Plata o Plomo

Mexico’s ongoing drug has tended to pop in and out of the headlines. Chapo Guzman’s daring escape and subsequent recapture (including the role of rapidly declining celebrity Sean Penn) controlled the news cycle for a few days, but quickly died out.  I came across this NYT piece last week. Regrettably, the killing of Mexico’s mayors has been ongoing for quite some time, but only makes the headlines when the story is particularly brutal, or in a municipality large enough to have an outside media presence.

The conflict simmers, the body count rises, and the national government seeks yet again to find a way to re-establish the rule of law and central control.  A recent report by the Citizens Council for Public Security finds that 7 of the world’s 50 most dangerous cities are in Mexico. Tourist hotspot Acapulco now ranks 4th globally, and the highest in the country.

While the nature of the conflict has changed in many parts of the country, the security situation in many municipalities remains fraught with danger. The cartels are less able to challenge the army and police services in fixed engagements, but the federal and state governments have been unable to establish lasting peace and security within the region. July will mark the official 10 year anniversary of the conflict, and despite the best efforts of two administrations, the country is still no closer to ending the violence.

I came across this topic while researching for my Masters. Mexico’s cartels are placing greater importance on engaging the political system. The offers previously made to local police and journalists are now expanding to the politicians. Will you accept financial contributions (plata), or risk angering us (plomo). The same offer is made to companies operating in Mexico. Canadian mining firm McEwan mining drew the ire of many when the CEO mentioned that they maintain cordial relations with the cartel.

The willingness to use violence against small town mayors is not one without consequence, and for years, the cartels recognize the public relations value of the threat of violence. If the fear is deep enough, the actual use of violence will be unnecessary. The arrest of senior figures like Guzman who have played the political game leaves power in the hands of the lieutenants who often gained their positions through the demonstration of unquestioning loyalty and force of arms.

Arrests of figures like Chapo Guzman are a great step forward, and his extradition to the United States would be a watershed moment for two nations with a sometimes tenuous relationship. Despite these gains, until Mexico can achieve real security and rule of law at the local level, stories like these will still be all to common.

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