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Lessons from Mexico’s endless war on drugs

Those fighting against extremists have a lot to learn from Mexico's war on drugs, argues Joseph Dana
Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman is escorted by Mexican authorities to a helicopter in Sinaloa, Mexico after his arrest in Janurary 2016.  Jose Mendez / EPA
Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman is escorted by Mexican authorities to a helicopter in Sinaloa, Mexico after his arrest in Janurary 2016. Jose Mendez / EPA

The dust is finally starting to settle on the arrest of drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman by Mexican security forces earlier this month. When authorities announced El Chapo’s recapture – he had already broken out of jail twice in the past three decades – many across the country dismissed the official account of events. Every television set that I saw in Mexico City carried rolling coverage of the event, but few I spoke with believed the broadcasters. Perhaps, as one widely held theory contended, the drug kingpin had called on his connections high in the government to facilitate a relatively safe retirement behind bars, away from the violence of his Sinaloa drug cartel.

The scepticism of the Mexican people notwithstanding, the government was happy to use the rearrest of El Chapo as proof that its war on drugs was working. The only problem is that everywhere you look, there is evidence of the war’s failure.

A week before the arrest, the newly elected mayor of Temixco, a town an hour outside Mexico City, was murdered in front of her family. Cartel assassins carried out the attack because the mayor had promised to rid the town of the traffickers.

One of the only constants in Mexico today is that violence permeates every layer of society and drugs keep flowing to the United States. Since former president Felipe Calderon launched an all-out war against the cartels in 2006, about 80,000 people have been killed. Using the Mexican army and US aid money, Mr Calderon tried to destroy the cartels by any and all means. But the cartels have remained, and are gaining strength as their reach extends deeper and deeper into the Mexican state.

For those fighting amorphous and transnational threats, the recent events in Mexico offer a vision of a dire future, where the definition of good and evil has become impossibly blurred. The Mexican-American war on drugs can thus illustrate the dangers and pitfalls of the global war on terror.

The war on drugs and the war on terror share striking similarities in terms of tactics and the behaviour of each side in the fight. Beheadings, kidnappings and random murder are hallmarks of both the Mexican cartels and global extremist groups. The underlying causes for both wars have been overlooked in favour of aggressive military action, which has done little to solve the problems. The US has been slow to curb and treat the home-grown drug abuse problems that fuel the international drug trade. The international community is slowly coming to terms with the sources of disenfranchisement pushing thousands to join what amount to death cults waging wars around the world.

In Mexico, state institutions and the very concept of the rule of law have been hollowed out by attempts to control an unwinnable war. It would be reckless to suggest that Mexican officials have any proclivity to corruption, especially when considering the levels of corruption in other wars against terror. The unwinnable nature of the drug war is the wellspring of corruption and without clearly defined goals, the same will be said of the war on terror that has no clear start or finish.

This is one reason why the El Chapo saga is so fascinating. In an attempt to control the narrative of the drug war as something winnable, Mexico has elevated El Chapo and his Sinaloa cartel to the status of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda in popular imagination.

He is a figurehead who has become larger than the war itself, despite the fact that his involvement in the drug trade will not determine the success or failure of the war on drugs. Similar to Al Qaeda, the Sinaloa cartel now operates on a cell-based model that allows the group to function smoothly regardless of the capture or assassination of any of its primary leaders.

When the United States located Osama bin Laden, US troops attacked his compound and killed him. Given the opportunity to kill El Chapo, why then did Mexican soldiers take him alive, knowing that the US would demand his extradition in the hope that he would divulge information about the cartel’s links to the upper echelons of the Mexican government?

The war on drugs lacks the ideological element of the war on terror. Drug cartels are concerned with profits and their revenue rivals the world’s richest companies. Increasingly, however, extremist groups are using the drug business to fund their murderous rampages, while drug cartels are turning to other forms of crime, such as extortion.

Blowback for civilians is one lasting consequence of the drug war, and just like American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the war has created much larger problems that previously didn’t exist. Mexican and international human rights commissions, for example, have recorded increasing complaints of torture and illtreatment by the Mexican armed forces as the narco war intensified. To avoid the pitfalls of corruption, the best defence for those fighting against extremism is to explicitly address the underlying causes of conflict. Failure to do so opens the door to corruption and the prospect of unwinnable military engagements. The drug war in Mexico is a sad example of this inaction.

As for El Chapo, he is now being held in the same maximum security prison from which he staged his dramatic escape last July through a tunnel similar to one under the Gaza-Egypt border. To prevent another breakout, the kingpin is being moved regularly from cell to cell, according to Mexican authorities. First as tragedy, then as farce.

jdana@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @ibnezra

Updated: January 19, 2016 04:00 AM

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