Fighting Narco-terrorism in Latin America: time to put the hot potato down

Achieving equilibrium between security, governance and development will be the difference between decisively dealing with narco-terrorism across a restless continent, and continuing to pass the hot potato on next-door.

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Dane Vallejo
On 20 May 2011 09:00

Details of a gruesome massacre at a ranch in Guatemala’s Peten province emerged earlier this week that revealed a story of 27 victims, bound, hacked by machetes, and the majority eventually decapitated. Sadly, such a tale is all too familiar in Latin America. 

This restless continent has, throughout its modern history, embodied the protagonist in Aristotle’s precept of tragedy like no other; steeped in traditions of romanticism and grandeur, yet tainted by stagnation through a penchant for populism, dictatorship and brutal violence, and now left reeling decades, if not centuries behind, in its course of development.

Perhaps unremarkably, the prime suspects in Saturday’s heinous crime are the notorious Zetas - one of Mexico’s most powerful drug cartels. Together with seven other major mafia organisations, los Zetas have managed to plunge a state once considered an outpost of civilisation at the head of more fiery climes to the south, into an abyss of violence. Incredibly, over 35,000 people have been killed since Mexico’s War on Drugs began in 2006.

Yet, somewhere beneath the obvious element of humanitarian tragedy, there is a clear strategic lesson to be taken from this macabre tale. Succinctly, it reveals how a purely militarised response to the phenomenon of narco-terrorism is a double edged sword in that it may help to clear up your own dwelling, but more often than not, it does so at the expense of the neighbourhood.

Should Calderon continue to apply military muscle with little else to compliment the heavy stuff, Latin America’s criminal entrepreneurs will continue to scramble operations out of Mexico’s borders and deeper into the likes of Guatemala. Ironically, an almost identical sequence of events helped to spark Mexico’s own narcotics exportation culture. As I have observed elsewhere, Colombia’s heavy-handed clamp down on the Cali and Medellin cartels throughout the 1980s and 1990s didn’t so much eradicate the problem as much as it simply pushed it away, forcing production units to scatter south, principally to Peru, and into the Central American isthmus to the north.

Not to labour the point, but tackling narco-terrorism with firepower alone is therefore a rather more complex and expensive means of passing a hot potato across sovereign borders. It’s the problem no one wants to handle.

But if Mexico, and indeed the US are serious about putting this problem of mass, organised violence down once and for all -- and the US should be seeing as it is responsible for the lion’s share of refined imports, shares a 1,969 mile border with its Southern neighbour, and could quite frankly do without a failed state next door -- then the answer lies not with military muscle (at least not entirely) but with a heightened dedication to a liberal agenda for Latin America. 

Only through democracy, respect for individual rights, rule of law with independent judiciaries, effective law enforcement agencies, the promotion of a culture of lawfulness within civil society, and not least prosperity through positive liberal market reforms, will this culture of grotesquely violent entrepreneurialism truly begin to disappear in favour of more virtuous means of making ends meet. After all, to boil it down to the crudest of concoctions, this is what the drug game is really all about: making ends meet.

To be sure, consider the following nugget of wisdom from security expert, Phil Williams (himself borrowing wittingly from Carl von Clausewitz). Transnational organised crime is simply a continuation of business by other means.  An irritatingly simple maxim it may be, yet true nevertheless. And as any scholar of Clausewitz will tell you, in war (or be it a frightening merger of war and business in this instance), military means must be both subordinate to, and guided by the hand of the state so as to maximise ones chance of translating available means into desired goals. That, as they say, is strategy.

This is not to discredit the military’s utility within this international predicament. Indeed, Mexico’s military must play a major role in providing security amidst a pack of fierce gangs that, by and large, enjoy de facto control over masses of territory. But it is imperative that this approach is part of a multi-pronged attack that keeps in touch with strategy by creating durable and effective linkages with development and governance.  Put simply, security through military predominance is not an end itself, but a means of creating the necessary breathing space required for governance and development to cultivate peace -- the ultimate end in any war.

It may be time to face up to the fact that this 'war' is a failing endeavour; the decriminalisation of certain drugs may be the most effective route out. But the fact remains that, even if the drug problem is solved, the culture of violent crime would surely find a home elsewhere: in people trafficking, in kidnapping, or in any number of fraudulent activities.

It remains vital therefore that good governance and development are ensured. In doing so, a range of other institutions, principally Mexico’s executive and legislative branches, must make the necessary socio-political and legal adjustments. Suitable initiatives might include the regeneration of poorer areas, such as Mexico’s Pacific Coast states, fighting corruption at the highest levels, and acquiring diplomatic, law enforcement, and military support from both Mexico’s latin and northern neighbours. 

Beating Los Zetas and company in Mexico, and indeed, putting rest to the phenomenon in the entirety of Latin America, will be no small feat. Crucially though, achieving the equilibrium between security, governance, and development described here will be the difference between decisively dealing with narco-terrorism across a restless continent and continuing to pass the hot potato on next-door. 

Dane Vallejo Associate Editor of The Commentator. He tweets at @DaneVallejo

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