The Mexican War on Drugs: A Conflict Resolution Approach

[Éste es un ensayo que escribí para un curso de Resolución de Conflictos. Se los comparto a ver qué les parece.]

If war is the violent resolution of conflict, then peace is not the absence of conflict,

but rather, the ability to resolve conflict without violence.

C.T. Lawrence Butler

About five years ago, Mexico was plunged into a conflict that has turned into a bloodbath. Although it has been called a “war on drugs” and is not really a civil war, the number of casualties is staggering: 40,000 dead people, most of them civilians. There does not seem to be any way out, as the federal government is not willing to change strategies and the drug cartels are intent on winning spaces to increase their trade. In this essay I will analyze the possibilities of a peaceful resolution to this conflict, keeping in mind that it is extremely complex, as the illegal organizations involved seem to be the stronger parties and the civilian population the weakest, with the government somewhere in the middle.

In 2006, after a much disputed process, Felipe Calderón was elected president of Mexico, and his first concern was to legitimize his investiture. His biggest campaign promise was to be the president of employment, but instead he decided to tackle a much larger problem: drug trafficking, and sent out the army to fight against the drug cartels all over the country. The response was quick and deadly, and the violence spiraled, trapping Mexico in a seemingly endless bloodbath that has affected thousands of civilians.

Previous governments had decided to negotiate (explicitly or implicitly, it is not really known) with the drug capos and let them divide up the country and carry out their trades without restrictions, to avoid unnecessary deaths and open warfare. President Calderón has said that negotiation is not an option and has tackled the problem head-on… or so he believes. The problem is that his strategy is not taking into consideration all the underlying issues that lead people, especially the young, to join the cartels.

Due to several factors, both domestic and international, that are too long and complex to mention here, the Mexican economy has contracted, sending thousands of people into unemployment. Young graduates who cannot find jobs but cannot go back to school either are added to older people who have families to support earning only minimum wages. In this context, the narco offers a solution: they always need something done and they pay well. Plus, they offer a sense of belonging to a group, and a powerful one, at that. Granted, it is illegal and very dangerous, but to many people it seems like the only alternative.

Another contributing factor is impunity: most crimes in Mexico go unpunished. This gives a sense of security to criminals and increases the chances of people buying weapons to defend themselves. Ordinary citizens are unwilling to report crimes because they know nothing will be done and most likely the criminals will get revenge upon them. This has led to a very confusing situation: there are around 200 municipalities all over the country ruled by the narco[1], where the civilian authorities have no power. Conditions there are so deplorable that surveyors for the 2010 national Census were forbidden from visiting these municipalities.

This example illustrates the situation defined by Robert Merton as anomie, in which “social structures exert […] pressure upon certain persons in a society to engage in non-conforming behavior rather than conforming”[2]. Here, we see this in the fact that many people feel pressured to gain money, and therefore power and status, but are unable to do so because of a general lack of opportunity. This is especially true for young people across the country who have become easy targets for recruitment to both the drug cartels and the army. Always according to Merton’s theory, the greatest pressure is exerted upon the lower classes of society, who have internalized the importance of monetary success in this country but cannot reach their goals because they are not skilled labor. Organized crime provides a niche where they can achieve these promises of power and high income[3], and of course they are keen to take the chance.

On a very superficial level, it would seem the conflict is between the drug cartels (as if they made up only one entity) and the federal government. Upon closer inspection, however, it becomes apparent that things are not quite so simple. The conflict is compounded by the fact that there are several drug cartels around the country and that they are fighting each other for control over the markets, as much as they are fighting the army and the federal authorities in general.  I would also argue that there is a third, unwilling party to this conflict: the civilian population, which has been caught in the crossfire between the federal and the illegal forces several times and which has decided it will not remain silent anymore. I will mention some activities the civilian population has carried out to try to resolve the conflict later on.

It is extremely hard in this context to separate the people from the problem, as Fisher and Ury would like us to do[4], as the drug cartels are made up of people absolutely invested in their illicit activities, and on the other side, President Calderón has decided to make this so-called war his top priority and refuses to change tactics or positions to find another solution to the drug-trafficking problem in Mexico. Besides, he is a public and very visible person, easy to target, which is one of the reasons many civilian groups demand his resignation. This is not possible in the case of the narcos, because, with very few exceptions (most of which have been already detained anyway), they are not easily identifiable.

I have thought very hard about the best ways to solve the conflict we are living in, but it seems to me that traditional methods for conflict resolution will not work, as we are not dealing with equal forces, and especially because of the hard stand the President has taken: he has already stated on several occasions that he will not negotiate with the narco. Due to the nature of the drug cartels, I do not believe it is possible to try other techniques, such as mediation, because who would be willing to do so when it could entail a very real risk to their lives?

