Mexico's Drug War is Now Taking Innocent Lives

Mexico is no stranger to violence. But when men dressed in black tossed grenades into crowds celebrating Mexican Independence Day in Morelia in September, it marked a new stage in a national nightmare. A country long accustomed to bloody feuds between powerful drug cartels, Mexico now faces the prospect of an all-out drug war in which innocents are no longer off-limits. The grenade attack in Morelia killed eight and injured 100, raising the death toll from drug violence this year to more than 3,700—a figure more reminiscent of Iraq or Afghanistan than the United States' neighbor.

While the vast majority of those killed are affiliated with the drug cartels, dozens if not hundreds of innocents have been killed in the past year. Among them: a little girl in Ciudad Juarez; six people in front of a recreation center, also in Juarez; a 14-year-old girl in Acapulco; two small children in Tijuana. The violence has become so bad that last week U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice traveled to Puerto Vallarta to meet with her Mexican counterpart, Patricia Espinosa, and told her that tackling drug crime was a "national-security priority" for both countries.

The violence is a reaction to President Felipe Calderón's aggressive moves against the cartels. When he came to power in 2006, he needed "a signature issue that would make him look strong," says Shannon O'Neil, a Mexico expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, and announced he would use federal troops to target narcotraffickers. He argued that the offensive would reduce drug-related violence and weaken the influence of drug cartels. But as the body count climbed upward, Calderon's strategy shifted. The military surge had turned into a war to eradicate the drug trade—something most experts agree is nearly impossible. Bodies have been piling up ever since. In 2006, between 1,500 and 2,000 people were killed; this year the toll is already at 3,725.

The attacks on innocents suggest the cartels are now trying to increase their pressure on Calderón. The message: call off the troops or else. In response, generals in charge of the offensive have said it will last "as long as it has to." Yet it remains unclear how effective a continued offensive will be. The violence shows that the government has been able to disrupt the normal business of the drug cartels, but it has hardly eradicated drugs. And Mexicans are fed up. A recent poll found that only 25 percent feel safer because of the surge, with 50 percent unconvinced the strategy will work by the time Calderón leaves office in 2011. Hundreds of documented cases of human-rights abuses committed by soldiers have not helped the government's case either, drawing into question the wisdom of using federal troops as a police force.

Indeed, without a more comprehensive reform of the criminal-justice system, Calderón's surge will have fleeting effects. The cartels' power to act as conglomerates, controlling entire regions and supplementing the drug trade with kidnapping and human trafficking, relies upon corrupt local police. Calderón has introduced legislation to route out corruption, but the problem is too large to disappear any time soon. Mexico's judicial system is undergoing a much-needed overhaul, but Mexican prisons remain some of the worst in the Western Hemisphere. Worst of all, the president has largely ignored the reasons behind the booming drug trade. NAFTA has not only made smuggling drugs into the United States easier but has allowed cartels to amass arsenals of weapons made north of the border. By favoring large agro-businesses, NAFTA has also made small farming economically unviable, pushing hundreds of thousands of Mexicans to the cities, and often into the drug trade.

Still, Calderón has a chance to turn things around. The cartels are battling each other in an attempt to grab territory, and the terrorism-style tactics they have employed against innocents in the past few months are a sign of desperation. In this sense, the moment could be an opportunity for Calderón. This doesn't mean quitting while he's ahead—or making further, futile attempts to eradicate the drug trade altogether—but beginning the long list of reforms to the criminal-justice system to stop the cartels from regaining their strength after an inevitable drawdown of troops. By doing so, Calderón could manage to decimate the cartels and reduce violence down the road. But that would also mean tacitly shifting to a policy of greater tolerance—a highly risky political move given just how much he has wagered on the surge.