By Morris, Stephen D.
The Brown Journal of World Affairs , Vol. 18, No. 2
Corruption plays a central role in the drug trafficking and the related "war" that have violently scarred Mexico in recent years. Corruption facilitates the operation of Mexico's vast and powerful criminal-business enterprises while simultaneously debilitating the state's efforts to confront them. In fact, corruption makes it difficult at times to differentiate violators from enforcers. As poet, social activist, and grieving father of one victim of the war on drugs Javier Sicilia laments, "I don't know where the state ends and organized crime begins."1 But corruption and the structural weaknesses characterizing Mexico's institutions of justice are hardly new. Corruption has long shaped Mexican politics and the drug trade, yet never have these factors conspired to generate the degree of violence, brutality, and instability seen in recent years. This historical paradox-wherein drug-related corruption once contributed to or at least coexisted with low levels of violence and relative stability but now fuels the opposite-raises questions about the shifting patterns of corruption, the threads that tie it to drug trafficking and violence, and the dynamics unleashed by Mexican President Felipe Calderón's "war of choice" on organized crime. This brief essay first draws on recent events to describe the role of corruption in facilitating drug trafficking and handicapping the state, and then explores the underlying changes that have altered the historical and once-stable pattern.
Most scholars, public officials, and members of the general public agree that organizations providing contraband goods and services (i.e., organized crime including drug trafficking organizations) cannot operate without corruption: that the two-corruption and organized crime-are inherently linked, pointing to a type of corrupt bargain.2 Studies of early twentieth-century prohibition in the United States and the operation of gambling and prostitution rings in major cities throughout the country today, for instance, both highlight the role illegal payoffs to police and local officials play not only in allowing these businesses to operate, but also in maintaining their activities and influence within certain geographic and political bounds.3 With respect to Mexico, most experts agree on this point. As Laurie Freeman, a former associate of the Washington Office on Latin America, notes, "Doing business [in Mexico] entails bribing and intimidating public officials and law enforcement and judicial agents [...] organized crime cannot survive without corruption."4 During a 2008 meeting of the Consejo Nacional de Seguridad Pública (National Council of Public Security), President Felipe Calderón (2006-2012) echoed this sentiment: "The insecurity and violence that the country is living through is the result of [...] corruption that has become a cancer."5
The evidence of a corrupt bargain wherein corrupt state officials support and sustain drug trafficking in Mexico is overwhelming. Headlines periodically feature the arrest or detention of top officials within agencies spearheading the fight against drugs and organized crime (a federal responsibility); port and prison officials; military and police commanders; governors and gubernatorial candidates; state police, investigators, and district attorneys; mayors and city officials; and hundreds of municipal police, all for essentially aiding and abetting organized crime. For example, in November 2008, during the high profile Operación Limpieza (Operation Clean House), six members of SIEDO (Subprocuraduría de Investigación Especializada en Delincuencia Organizada), the attorney general's office in charge of investigating and prosecuting organized crime, the head of the Mexican office of Interpol, directors of the federal police, and close associates of the secretary of public security were arrested for their ties to the Beltrán Leyva cartel.6 Noé Ramírez, the former director of SIEDO, reportedly received $450,000 per month for his services to the cartel's leaders. …