Ciudad Juárez in 2010 was an extraordinary time. The Juárez cartel—in the midst of one war with the more powerful, wealthier barons of Sinaloa, and another, simultaneous war with the battalions of police and troops sent by the federal government—could no longer support many of its foot soldiers and turned them loose to fund themselves. The economy had collapsed, many of the city’s factory buildings vacant and the middle class departed; criminals hijacked houses, holding the residents captive for days at a time; in a police force of 3,000 officers, 200 were killed. The violence in Ciudad Juárez has abated a bit this year, but it has only seemed to move elsewhere around Mexico. Right now, the most violent area in the country is far from the Rio Grande, in the coastal state of Guerrero, where an impenetrably complex street war has broken out in Acapulco among at least fourteen street gangs.
In August 2011, five years into an exhausting term as president of Mexico, Felipe Calderón arrived at a Monterrey casino in the aftermath of yet another unfathomably brutal attack. The casino’s owner had reportedly refused to pay bribes to members of the Zetas cartel, and so they sent gunmen to douse the entrance of the casino with gasoline and set the building on fire. Fifty-two people died, 42 of them women. Calderón, addressing the horror, spoke at length, eventually turning to the consumers north of the border. “[If Americans] are determined and resigned to consume drugs, then they should seek market alternatives in order to cancel the criminals’ stratospheric profits,” he said. By “market alternatives,” he meant using regulation and taxation to control the flow of drugs. Though Calderón had previously scoffed at American efforts to legalize marijuana, he now seemed to be suggesting some form of decriminalization. The stresses of the moment were so intense that no one knew if he really meant it, but a month later he repeated the case and then, this September, he made it again at the United Nations. By then he was joined by the presidents of Colombia and Guatemala, both staunch drug warriors, and eventually several more Latin heads of state. “What is the saying you have in the United States?” says Daniel Mejía Londoño, the director of the Institute for Drugs and Security at the University of the Andes in Bogotá. “Only Nixon could go to China.”
The political momentum south of the border has moved well past the American consensus. Here, we are beginning to talk about legalizing marijuana; there, politicians are speculating about altering the prohibition of much more toxic drugs—cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine. But even if such a broad legalization were to occur in Mexico and South America, there would likely be no substantial reduction in violence. It’s the price of hard drugs in the United States—not Mexico—that drives the profits of the drug trade. Which may be why the Organization of American States’ comprehensive report on drug policy in the hemisphere seems unlikely to give much prominence to legalization, according to several people involved in the study, focusing instead on important but incremental measures such as improving criminal-justice systems in Central America and developing programs to divert young people from gangs. One expert brought in to consult on the project says, “There’s no there there.”
Another reason legalization may not do much to diminish the violence is that some of the largest Mexican cartels, as they have moved more deeply into extortion and kidnapping, may be evolving out of the reach of drug policy. The problem is that some of the largest Mexican groups have moved deeper into extortion and kidnapping and have become less dependent on narcotics. “My fear is that if you legalize drugs tomorrow, I don’t think you’re going to reduce the number of cartels or the amount of homicide or the flow of illicit goods,” says Adam Blackwell, a Canadian diplomat who is the secretary for multidimensional security at the Organization for American States. “Focusing too much on drugs takes us away from the real issues, which are”—he searches for the right word. “Structures. Cartel structures. Gang structures.”
Part of what Bealefeld had worked to dispel, in Baltimore, was the myth of powerful criminal structures: The police, he kept trying to tell his officers, had more leverage over violence than they thought. But in parts of Mexico, these structures are very real and very powerful, and so accepting the presence of the drug traffic and focusing instead on the violence means making a very different kind of compromise.
In Tijuana, beginning in 2008, an obese psychopath named Teodoro Garcia Simental, affiliated with the Sinaloa Cartel, which was battling for control of the city’s drug routes, allegedly exercised what must be the most openly insane regime in the history of the drug wars: He is said to have dismembered 300 victims and had his henchmen dissolve them in barrels of lye. At one point, he allegedly arranged nine of his victims, several of them uniformed police officers, on a street, so that they spelled out his nickname. By 2010, though, just as his own side prevailed, Garcia Simental was arrested in a Baja California resort town, and the wars in Tijuana have since receded, with the Sinaloa cartel controlling the traffic and the city, almost astonishingly, settling back into something approaching normality.