse in 2015, Garcia Luna will almost certainly be on the sidelines by then, leaving his successors scrambling to deal with the chaos.

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