Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Lack of Respect

Zuckermann on the criminals in Juárez and their newest enemy:

The problem is when citizens neither fear nor respect the authorities. It's what, it would seem, is happening with organized crime groups and gangs in Ciudad Juárez. The state and municipal police make them laugh. Or they are corrupted or threatened: "Silver pieces or bullets: either you cooperate, and take home some cash, or we kill you because we have better weapons that you". Maybe the Federal Police were a bit more feared and respected, but not much. It would seem that they already had them figured out, too.

All that was left, then, was the army. It was said that the criminals did in fact hold "the greens" in awe. After all, the soldiers were well trained, they had powerful firearms and were less corruptible due to their loyalty to country. President Calderón decided to utilize the armed forces as the last resort of the Mexican state to inspire respect and fear in the criminals.

It's awful to say it but it would seem that the criminals also have the army ion Juárez figured out. The intervention of the armed forces in that city, far from calming the situation, has made it worse. And along the way, there occurred a disgrace for the Mexican state: the criminals lost their fear and respect of the armed forces. The last card failed. The cartels and the gangs in Juárez demonstrated that they don't hold in awe any institution of the Mexican state.

And now they've started to murder authorities from the most powerful state on Earth, the United States of America. With complete tranquility, they killed three functionaries of the American government. The question is what will the Americans do to demonstrate that it's better not to mess with them. What will be the reaction of the American authorities to instill fear and respect in Mexican criminals?

I think we'll see the response soon. And if we go by the reaction of the Americans for the murder in 1985 of the DEA agent Enrique Camarena, they will apply all of the power of the superpotency to instill that awe in the criminals who dare to confront them.
Mexicans and Americans both should pause to think about what it means for the US to be the biggest dude in Juárez. If that means that the US will impose a certain amount of pressure on Mexican officials to arrest not only the triggermen but also take down the gangs they are a part of, well that would be a powerful incentive for other criminals to avoid killing Americans. But the specific goal of reminding the criminals that there is a greater power even in anarchic Juárez just seems misguided, for both countries. First, there's the question of how. The aftermath of the Camarena affair wound up causing deep rifts that both countries would hope to avoid this time around, hence the quick denials that American agents would be operating in Mexico this time around. So if the US isn't going to be adopting a greater presence, well we're back where we started: relying on Mexican security officials to improve security.

Furthermore, Zuckermann's desire for the murderous criminals to fear and respect something, anything, is understandable and natural. Anyone who lives in Mexico has a side of them that just wants the bad guys to start losing, and it's better if the criminals in any town operate with the understanding that they are weaker than the government. But using the instillation of fear as the starting point for policy prescriptions is a recipe for less security, more abuse, and continued disaster.

In any event, I do think this points to the fact that the Calderón government, either because of lack of imagination or will, has not done a good job drawing a line in the sand as to which behavior simply won't be tolerated. Even at its most powerful, the Italian mob in the US didn't run around killing FBI agents or foreign nationals. It is a horrible mistake to turn security concerns into a simple test of strength (a war of attrition might be the surest way to gut the gangs, but it wouldn't be a happy development), but a prerequisite for a comprehensive strategy that tilts the playing field in the government's favor is the capacity to take down a gang should it cross that line.

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