Back in November 2010, a small town on the US-Mexico border, Ciudad Mier, made headlines when most of the town’s residents left because of intense fighting between the Zetas and Gulf cartels. Both groups wanted the plaza, which is a strategic smuggling corridor for weapons, cash, and money between the United States and Mexico, and openly fought day and night for it without regard for local residents or businesses.
The story was big news because it seemed to demonstrate, through the story of a town that once was safe and a tourist haven, just how dire the security situation in parts of Mexico had become.
So an article written today by EFE reports that since then residents have begun to return due to the construction of an army base and a greater military presence in the town is laudable. It is good for the city’s residents, and, on the PR front, is a victory for the Calderon administration, as it sends the message that the government can respond to fighting. Although this victory may be in vain – more than half of all Mexicans believe that progress against the cartels is worse or the same as in 2010 – it will draw praise from those who support the use of the military in Mexico to fight drug cartels.
This strategy will also, as the Ciudad Mier case has shown, be popular among those who support Calderon’s strategy of deploying military troops in areas hardest hit by fighting. Though this strategy has had some success at quelling violence in the past, there are two major reasons why all praise should be moderated:
1. Public security in northern Mexico is still a significant problem. That Ciudad Mier’s residents are returning offers an anecdotal example against a common trend. For every Ciudad Mier, there are many other small towns where inter-cartel fighting is just as intense and where local, state, and federal exist in name only and where the real authority is at the hands of non-state actors. While this episode in Ciudad Mier represents a battle won, the war rages on.
2. The underlying problems facing the future use of deploying the military to towns throughout Mexico. According to a recent Pew Research Center study, for the majority of Mexicans, crime and cartel-related violence are significant problems in the country. Additionally, a full 84 percent of Mexicans, according to the study, support deploying the military to improve citizen security.
Given that A) there is significant political capital to do so, and B) it is seen as an effective way to combat cartels, it follows that we may see more military deployments to retake lost towns in the future. Security is the most important thing for citizens, and thus the use of the military to ensure safety is probably the best course of action, given the strength of cartels and ineffectiveness of local authorities.
But the deployment of troops is not a sustainable or perfect solution, a point to which followers of the successes and failures of the conflict in Colombia’s consolidation program can attest. Although it has been noted that the two countries pose different problems and a blanket strategy (and thus blanket solution) will not be the same if applied to the other country, some commonalities persist. Allegations of collusion between former/current members of the military and cartels, transitioning power to competent civilian authorities, and the military’s role in day-to-day policing and conducting administrative tasks required to run a city are but a few of the problems militarized municipalities will face once a baseline level of safety has been achieved.
The homecoming of Ciudad Mier’s residents is a victory for citizen security in Mexico. But even if money, training, personnel, and corruption were not issues the Mexican government had to face, deploying troops is not the savior solution.