Mexico Divides and Conquers the Cartels

Mexican authorities arrested U.S.-born Edgar Valdez Villareal, an alleged drug kingpin known as “La Barbie,” in August. Alfredo Estrella / AFP-Getty Images

Events in Mexico's drug war grow more horrific by the day. The recent killing of 72 migrants and a shootout between the Army and 27 cartel gunmen prompted a warning last week from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that Mexico's cartels are adopting tactics akin to those of an "insurgency."

Nevertheless, the carnage may actually be a sign that the Mexican government, rather than losing control, is winning. Officials have long insisted that Mexico's strategy is to dismantle the cartels by toppling their leadership and punching holes in their hierarchical structure, reducing them to ordinary street hoodlums. It's modern-day divide and conquer. The goal is to "transform [crime] from a national-security problem into a local criminal problem," former Mexican attorney general Eduardo Medina Mora told NEWSWEEK. The resulting gangs may lash out violently (which we're seeing now), but ultimately the hope is that they can be quelled and apprehended by local authorities. Nearly a dozen major cartel leaders have been arrested or killed since President Felipe Calderón took office in 2006, and only two real cartels, the Sinaloa and Gulf organizations, remain intact. Whether the Mexican people—or Washington, which has allotted $1.4 billion in anti-drug aid to Mexico and its neighbors—can endure the strategy remains to be seen.