These misguided calls are mirrored across the border by President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s militarization of the fight against Mexico’s cartels. Don’t forget the absurdity and illegality of the idea of the US sending troops across the border. The militaristic turn of policy makers in both governments will not make either nation safer. Mexico is not fighting terrorists or rebels, but criminals. It needs functioning civilian police forces and legal systems, not missile strikes and boots on the ground.
Murders are now consistently over 30,000 a year. The missing numbers are a hundred thousand more. Extortion hits small and medium-sized businesses, restaurants, shops and offices the hardest, spreading from border towns and industrial areas to tony neighborhoods in Mexico’s biggest cities.
In addition to the Americans caught in cartel crossfires, tens of thousands of Americans die each year from Mexican-made fentanyl and other imported illegal drugs.
The violence also splits cross-border connections and trade. On a recent trip to the Texas border town of Laredo, professors at the local university told me they were no longer allowed to go into Nuevo Laredo or drive to Monterrey just a few hours away to talk to their colleagues. A commercial real estate executive developing projects along the border told me that concerns over violence have made it harder to secure financing for new industrial parks, despite strong demand from companies relocating from China.
Certainly, international companies like Tesla are moving to or expanding in Mexico. But what was supposed to be a tsunami of investment until now is more of a trickle, limited by the cost of trying to protect operations and employees from assault. Without facilities based in Mexico, American companies and their workers will not benefit as much from the decoupling from China as they could.
Politicians on both sides of the border are taking a tougher line on criminals. Aside from Lopez Obrador’s “hugs not bullets” rhetoric, his administration has turned Mexican security over to the military. The civilian National Guard is now under the jurisdiction of the army. The government’s point person for public security is a general. The military has taken over ports, airports and customs, and seen its budget expand by double digits over the past five years.
If the goal is really to make Mexico safer, its turn to the military is a mistake. Although more trusted than many institutions, Mexico’s military has faced credible accusations of unnecessary use of force, corruption and criminal ties. Hacked military documents released by Guacamaya, Latin America’s version of Wikileaks, reveal officers who illegally spied on journalists, sold weapons to cartels and raked in millions from government contracts. And the case of former defense chief Salvador Cienfuegos, indicted by a federal grand jury in New York for conspiring with cartels and subsequently released without charge by Mexico, is just one of many that have alleged military ties to criminal groups.
Even if Mexico could root out the bad apples, the military is not equipped to fight domestic crime. They are taught to kill, not to arrest. They lack the skills and often the legal authorities to investigate and build cases. And they remain outside national legal institutions without ties to or oversight by civilian prosecutors, judges, and other law enforcement officials who can create transparency, accountability, and strengthen the rule of law.
US military strikes in Mexico will similarly do little to stop the movement of illegal drugs or destroy the violent gangs that sell them, even if they ignite bilateral fury over impinging on Mexico’s sovereignty. A legal escalation that designates Mexico’s cartels as terrorist organizations will not provide meaningful new means to combat them. Between the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network and the Office of Foreign Asset Control, the United States has powerful tools to go after transnational criminal organizations, investigate money trails, and seize assets. Also, the Department of Justice can already prosecute those who support transnational criminal organizations, such as accountants, bankers and lawyers. It should step up such efforts.
Also, where places have successfully taken over organized crime networks, militaries were not part of it. Fearless police, prosecutors and judges dismantled parts of Italy’s Cosa Nostra. The United States took down its own violent mafias and crime syndicates through coordinated policing and legal victories. And in the 1990s, community policing was critical to reducing violence in cities including Boston, New Haven and San Diego.
Mexico also has its own success stories. Ciudad Juarez lost its title as the world’s most dangerous city as it brought together federal and local police, prosecutors, business leaders and civil society organizations in the fight against crime. The industrial center of Monterrey blunted rising crime through a similar concerted effort to professionalize local police and law enforcement.
These policymakers and societies built functioning civilian police forces, judicial systems, and penal institutions to prosecute and convict the guilty and free the innocent. They created effective whistleblower and witness protection programs. They used legal tools and intelligence to go after financial and personal networks. And they engaged the private sector and civil society organizations to fight those tearing apart the local social and economic fabric. Using the military, even as a stopgap, only delays the painstaking process of building the civilian law enforcement and judicial institutions needed to bring safety back to the streets by creating a more sustainable rule of law.
If the Mexican government decides to invest the money, time and effort in a civilian-based solution, the United States can help. As each side has ratcheted up hardline approaches, cross-border security cooperation has all but collapsed. The Mexican administration has deleted joint training and control programs for law enforcement. Intelligence sharing has also dried up. And in the wake of the Cienfuegos affair, Lopez Obrador curtailed the ability of the Drug Enforcement Agency and other US law enforcement agencies to work in Mexico. He has responded to US pleas to attack the fentanyl problem by claiming that fentanyl is not produced in Mexico.
The recently signed Bicentennial Framework for Security, Public Health, and Safe Communities between Mexico and the United States could restart bilateral security cooperation. At least on paper, it provides a starting point for reviving bilateral initiatives that have made previous progress. If allowed, the United States could again support police academies, judicial and lawyer exchanges, and civil society organizations focused on justice and security. It can share intelligence and work with approved counterparties to dismantle illicit financial networks. In the meantime, the United States can strive to lower the demand for drugs that fill the coffers of criminals, curb the arms trade that fuels the violence, root out the corruption within its own ranks that has aided the cartels, and as economically painful and disruptive as that may be , intensify inspections at the border.
But if Mexico does not break away from its fighting form and recognize the nature of the threat it faces, then the uncertainty will fundamentally not abate. Security will remain elusive, justice even more so. Northward migration, already on the rise, will continue to increase. And fewer of today’s promising economic opportunities will materialize, with more companies bypassing North America to move to Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe and other regions. Mexico will suffer. So will the US.
More from other writers at Bloomberg Opinion:
Mexico flashes warning signals to Washington: Eduardo Porter
AMLO’s lithium grab and war on green energy will hurt North America: Shannon O’Neil
Economic Necessity Will Force Immigration Reform: Eduardo Porter
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editors or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Shannon O’Neil is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. She is a senior fellow for Latin American studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of “The Globalization Myth: Why Regions Matter.”
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