Editorial: Mexico needs help on cartels from Trump, U.S. — but not military help
A decade ago, U.S. military and intelligence leaders worried that Mexico was at risk of becoming a failed state because of the power of drug cartels. Scholars who focused on Mexico countered by calling this view exaggerated and said it missed the real story: the emergence of Mexico’s large middle class. That growth has continued to the point where Mexico has the 11th-largest economy in the world and is projected to climb to seventh-largest by 2050.
But this growth has come at the same time that cartels have metastasized into a worse threat than ever. In recent years, they’ve used intimidation, shakedowns and extreme violence to diversify their criminal enterprises far beyond drugs and guns.
Yes, the idea that Mexico will collapse is ludicrous given its economic strength. Yet the cartels’ growing power was illustrated by a report in the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday on how they were battling for control of Mexico’s multibillion-dollar avocado industry. Thieves working for the cartels are also tapping gasoline pipelines to steal fuel. And cartels are taking over gold mines, demanding payoffs from soda bottlers and distributors, and dramatically ramping up highway cargo robberies.
Meanwhile, business owners in large swaths of Mexico City — long relatively free of cartel violence — are facing sharply increased extortion demands from La Unión, the local cartel. In April, these demands led an association of hundreds of downtown businesses to plead with authorities for help. Soon after, the leader of the association was assassinated.
Against this backdrop, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s response to the cartels may not be effective. He has created a new National Guard force to have it, instead of the military, lead the fight against organized crime. But his de-escalation of anti-cartel tactics — calling for abrazos, no balazos, “hugs, not bullets” — seems dangerously naive. Since he took office in December, homicides have reached record levels and are now 70% higher than in 2014. This could end up being awful news for the San Diego-Tijuana region and its powerful binational economy.
Unfortunately, President Donald Trump appears to think the best way the U.S. can help is to send its military to defeat the cartels. That’s a task beyond the capacity of any outside force, given the cartels’ deep foothold in Mexico and the country’s own sovereignty.
Instead, the U.S. should continue to push for a replacement trade deal for NAFTA to strengthen Mexico’s economy, better coordinate with Mexican agencies, ramp up U.S. intelligence agencies’ surveillance of cartels, and renew traditional U.S. encouragement of Mexico’s efforts to strengthen its civic institutions — especially courts, police and the military — so they become more effective and trusted.
Given Trump’s past rhetoric about Mexico and his ongoing impeachment hearings, Trump may not be in a position to help. But his embrace of a trade deal shows he understands Mexico’s importance to the U.S. The president should act on that understanding.