Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Darkest Before The Dawn?

Last week, I visited Chihuahua, Mexico for the first time in over two years. Considering all the bad news we hear coming out of Mexico these days (particularly the northern area of the country where the city and state of Chihuahua are located), I was curious to see how the city and its residents were faring.

The security situation has clearly deteriorated recently.

- Several restaurants have closed. The owners were given on offer they couldn't refuse by the drug cartels: sell X amount of drugs for us every week out of your establishment or else. Rather than agree to this perilous arrangement, they opted to shut their doors instead.

- Taxis no longer operate after dark because of similar threats. While you still could get a cab at the airport, we were told that very few operated freely about town after the sun went down.

- While there always has been a security presence at the airport, it's now bigger and beefier (weapons wise).

- More and more communities are becoming gated. You saw this previously in the wealthier enclaves of Chihuahua, but now even more middle-class sections of the city were trying to lock down.

- One former work colleague (whom I still keep in touch with) has in-laws in Juarez and his wife and kids used to visit them regularly. Now, they rent a hotel across the border in El Paso to spend the weekend together because Juarez is so unsafe.

- The Copper Canyon is a popular tourist destination about four hours away from Chihuahua City. While I've never been there, a number of people who visited our Chihuahua facility have made side trips there over the years. We were informed that the drive is now far too dangerous to make.

- One of my current work colleagues confided that if he could, he would move his family to a safer place to live.

- In the past, we've visited the Misercordia Orphanage which is on the outskirts of the city off the highway a bit. Usually we went there late in the afternoon and left at dusk or even early in the evening. This time around, we had a hard time making contact with the folks who run the orphanage. Normally, we would just drive out there to visit and drop off our donation anyway. But since our work colleagues were very wary about approaching the area anytime but in the middle of day we were not able to stop by.

Yet given all that. day to day life doesn't seem that different. I noticed signs of progress since my last visit as I have every time since I first went to Chihuahua twelve years ago. New businesses have sprung up. New roads and home are being built. Despite the increased violence and crime, most people seem to be continuing on with life as usual.

I had a lengthy conversation about the situation one evening with my fore-mentioned former work colleague. I've known him for probably ten years and we have frank and open discussions. He made several interesting points:

- In general, he supports President Calderon's efforts against the cartels. However, he believes that Calderon wasted time and resources because he didn't have a clear and coherent strategy early on.

- He said the local and state police forces are corrupt and not to be trusted. The federal police (federales) are mostly okay and whatever progress has been made so far is the result of their efforts.

- There is also still an unimaginable level of corruption at the state and local levels of government. While Calderon's efforts have lead to improvements at the national level, many local officials are cooperating and collaborating with the cartels.

- When I asked about legalization of drugs as an answer (either in Mexico or the US), he rejected the idea that legalizing the drug trade would drive the cartels away. He said they were too entrenched and too powerful and would merely move into other illegal activities.

- He does believe that the pain that Mexico is now going through is necessary for the country's long term gain. And he does mean long term. I asked him directly how long he thought it would take to turn things around and restore a sense of stability. He estimates ten years.

In some ways the current struggle against the drug cartels in Mexico is like a counter-insurgency effort. The victories are difficult to measure, while the defeats are all too apparent (and usually newsworthy). Progress comes in starts and fits and does not follow a straight line. At some point, things almost have to get worse before they can get better. And it's difficult to determine just when you've passed the mark where there are more steps forward than back.

Counter-insurgencies are typically long campaigns and it shouldn't be surprising to hear that it make take more ten years for the Mexican government to reign in the drug cartels. The key question in this battle as it is in all such long wars is whether the public will support such a drawn out and costly effort. Will the average Jose Six-pack buy in to a bitter ten-year struggle to move Mexico forward or find it easier to support an accommodation between the government and the cartels that reduces the violence, but keeps Mexico mired in corruption and criminality? The answer to that question may well determine what the future will look like for Chihuahua and the country.