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Feature 122616 Corcoran

Monday, December 26, 2016

Cautionary Tale for Argentina in Mexico's Ten-Year Drug War

By Patrick Corcoran (InSight Crime)

Argentine President Mauricio Macri's extensive changes to security policy generated some encouraging initial results during his first year in office, but the experiences of other Latin American nations suggest that his approach has substantial downsides.

Improving the nation's public security has been a focus of Macri's throughout his rise to power. While campaigning last year, he promised nothing less than to do away with insecurity, and he declared a national emergency days after his victory in the November 2015 run-off. The simultaneous victory of Macri's candidate in the crucial Buenos Aires governor's race, María Eugenia Vidal, was largely attributed to insecurity and perceptions that Vidal's opponent was corrupt.

Accordingly, Macri initiated a series of policy shifts that amount to sweeping change toward a more militarized approach. He has called in American and Israeli advisers; he has announced plans to shoot down drug planes; he has stuffed jails with low-level drug offenders; and he flooded particularly violent areas with federal troops, among other measures.

The first year of Macri's presidency, which began on December 10, 2015, has not been without its positive results. Over the first half of 2016, murders dropped across the country by 19 percent, from 1,535 to 1,251. In the province of Buenos Aires, home to roughly a third of the nation's population, the number of murders dropped by 21 percent over the same period, from 656 to 519. In the capital city of Buenos Aires, the figure dropped from 105 to 64, a decline of nearly 40 percent.

See Also: Coverage of Argentina

But such figures, encouraging though they may seem today, may in the future represent no more than a blip in an otherwise worrying trend. As the decade-long drug war in Mexico shows, Macri's approach creates a number of vulnerabilities that could create major security difficulties in the future.

InSight Crime Analysis

While the underlying circumstances differ substantially, Macri's reflexive response to an apparent security crisis share much with Felipe Calderón's upon assuming the presidency in Mexico in 2006. Like Macri, Calderón staked much of his political capital from the outset of his presidency on addressing the nation's insecurity, sending 7,000 military personnel to Michoacán days after swearing the oath of office. As with Macri, Calderón was reacting to a series of highly publicized incidents; in Mexico, the Familia Michoacana's grisly display of human heads in a nightclub spurred support for intensifying security policy, while in Argentina a series of arrests of major Colombian capos, a wave of drug lab raids, the ongoing decline of the port city of Rosario, and a surge of publicity about Buenos Aires street crime collectively had much the same effect.

Calderón's logic, and his standing among the Mexican people, appeared unassailable. But it didn't last.

Initially, Mexico experienced a downturn in violence not entirely unlike that of Argentina today. The nationwide murder total in 2007 dropped to 10,253 from 11,806 the prior year. Calderón's logic, and his standing among the Mexican people, appeared unassailable.

But it didn't last. The aggressive tactics of the military delivered a shock of instability to a criminal landscape that was unprepared to cope; while other factors played a role, the militarization helped turn a manageable challenge into an internationally notorious disaster, with the national murder rate more than doubling from its 2007 low, and the northern border city of Ciudad Juárez earning the dubious title as the world's most violent city.

Worse still, the initially modest deployment of soldiers to a single state grew exponentially, with tens of thousands of troops patrolling cities around the country. As of 2015, newspapers reported 45,000 soldiers remained focused on domestic security. But despite endless plans to create federal forces capable of alleviating the dependence on the army, Mexico's security policy remains as tied to the army as ever; indeed, last month, Mexico's lower house began to consider a law that could expand the military's role in domestic security and make it permanent.

In short, Calderón's enthusiasm to launch a war on organized crime created a sense of inextricable dependence, in which Mexico was unable to let go of the militarized policy, but incapable of solving its security problems through the armed forces even four years after Calderón left office.

Macri runs a similar risk, even if Argentina is unlikely to sink as low as Mexico did during the Calderón presidency. As InSight Crime has noted, wherever countries have pursued a more militarized approach to drug policy, unforeseen complications have followed.

See also: Coverage of Security Policy

Packing drug offenders into jails may make for good headlines, but such practices can exacerbate the underlying incentives pushing people into the drug trade, and thereby increasing the scope of the challenge. Similarly, militarized federal police units may seem like a welcome departure from ineffectual and corrupt local police, but high-impact tactics may only encourage gangs to be more aggressive, thereby encouraging violence.

Of course, the situation in Argentina in 2015 was quite different from Mexico in 2006; Argentina has never had the importance to the global drug trade as has Mexico, nor has it ever been burdened with such powerful organizations as the Sinaloa Cartel or the Zetas. Moreover, Argentina's national murder rate last year of 6.6 per 100,000 residents was a far cry from Mexico's of approximately 11 in 2006.

But those differences don't excuse Macri; on the contrary, they provide further support for a more prudent approach in Argentina. A murder rate of 6.6 is quite admirable for a Latin American nation, and though there are many ways insecurity can manifest itself, such a statistic suggests Macri should have neither given in to nor fomented public outcry about insecurity.

In any event, Mexico shows definitively, as do many other countries, that improving security is not a matter of showing more backbone. An executive's determination to show toughness without any recognition of the underlying causes of insecurity (foreign demand, geographic proximity to key routes, endemic corruption, social immobility) is an ingredient not just for failure, but for a spiral of increased violence.

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This commentary, "Cautionary Tale for Argentina in Mexico's Ten-Year Drug War," was first published in InSight Crime on Dec. 19, 2016 and reposted per a Creative Commons authorization.  InSight Crime's objective is to increase the level of research, analysis and investigation on organized crime in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Patrick Corcoran is a graduate of the University of Tennessee and received an MA from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He has worked for InSight Crime since 2011.

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