Is this what defeat looks like?
On March 13, in two separate but seemingly coordinated attacks, gunmen in Juárez, Mexico, killed two employees of the U.S. Consulate, along with the husband of one of the employees. They were gunned down in their cars while returning from a children's party. Although in recent years U.S. citizens and government employees have died in the crossfire of Mexico's drug wars, this deliberate attack on U.S. government employees in Mexico signals a further escalation in the conflict. FBI agents investigating the murders guessed that the murders were meant to "send a message" to both the Mexican and U.S. governments.
The vast majority of the killings in Juárez and elsewhere in Mexico are the result of gangs battling for control of drug distribution markets. But the escalatioán of Mexico's violence began in December 2006 when President Felipe Calderón decided to attack the drug cartels which in his view were challenging the state's authority. The government's offensive has resulted in a complex, multisided, and violent scramble for markets, coercive power, and political influence.
What message did the gunmen intend to send with the murder of the consulate workers? It is a message easily recognized by students of irregular warfare. Insurgents competing with the government for influence over the population have pain as one of the principal tools in their toolbox. Apply the pain in a terrifying manner against even the most imposing symbols of authority -- in this case the U.S. government -- and political results may follow.
In Juárez, this tactic might be working. Despite Calderón's addition of 10,000 federal troops, Juárez has already suffered 500 murders in 2010. According to articles in both the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, many residents of Juárez have had enough of Calderón's war on the cartels. The president arrived for his third visit in a month, promising a list of social programs in addition to the military campaign. But, according to the Los Angeles Times, Calderón was met with nervous and angry protesters, calling for a return to the more peaceful days before he became president.
Three years into Calderón's escalation, an increasing number of Mexicans may now conclude that the only path to greater peace may be accommodation with the cartels. With their ability to apply intense pain and also distribute their massive revenues within some of Mexico's neighborhoods, the cartels are in a good position to sway public opinion toward a truce. Calderón sought to establish the state's authority as supreme. Juárez could instead show him what defeat looks like.