The New Cocaine Cowboys

How to Defeat Mexico's Drug Cartels

The recent headlines from Mexico are disturbing: U.S. consular official gunned down in broad daylight; Rancher murdered by Mexican drug smuggler; Bomb tossed at U.S. consulate in Nuevo Laredo. This wave of violence is eerily reminiscent of the carnage that plagued Colombia 20 years ago, and it is getting Washington's attention.

Mexico is in the throes of a battle against powerful drug cartels, the outcome of which will determine who controls the country's law enforcement, judicial, and political institutions. It will decide whether the state will destroy the cartels and put an end to the culture of impunity they have created. Mexico could become a first-world country one day, but it will never achieve that status until it breaks the grip these criminal organizations have over all levels of government and strengthens its law enforcement and judicial institutions. It cannot do one without doing the other.

Destroying the drug cartels is not an impossible task. Two decades ago, Colombia was faced with a similar -- and in many ways more daunting -- struggle. In the early 1990s, many Colombians, including police officers, judges, presidential candidates, and journalists, were assassinated by the most powerful and fearsome drug-trafficking organizations the world has ever seen: the Cali and Medellín cartels. Yet within a decade, the Colombian government defeated them, with Washington's help. The United States played a vital role in supporting the Colombian government, and it should do the same for Mexico.

The stakes in Mexico are high. If the cartels win, these criminal enterprises will continue to operate outside the state and the rule of law, undermining Mexico's democracy. The outcome matters for the United States as well -- if the drug cartels succeed, the United States will share a 2,000-mile border with a narcostate controlled by powerful transnational drug cartels that threaten the stability of Central and South America.

THE MEXICAN CONNECTION

Over the last two decades, Mexican drug cartels have acquired unprecedented power to corrupt and intimidate government officials and civilians. Three factors account for their rise: preexisting corruption, the inability of weak law enforcement institutions to counter them, and the demand for illegal drugs in the United States.

Register for free to continue reading.
Registered users get access to three free articles every month.

Or subscribe now and save 55 percent.

Subscription benefits include:
  • Full access to ForeignAffairs.com
  • Six issues of the magazine
  • Foreign Affairs iPad app privileges
  • Special editorial collections

Latest Commentary & News analysis