Last month, National Public Radio (NPR) published new evidence that supports the prevailing theory in Mexico: that the Felipe Calderón administration favors the Sinaloa drug trafficking organization (DTO) in the war on drugs. According to NPR, the powerful Sinaloa DTO is weathering Mexico’s war on drugs far better than its competitors.
The NPR report highlights the role corruption has played in Mexico’s “rigged” drug war. The Mexican government officials, reporters, and residents that NPR interviewed all pointed to the Sinaloa cartel’s impressive ability to corrupt police and soldiers.
Mexicans and US officials were aware of the corruption problem even before NPR published its findings. The problem has been how to combat such widespread corruption.
The US government’s efforts to establish teams of incorruptible Mexican police that they can trust with sensitive intelligence information have met fierce resistance from DTOs. The US Embassy has recruited meticulously screened Mexican Federal Police to its Sensitive Investigation Units (SIU). These police receive Special Forces training from the FBI and DEA in Washington to prepare them for key involvement in police and intelligence work. However, routine polygraph tests discovered that many of them had been bought by the DTOs. Those who couldn’t be bought were targeted for assassination: over a period of a few months in 2008, drug traffickers assassinated at least twelve high-ranking SIU police who worked closely with the US Embassy. In some cases, most notably that of Federal Police chief Edgar Millán, it was apparent that the drug traffickers had corrupted members of the officers’ security teams in order to obtain intelligence on their movements.
For its part, the Mexican government launched its own anti-corruption campaign, “Operation Clean-up,” to purge corrupt officials from agencies involved in the war on drugs. At the same time, Calderon launched a Mérida Initiative-funded country-wide screening of all police officers. In some locales, half or all of the police were fired following screenings.
The problem with these anti-corruption measures is that they ignore the systematic nature of corruption. Mexico’s corruption problem isn’t a matter of “a few bad apples” that must be purged. Rather, DTOs have enough money to buy new cops or government officials to replace the old ones. Even when the government fires entire police forces, the DTOs buy the new police or the soldiers who replace them. And when DTOs can’t corrupt police, they use their seemingly endless supply of weapons and their vast intelligence networks to assassinate them.
The Calderon administration’s detention-focused anti-corruption strategy is doomed to fail as long as it ignores the source of DTOs’ power: money. The general consensus amongst drug policy experts is that the Mexican government has not done enough to dismantle the DTOs’ vast financial networks. The International Monetary Fund, for example, points out that between 1989 and mid-2009, the Mexican government obtained about 32 money laundering convictions.
Edgardo Buscaglia, a professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico and an expert in the economics of crime, argues for a change in strategy: “I would recommend to the Federal Secretary of Public Security that instead of worrying about having more helicopters that he get to work strengthening investigations in order to dismantle the underworld’s finances.” Buscaglia recommends that Mexico fully implement the Palermo Convention, a United Nations convention that includes best practices and legislative guides that aim to enhance international cooperation against transnational organized crime.