29 Jan 2010
Negotiating with the Narco Elite
One analyst has suggested that Mexican President Felipe Calderon hopes to decrease violence through negotiation with the Sinaloa Federation, and with limited resources and time, he just might, Samuel Logan comments for ISN Security Watch.
By Samuel Logan for ISN Security Watch
Mexican Federal Police arrested four members of the Sinaloa Federation, killing a fifth, in a shootout on 27 January after anonymous informants tipped the police to armed men seen entering and exiting a house in the state of Chihuahua. Such sporadic shootouts and arrests are now commonplace in Mexico, but the arrest of members of the Sinaloa Federation, it seems, remains a rare event.
According to analysts, Mexican authorities have made 53,174 drug-related arrests, with only 941 of those arrests - some 1.7 percent - pertaining to the Sinaloa Federation, believed to still be under the control of one man: Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman.
Mexican security analyst and economist Edgardo Buscaglia took these numbers a step further in a 7 January interview with The Economist, noting that, "the government's strategy is to focus on the weakest groups, so that the organized crime market will consolidate itself around Sinaloa."
He also added an interesting twist: "[The government] is hoping to negotiate a decrease in violence with that one group."
The idea of the Mexican government negotiating with organized crime is certainly not new. From 1929 to 2000, a long succession of Mexican leaders maintained a wink-and-nod arrangement with the country's drug trafficking elite, who were allowed to smuggle contraband into the US as long as they didn't shed blood on Mexican streets.
Calderon's hard-nosed strategy has obviously shattered this historical arrangement, so the idea that his administration would even consider talking to a man like El Chapo seems far-fetched, easily dismissed out of hand.
Yet the arrest statistics support Buscaglia's theory. And with limited resources stretched across a large country, a focus on the Arellano-Felix organization and the Gulf Cartel, both weakened by the successive loss of influential leaders, seems to be a pragmatic strategy.
The Sinaloa Federation represents the strongest drug trafficking syndicate operating today in Mexico. Men under El Chapo's direct control may control as much as 45 percent of the Mexican drug trade, leaving roughly half the narco pie spilt among a number of groups, including Loz Zetas, which is arguably the most powerful organized criminal group in Mexico in terms of paramilitary effectiveness.
If Buscaglia is right, then the state of Sinaloa, and the city of Culiacan, would be off limits to the Calderon administration. So far, the Mexican president has focused on Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez, where in the latter he expedited the removal of the military from the streets in January, replacing them with a new cadre of federal police.
The maneuver appears to be a litmus test for a new strategy, one that sees removing the military from the day-to-day patrol duty of hotspots to a more narrow focus on one-off ‘decapitation’ operations, much like the assault that killed Arturo Beltran-Leyva.
With a little under three years left in office, Calderon is certainly considering his end game, and it is not one where he will be able to deconstruct all of Mexico's drug trafficking organizations. He will likely succeed at removing two - perhaps the Beltran Leyva organization and the Arellano Felix organization - but within the amount of time he has left, he will not remove Los Zetas and the Sinaloa Federation by force alone. It will require a significant amount of cunning and help, and as long as Calderon stays out of Sinaloa and does not arrest El Chapo's men, many will now have to at least consider that the idea of a truce could be on the table.
Samuel Logan is an investigative journalist, and author. He is the director of Southern Pulse | Networked Intelligence, a decentralized, field-based security consultancy, and has reported on security, energy, politics, economics, organized crime, terrorism and black markets in Latin America since 1999.
The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, not the International Relations and Security Network (ISN).
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