No sane Mexican would want to live in the US

The idea of the “War on Drugs” is too narrow to tackle the roots of organized crime. What is needed instead is a framework of anti-corruption programs, judicial reform and job creation. Martin Eiermann talked to Edgardo Buscaglia about the challenges ahead for presidents Obama and Calderón.

The European: You have argued that one of the key components in combating drug trafficking is a functioning judicial system. The former Mexican president Vicente Fox has suggested that the solution lies in the legalization of drugs. Where do your analyses diverge?
Buscaglia: Organized crime is not just about drugs, organized crime is about 23 types of crimes. From a financial point of view, drugs may be the most important crime but it is not the only one. Drugs are generating between 40 and 48 per cent of all the gross income cartels receive. But the rest comes from human trafficking, piracy, counterfeiting, smuggling and many other types of crimes. Because organized crime is so diversified, legalizing drugs will not have a significant impact. Whenever there is less profit or more risk in one area, the cartels shift to another business. That is why countries that have decriminalized drugs have never done it with a counter-organized crime in mindset. They have done it as a public health policy, not as a policy against crime. Vicente Fox is completely wrong.

The European: In certain regions of Northern Mexico, the state is virtually non-existent and the cartels are moving into that void. Is Mexico in danger of becoming a failed state?
Buscaglia: it is a weak state with pockets that resemble a failed state. It is a state that is not capable of processing crimes.

The European: What would a comprehensive strategy entail?
Buscaglia: 19 countries around the world have succeeded in reducing organized crime. All these countries – from Colombia to Italy and Singapore – have four things in common. First, they have a good anti-corruption program. Prosecutors investigate revenuers, prosecutors investigate congress people and many of them go to jail. In Colombia, 32 per cent of all legislators have been judicially prosecuted for the links to organized crime in the past 6 years. That is a clean-up that Mexico is not even dreaming about yet. The second element is the confiscation of assets in the hands of organized crime. With that, you take away the transportation infrastructure from organized crime, you take away the storage facilities, you take away the production facilities from organized crime. The third aspect is a social prevention program. Today in Mexico, eight million kids are left without education and without any opportunities. That is a wonderful environment for organized crime to flourish. The fourth point is judicial reform. Mexico is not even close to implementing a judicial reform. The countries that have implemented such a program have seen organized crime go down by up to 90 per cent.

The European: What about the argument that social reforms require stability, and stability requires a strong military and police presence?
Buscaglia: Sending troops is not creating stability. Organized crime is a social and political phenomenon, not an armed phenomenon. Violence is just the tip of the iceberg. The root of organized crime is political and social. You have to send armies of teachers, armies of health workers, armies of social workers – not armies of soldiers. There are only very limited circumstances where you are supposed to send soldiers. In the short-term, of course if you have an area of the land that has no authority at all, soldiers can arrive and within weeks establish the physical presence of law and order. But immediately after that, you are supposed to bring the teachers, social workers, judges, and the infrastructure for reforms. In Mexico, the military has made matters worse. The medicine has been worse than the illness because it has raised the level of violence without affecting the financial situation or infrastructure of the cartels. They can always buy officials, and they can intimidate the officials that cannot be bought. That is the paradox of expected punishment, and it has trapped Mexico in a downward spiral even though military actions have increased under President Calderón. So first, the political class has to be convinced that they clean up themselves. This has happened in Colombia and Italy but not in Mexico. The political class in Mexico does not understand that they are feeding a monster that will someday swallow up their children. Talking about war against organized crime is like talking of war against yourself. Organized crime is part of the politics and society of Mexico. So if a person is talking about engaging in a war against organized crime, it is nonsense. It is like saying he is engaging in a war against his own society and his own state.