Another option that has been thrown around, but has never been seriously considered, is to request an international intervention. Some people have proposed bringing in UN peacekeeping forces, especially in border towns with the USA. Others, especially Americans, have suggested that they could call Mexico a failed state and send in the US army to fight against the narco and finally pacify this country. I do not believe any of these options would work because they do not really address the heart of the problem: poverty, unemployment, a general lack of opportunities, and of course, the use and abuse of drugs, both in Mexico and abroad.

In my opinion, Christopher Moore’s Continuum[5] provides a good tool to look at what is being done already by way of resolution: the federal government has exerted violence (or extralegal coerced decision-making) and the civilian population has become more vocal in their non-violent activities: article-writing, protests, sit-ins, vigils, calling the government to stop violence and seek for other, more peaceful ways of dealing with the narcos. As an example of these actions, poet Javier Sicilia called for a national protest on April 5; people in 50 cities nationwide responded to the call and marched towards their town’s centers to call for a ceasefire. Mexicans in different cities of the world also protested in front the embassies and consulates.

The role of the civilian population is hard to define: sometimes it seems as if we are trying to act as mediators between the government and the drug cartels, asking both sides to stop the violence and find ways to solve the conflict. Others, we are a third party with vested interests in the development and outcome of all proceedings. In fact, it should be a mistake to consider the civilian population as removed from the conflict or simply as mediators, because whatever happens, we will be affected.

Furthermore, I think the government, especially at the federal level but also at the local level, should move towards the legal/public authoritative third-party decision-making processes and approve laws legalizing drugs, establishing firm controls and surveillance for distribution and drug use, and creating and enforcing an education and prevention campaign. This would provide a creative solution and could also be a platform for further measures, perhaps reached through a process of appreciative inquiry, as each community strengthens itself to avoid new incidents of open armed violence[6].

As a non-traditional conflict, this Mexican war on drugs requires non-traditional conflict resolution methods. Luckily, the field seems to be developing new techniques that take into consideration other actors and processes that open spaces for creative solutions to conflict. We in Mexico should take advantage of this if we really want to stop the violence and bloodshed in which we find ourselves these days.

These solutions should include root issues such as the fight against poverty, the creation and promotion of employment, especially for young people in entry level, increasing the quality of education as well as the time children and adolescents spend in schools, augmenting the offer of after-school activities, legalizing drugs with an approach that promotes prevention, education and a tight control and surveillance of users, besides pursuing a strategy of punishment against illegal dealers and those who would take advantage of the system.

A final consideration is to remember the interests of the United States of America, our neighbor to the north. The USA is one of the largest markets for Mexican and other South American drug dealers, which of course promotes the production and transportation of drugs across this country. This is compounded with the trade in firearms flowing from the USA into Mexico, supplying the drug cartels with all the weapons they need to continue the fight against the federal government as well as with each other. No long term solution to the conflict currently unfolding in Mexico will be complete without addressing these two issues. Unfortunately, they do not seem to be a priority at all in the American cabinet.

A complex problem requires complex solutions. Ending drug trafficking will not be accomplished simply by killing or detaining the cartel heads, or capos, and trying to stop smugglers and dealers from selling the drugs. If mediation is not an option for solving this conflict, then we need to think harder about how to get around to doing it. Being open to suggestions about how to improve or modify the current strategy would be a good place to start. The President would do well to also listen to what the civilian population is requesting, so as to acknowledge our needs and appreciate solutions that could in fact be less costly and more effective than just sending out the army into the streets to do what is essentially police work. Perhaps a little international diplomatic pressure could also help. The point is to be creative and inclusive if we really want to achieve peace and security in this country, remembering that peace is not just the absence of war, but a process whereby a new society is created and maintained.


[1] Milenio Semanal. 2010.  200 Municipios controlados por el narco. 08/29/2010 http://www.msemanal.com/node/2889

[2] Merton, Robert K. 1968.”Social Structure and Anomie” in Social Theory and Social Structure. Free Press. P. 186.

[3] Ibid. Pp 195-203.

[4]Fisher, Robert & Ury, William. 1991. Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In. Boston: Penguin Books, p.17-18.

[5] Moore, Christopher W. 1996. The Mediation Process: Practical Strategies for Resolving Conflict. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

[6] Cooperrider, David L. & Diana Whitney. 2005. Appreciative Enquiry: A Positive Revolution in Change. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers

Acerca de Xalaila

Licenciada en Relaciones Internacionales, próxima Maestra en Terrorismo y Seguridad, activista en derechos humanos, feminista.
Esta entrada fue publicada en México, violencia y etiquetada . Guarda el enlace permanente.

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