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.
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
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. …