Mexico’s arrest of drug cartel suspects has become fairly commonplace. On Thursday, it was six suspected members of La Familia, based in Michoacan. A day earlier, it was a man identified as a top leader of the ruthless Zetas.
Whether the arrests are making any difference in President Felipe Calderon’s war on the narcotraffickers is another question. Some analysts see them as proof that Calderon was right to declare an all-out fight after taking office in December 2006. “The most important thing is that the Mexican government is on the offensive,” said Bernard Aronson, U.S. assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs from 1989 to 1993. “They’re not in a state of denial. They’re getting going.” Other analysts are not so sure, particularly since more than 12,000 people have been killed since Calderon became president. “It’s really more of the same,” said John Mill Ackerman, a professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. “This doesn’t necessarily give me confidence as to the success of government strategy.”
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The war has unleashed an unprecedented carnage as rival drug gangs fight for territory and routes into the lucrative U.S. market. They’re also fighting among themselves for leadership spots as former drug lords are arrested or killed. Ciudad Juarez, on the U.S. border and the main battleground for the cartels, has already recorded 2,000 drug-related fatalities this year. Officials point out that most of those killings involve criminals doing each other in. That doesn’t matter, some analysts say. “Mexicans are paying a huge price,” said Ana Maria Salazar, a television and radio political commentator in Mexico City. “The rest of the world does not understand the price that’s being paid.” Still, Salazar said, the war needed to be waged. “I’m not sure where this is going, but something had to be done,” she said. Wednesday’s arrest of Carlos Adrian Martinez Muniz, identified as the No. 2 person for the Zetas drug cartel in the Monterrey area in northeastern Mexico, is an example of how far the traffickers have come. In addition to various drugs and weapons, Martinez Muniz was carrying deposit slips for payments for up to 7,150 people in different Mexican states, the nation’s Ministry of Defense said. It was not immediately clear who the payments were to: public officials, other cartel members or both. Los Zetas, formed by former Mexican elite commando-type soldiers, consists mostly of former federal and local police. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration considers the group among the most advanced and violent of Mexico’s drug cartels. “The Zetas were originally hired killers to protect certain businesses. Now they are rapidly becoming the bosses,” Salazar said. Martinez Muniz was carrying 143 files, each containing between 30 and 50 envelopes with deposit slips inside made out to different people in various states. “It is a lot of people,” said Andrew Selee, director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars. “It tells you that the networks of complicity are fairly extensive.” For Salazar, it shows that the cartels are more than “a bunch of thugs using violence to protect their turf.” The cartels, she said, have evolved. “It’s very important to underline how these extremely violent organizations are transforming themselves and branching into other businesses,” she said. Then there’s the issue of bribery and corruption. Martinez Muniz’s payoff ledger “emphasizes how these groups have become much more sophisticated, creating regional turf,” she said. “They are systematically paying off public officials and others to take care of them and their structure.” Salazar said she believes a main reason Calderon started the crackdown was not just because of the harm drugs can have on society but also because of the corruption they can cause. Selee makes the same point. “The problem is not the drug themselves,” he said. “The main reason for going after the drug-trafficking organizations is that they are corrupting public life.” That’s why, he said, “it’s extremely important that the government begin to look at the links between the drug cartels and government officials.” If the payoffs were to public officials, Salazar wonders if the government will try to prosecute them. “They have to do that to start debilitating these organizations,” she said. “They can go against the drug cartels but are you going to go against the governors, the mayors That’s when we will suddenly understand the success of these policies.” Selee questions if the Mexican legal system is up to the task, saying the government has to “create the guarantees of rule of law, guarantees of due process.” In the meantime, he says, it’s hard to tell how effective Calderon’s offensive has been. “I don’t know what the long run will mean,” Selee said. “Whether it will lead to a weakening of the cartels or other groups moving in.” But he’s certain that “it’s harder for the drug operations to move on the ground in the way they used to be able to.” Ackerman, the professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, is not convinced. “I don’t see any clear indication that the Mexican government is winning this war,” he said. Neither does David Shirk, a fellow at the Wilson Center and expert on Mexico’s drug cartels. Calderon’s decision to use the army to fight the cartels has militarized the situation and been unsuccessful in reducing violence, he said.