Mexico's Larger Drug War the Capture of Trafficker Juan Garcia Abrego Masks the Difficulty of Cutting through Mexico's History of Official Corruption and Criminal Enterprise

By Andrew Levison. Andrew Levison writes on Mexican politics and society Journal-Constitution. | The Christian Science Monitor, February 5, 1996 | Go to article overview

Mexico's Larger Drug War the Capture of Trafficker Juan Garcia Abrego Masks the Difficulty of Cutting through Mexico's History of Official Corruption and Criminal Enterprise


Andrew Levison. Andrew Levison writes on Mexican politics and society Journal-Constitution., The Christian Science Monitor


MEXICO'S recent capture of Juan Garcia Abrego, a leading narcotics trafficker, is being hailed as more than a breakthrough in the war against drugs. Because many US critics have linked Mexico's progress in combating the drug trade to all other aspects of policy, key commentators and officials have described the arrest as a significant contribution to overall US-Mexican relations.

Unfortunately, there is good reason to doubt that the arrest will significantly reduce the flow of Colombian cocaine to the United States or diminish the role of Mexico in the illicit traffic. In fact, this triumph could quickly become a long-term detriment to US-Mexican relations if it simply leads to a new cycle of disappointment and recrimination as law-enforcement agencies report on new criminal organizations in Mexico and document the continued flow of drugs across the border.

Mexico's vulnerability

The problem is that key characteristics of Mexico's society and institutions make the country uniquely vulnerable to narcotics trafficking. They also impose sharp limitations on what even an honest administration can hope to achieve. Any realistic US foreign policy toward Mexico must begin by understanding the causes of that nation's vulnerability.

A substantial part of Mexico's territory, for example, is rugged mountain or jungle terrain, often distant from major towns or paved roads. These areas, well suited to drug cultivation and clandestine airfields, have traditionally been ruled by close-knit rural elites that unite a few large landowners, key politicians, the chief of police, and often the local military commander around a single powerful "boss" or "caicique."

In these regions, the police and Army's primary task has always been to defend the rural elite from any challenge. In the 1920s the threat came from bandits, but the police and Army were later deployed against peasant organizations, groups seeking to expropriate large estates, and political parties attempting to challenge the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

Given this history, many Mexicans are likely to view reports of provincial police or Army units protecting drug-filled airplanes or illegal crops with resignation, not surprise.

Lack of police training

Another factor favorable to narcotics trafficking is the scarcity of formal training among Mexican policemen, both urban and rural. Most obtain their jobs through personal contacts or by making cash payments. Their primary loyalty is to the superior who hired them rather than to the public.

The result is a two-tier system of justice. On the one hand, small-time criminals have been physically abused to extract confessions, and ordinary citizens extorted for petty bribes. On the other hand, major criminals who pay for protection, or individuals with connections to powerful figures, have frequently enjoyed virtual immunity from arrest and prosecution.

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Mexico's Larger Drug War the Capture of Trafficker Juan Garcia Abrego Masks the Difficulty of Cutting through Mexico's History of Official Corruption and Criminal Enterprise
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