The European: The US government is exerting a very strong influence. Is it helping?
Buscaglia: The policy of the US has been mistaken until recently because it was solely focused on drugs. So the US has to broaden its approach to include social and anti-corruption programs. The difference between the US and Mexico is that in the US, the FBI knocks at the door of the Governor of Illinois and puts him under arrest. In Mexico, that never happens. President Obama is much more willing to take that approach.

The European: What responsibility does a state have to intervene and help with the domestic affairs of another state in fighting organized crime?
Buscaglia: In principle, the US has to make sure they control their border. If Germany cannot control its border with Poland, it cannot aspire to be a regional power. But controlling the border is not about building a fence or deploying troops. The US must create jobs for migrant workers in Mexico. That could be done through private investment and be focused on the sectors where most migrants work. Hundreds of thousands of migrants from South America and Mexico criss-cross the border because they don’t have jobs. They hate living in the US – no sane Mexican would want to live in the US because of the discrimination there. But they have to do it. What would help these workers are social prevention and job creation programs in Northern Mexico, so there’s no need for them to go across the border. And such programs have the added effect of preventing trafficking and curbing organized crime.

The European: Isn’t that the responsibility of the Mexican state?
Buscaglia: Mexico has the primary responsibility. But as you can see, they like to keep their economy monopolized. That breeds corruption and prevents the creation of jobs. The free market is better suited to solve the problem. So Mexico also has to change its approach to economic policy. The government likes to say that they are very pro-market. But that is false: they are pro-monopoly and pro-oligarchy. The free market is something very different.

The European: Is the current president Felipe Calderón in a position to implement any of these reforms?
Buscaglia: No. Calderón arrived in office in 2006 with a very small margin of victory. What you need for these reforms are solid popular and congressional majorities, because the resistance from the entrenched elites can be very high. Calderón cannot force the opposition to do anything. They just call him a lame duck and refuse to cooperate because there is no incentive for them to do so.

The European: What is the role of civil society in this context? Can non-state actors shoulder some of the burden?
Buscaglia: Let me give you an example. The South of Italy is still seen as a safe haven for the mafia, the Ndrangheta, and the Camorra. But the scale and scope of organized crime have decreased significantly. The local governments can now confiscate property from organized crime and represent the interests of crime victims by giving the property to civil society. They use mafia mansions to create centers for the treatments of drug addicts. So there are two effects: the policy harms the financial assets and infrastructure of organized crime and also turns civil society into an ally of the state. You are killing several birds with one stone. And the people have indeed become more critical of organized crime and more committed to cooperating with local governments. Berlusconi doesn’t help, but it works on the local level.

The European: What about networks of the Catholic Church?
Buscaglia: The church is very engaged in Mexico at the local level. Individual priests offer a lot of protection to migrants. But they lack financial capacities and coordination. Corrupt authorities and church leaders are also not helping. The bishops are busy lounging in five-star hotels and courting government officials instead of giving support to their local parishes. That, too, is different in Italy. It is not an institutional policy of the Roman-Catholic Church, but local priests have taken leadership roles. Luigi Ciotti has created a network of 1200 groups that engages in prevention strategies. That is having a wonderful effect on drug abuse, forced prostitution and corruption.

The European: Is a functioning democracy a good indicator for long-term progress?
Buscaglia: Democratic progress responds to many factors; it cannot be directly related to organized crime. You can imagine the situation where democratic processes are working but crime is not decreasing. But you can monitor economic crimes – corruption, kidnapping, counterfeiting. Colombia has reduced the number of annual kidnappings from 3000 to 150. And they have also cleaned up state corruption. If you have corruption, many other policies won’t work because organized crime can always rely on the ability to buy judges and officials. In Mexico, the environment of impunity is very high, and that has turned the country into an economic paradise for cartels. As hard as it sounds: the business and political elites must suffer from the same experience as the ordinary citizen. In Italy and Colombia, the killings of judges and politicians have mobilized the elites because they began to see a comprehensive anti-cartel strategy as the only way. Let’s see whether Mexico can follow that approach.


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