Yesterday, I got an email from my editor at Palgrave MacMillan with the design their art department came up with for my book cover. I absolutely loved it, and also noted that my book's title had changed (again). The new title is Cartel: The Coming Invasion of Mexico's Drug Wars. I like it, but thought I might have to ask for a correction because they used "Wars" plural, and I've always talked about the drug "war" singular.
Then I thought about it, and realized that there really is more than one drug war going on in Mexico. There are more like three, and each has very distinct characteristics and goals.
In the first war, the combatants are the Mexican government (in the form of the military and various law enforcement agencies) and the DTOs. The battles between the two are being fought anywhere and everywhere you can find drug trafficking activity, and the conflict is complicated. DTOs have infiltrated their enemy through bribery, threats, and extortion, and have some degree of control over lesser government institutions because of these coercive tactics. They manipulate the media by tossing hand grenades at their officers, and draw support from the population through psychological means or death threats. The most visible signs of this war are the gun battles in broad daylight between soldiers, federal police, and DTO members.
The second war is going on between the DTOs themselves. This one is also complicated because there are at least seven combatants, the territorial lines are always moving, and alliances and splits can occur or dissolve at the drop of a hat. Truces and cease-fires are possible, but are subject to the whimsy of the DTO members who initiate them. The killing is often personal, and almost always sends a message to the DTO "owner" of the victim, based on whether the deceased was merely a rival, a snitch, or incompetent.
The third war is mostly happening in Ciudad Juárez, although it's occurring at lower levels in other parts of Mexico - the war of sheer chaos. In Juárez, it used to be that authorities knew who the major players were. It was the Sinaloa Federation and the Vicente Carrillo Fuentes Organization duking it out for control of the border's most lucrative drug smuggling corridor. While they both still wield influence there, the authorities no longer really know who's killing whom in Juárez. There are roughly 500 colonias, or neighborhoods, in the city, and each one has its own gang. Many of these gangs are affiliated with one DTO or the other. Regardless, these local gangs spend a lot of time killing each other for control of the local drug trade. Many are addicts, and kill for money or drugs. As the violence increases there, the level of understanding of the conflict decreases, as does the government's interest and ability to stop it.
Finally, there's the coming war that we're starting to get some glimpses of: the war with the hand that feeds the DTOs, the United States. DTOs are extremely hesitant to engage in any open conflict with US authorities because it's bad for business, and they have an extremely lucrative business model that operates in more than 270 of our cities. But we're seeing some of these confrontations occur between our law enforcement officers and DTO-controlled marijuana growers in US national parks, smugglers shooting at Border Patrol agents across the border, and smugglers getting into high-speed chases with Sheriff's deputies. The first DTO-related beheading occurred recently in Chandler, Arizona, and five tortured and mutilated bodies - at the behest of the Gulf cartel - were found in 2009 outside a safe house in northern Alabama.
This fourth war is the most worrisome because it's the most insidious and the most dangerous. The enemy has already crossed the front lines, and has been operating - and thriving - on enemy territory for decades. DTOs are often able to get contraband past our border checkpoints, and are skilled in techniques of deception and evasion. They're constantly testing our defenses, and adapting to them.
Looking at the Mexico situation from this perspective really highlights the need for a multi-faceted approach from both the Mexican and US governments in trying to defeat the DTOs. It also highlights the almost insurmountable challenges associated with that task. Fighting one drug war was bad enough, but three? With another one probably on the way? But this is the reality facing both governments and their law enforcement agencies, and they need to be prepared for multiple wars on multiple fronts if they stand any chance of making progress.