Security forces scramble to react to an eruption of violence that kills 85 people in one day. Later, a mass grave is uncovered in the desert, revealing 72 mangled bodies. In a separate incident, gunmen ambush the police, executing 15 officers. This chaos isn't occurring in Iraq or Afghanistan -- it's happening on America's southern border with Mexico, a country has been teetering on the brink of disaster since 2006, when President Felipe Calderón decided to launch a full-scale offensive against the country's drug cartels. Initially conceived as only part of a larger anti-corruption effort in the wake of his disputed victory in the presidential elections, Calderón has since found that dismantling the drug cartel network is a far more gargantuan task than he originally anticipated.
Now entering its fifth year, the conflict has claimed over 35,000 lives, which is about five times more than America's total fatalities in both Iraq and Afghanistan combined. And yet, despite all the bloodshed there is still no end in sight: 2010 was the bloodiest year to date, with over 15,000 drug-related deaths, a 58% increase from 2009. But at this point, the numbers themselves fail to tell the whole story, because the violence itself has reached an almost theatrical level of absurdity that would make Quentin Tarantino blush. And it gets worse. Just recently, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano suggested that a worst-case scenario now includes a possible partnership between Al Qaeda and a Mexican drug cartel.
Clearly, something must be done to stem the violence, rein in the drug cartels, and regain a sense of normalcy for Mexico. But time's running out.
Calderon insists that Mexico is doing all it can, and that the United States is doing too little, especially since the cartels are armed and funded with weapons and dollars from the United States. In a 5,000-word essay published last year, Calderon argued that the origin of Mexico's crisis "begins with the fact that Mexico is located next to the country that has the highest levels of drug consumption in the world."
I've argued elsewhere that the real culprit isn't America's addiction to drugs, but rather Mexico's addiction to criminal impunity. Drugs are only part of the problem. Corruption and bribery are rampant, while violent crimes like rape and murder simply go unsolved. And now, with many police departments tainted by the scourge of drug money, Mexico's military has had to step in to fill the void.
But according to State Department cables, leaked to the press by WikiLeaks, the United States has become increasingly concerned with the army's performance. One cable points out there is "considerable basis" to many of the human-rights claims that have been filed against the army, which include kidnappings, torture, and illegal raids.
These harsh tactics are leading some to question who exactly the military is targeting, and whether it was wise to deploy the armed forces in the first place. The military is not imbued with the power to actually participate in the judicial system. So while arrests have skyrocketed, prosecutions have remained flat. For instance, only 2% of those arrested in Ciudad Juarez are ever brought to trial. The rest either languish in jail or are set free.
Mexico cannot continue fighting an open-ended war against drug cartels. The military cannot continue serving as a domestic police force. The Mexican people cannot continue living under siege. At some point Mexico will have to win this war or concede defeat. The day of reckoning is fast approaching.
While President Calderón remains steadfast that victory is possible, and that Mexico's army can defeat the cartels by the end of his term in 2012, the U.S. government is not so sure. According to one State Department cable, a top Mexican official offered a sober assessment of his country's chances: "We have 18 months," he said, "and if we do not produce a tangible success that is recognizable to the Mexican people, it will be difficult to sustain the confrontation into the next administration."
That cable was filed 17 months ago.
Ending the conflict will seem especially attractive if Mexico's dismal fiscal outlook doesn't improve, given how costly the operation has been. Mexico is already heavily reliant on quickly diminishing oil revenues and outside sources to fund its basic environmental and social services. Simply put, Mexico can't afford to pay for another six years of this drug war. It would go bankrupt.
Mexico will elect a new president in 2012. Facing mounting pressure to change course, Calderon's successor may choose to cut his losses, scale back the anti-drug offensive, and try to return the country to its pre-2006 days. But that would be a mistake.
If Calderon pulled back now, Mexico would be ceding huge swaths of its own territory to heavily armed militants bent on smuggling narcotics into America. Simply put, this is not a war of choice. It's a war of last resort.
So far, the Mexican public has supported the efforts. But that may change if exhaustion and hopelessness begin to set in. It certainly doesn't help that of the many thousands of allegations filed against the military for human rights abuses, only one soldier has been sentenced. By running roughshod over human rights, Calderon's government risks alienating those who are bearing the brunt of the violence. These people will be less likely to support a continuation of Calderon's strategy during the next presidential administration if doing so means another six years of military impunity and an increasingly severe fiscal crisis.
At some point Mexicans are going to ask themselves whether they would rather live in a pre-2006 world, where drug traffickers moved freely through their country, but violence was relatively low; or a future of near-constant violence where innocent Mexicans are caught between heinous drug traffickers on one side and brutal military operations on the other.
The clock's ticking.
David A. Perez is an attorney in Seattle, and the author of America's Cuba Policy: The Way Forward. A longer version of this article first ran in the April 2011 edition of the Yale Politic.