Mexico's changing drug war: Can activism succeed where the army can't?

Two studies suggest that Mexico's boots-on-the-ground military approach to taking on its drug cartels has only added to the carnage whereas civic activism, even in murder capitals like Juarez, is having a more positive effect, Brian Stewart reports.

Two studies suggest boots-on-the-ground military only adding to death toll

A demonstrator holds a photocopy of Julio Cesar Mondragon, one of the 43 missing students from a rural teachers' college, during one of the many protests that ripped through Mexico in the wake of the group's disappearance at the hands, it's reported, of local police and drug cartels last year. (The Associated Press)

There have been times in recent years when Mexico felt that its only hope to stem the rising blood-tide of its drug war was to send in the military to the most affected states, to clamp down on the near anarchy.

For the six years under former president Felipe Calderon, from 2006 to 2012, army units waged tough campaigns against ruthless drug cartels in northern Mexico.

And yet the violence soared with each escalation of force, to the point where an estimated 60,000 people were killed in drug-related violence in these years, while another 25,000 went missing.

To put this in perspective, violence in Mexico has at times surpassed the annual death toll in Afghanistan's civil war.

Tell us what you think!

Help shape the future of CBC article pages by taking a quick survey.

And while it is not classified as a "failed state," large chunks of Mexico appeared on the verge of becoming so hollowed out by corruption and violence as to be virtually crippled.

People and jobs fled, local economies stagnated, and police and local administrations were too often bought out by the drug cartels.

The recent scandal over the kidnapping and murder of 43 activist students last fall in the state of Guerrero by a gang thought to be allied to local police has rocked the current national government and highlighted its seeming ineffectiveness in rooting out corruption.

Fortunately, however, the picture is not all bleak. Indeed, some social experiments by very brave civic reformers are starting to show promise in pointing Mexico's way back from the brink.

What makes these efforts particularly interesting are the results of two recent reports that help evaluate the usefulness of military action in cities such as Tijuana, Ciudad Juarez, Nuevo Laredo and Culiacan as they compared to a gentler, civic-reform approach. 

Troops arrive, killings increase

The results of army intervention, it seems, were as disruptive as they were depressing. 

Violence did not subside in the face of military boots on the ground. In fact it quickly grew worse, according to a detailed study by the science journal The American Statistician.

Soldiers escort a man identified as Omar Trevino Morales, alias "Z-42," leader of the infamous Zetas drug cartel, last month after he was arrested in a pre-dawn raid. The military option is still very much a part of Mexico's attempts to dismantle the cartels. (The Associated Press)

In 16 of 18 regions studied, the arrival of soldiers either failed to reduce the number of homicides or saw the number of murders and other crimes soar almost immediately as the targeted cartels simply splintered into ever more warring gangs.

Soldiers trained for combat seemed understandably helpless amid a complex climate of rampant corruption, intimidation of civilians and vengeance killings.

For example, after troops arrived in Ciudad Juarez in 2007, killings rose 15-fold to more than 3,000 a year, which earned the city the sad label "murder capital of the world." It seemed a truly hopeless case.

What's so remarkable, therefore, is that Juarez has, in a very few years, reversed that decline, according to a second report, this from the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.

It may now even be an object lesson for other areas of the world desperate to find ways out of social collapse.

Back from the brink?

In Ciudad Juarez, after the army's intervention failed to restore peace, a broad alliance of civic leaders — academics, non-profit volunteers, feminist activists, business and profession groups — came together and set out to devise a social approach to the problems at hand, especially in poor areas most affected by gang rule.

The group tried to improve the lives of local citizens while, at the same time, demanding accountability from all levels of government, especially local police.

Community centres, schools and hospitals were built or renovated, job programs boosted and special social programs launched for youth most at risk of recruitment into criminal gangs.

Public demonstrations also spread to expose and denounce corruption.

Doctors in the northern border city of Ciudad Juarez take part in a "die-in" protest in 2010, one of the earliest demonstrations to get authorities to guarantee public safety. (The Associated Press)

These were extremely brave efforts given the cartel's penchant for killing anyone who spoke out.

Still, the new united front, using what was called "socio-urban activism," was able to finally get municipal, state and federal governments to join an extraordinary security and justice working group.

Juarez remains a very troubled city with too much crime, but the results of all this civic action have been dramatic enough to attract, this time, positive international attention: homicides have fallen by around 86 per cent, other crimes also plummeted and there is finally a palpable sense of a nightmare passing, the ICG reports.  

"Normalcy seems to have returned, as restaurants and night clubs reopen downtown, factories resume hiring, and local police (not troops) patrol the streets," the group says in its recent report "Back from the brink: saving Ciudad Juarez."

Old-school activism

It's a fascinating story, and none of the improvements came easily. They required, along with much local courage and vision, substantial help from the current federal government of Enrique Pena Nieto.

In office since 2012, Pena Nieto has downplayed, at least somewhat, the military options and pushed instead an ambitious national program to strengthen civil action and boost respect for laws.

Significant funding alongside commitments from six different ministries were given to Juarez as a test case.

Fortunately old-fashioned civic activism, the kind we often belittle these days, had somehow survived against all odds in Juarez and this public resilience was up to the challenge.

Volunteer groups, like those that had previously rallied against violence against women, were experienced enough to spearhead much of the campaign. Doctors, long extorted and threatened by kidnappings, mobilized to support victims in their demands for justice.  

Certain business interests joined with the activists to demand that all levels of governments end the "halo of impunity that envelops the city."

Mourners comfort each other during a ceremony last week to honor slain policemen in Tlaquepaque. On Monday, the Jalisco New Generation drug cartel stopped a police convoy on a rural highway and opened fire, killing 15 officers and wounding five in the bloodiest single attack on Mexican law enforcement in recent memory. (The Associated Press)

Of course, it very much remains to be seen whether the Juarez example can work right across Mexico, as the scourge of official corruption and multiplying criminal gangs continues in many areas.

And the distrust of authority is so widespread that vigilante militias are now spreading.

What's clearly critical for there to be success in these cases, though, is that citizens themselves mobilize for reform and governments react as an ally rather than a foe.

As the military option fails, it is possible to look to the Juarez mix of civic courage and empowerment as the only model left to move crime-infested regions back from the brink. 


Brian Stewart

Canada and abroad

Brian Stewart is one of this country's most experienced journalists and foreign correspondents. He sits on the advisory board of Human Rights Watch Canada. He was also a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Munk School for Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. In almost four decades of reporting, he has covered many of the world's conflicts and reported from 10 war zones, from El Salvador to Beirut and Afghanistan.