The Fog of Mexico's Drug War

After one of the worst attacks on civilians ever, President Felipe Calderón shows exactly why he can't win the war he started.

Two dozen gang members attacked a casino in the Mexican town of Monterrey on Thursday, leaving more than 50 apparently innocent people dead, in one of the highest civilian death tolls in President Felipe Calderón's now five-year-old drug war. It was about as clear a statement of purpose from Mexico's brutal narco-gangs as could possibly be made. However, Calderón's statement the following day, as has been the case too often during the bloody struggle, was a hash of mixed messages.

The president called the attack on the Casino Royale "barbaric" and an "act of terror." Rightly so; the massacre rose above the level of the grinding daily brutalities in a war that has claimed more than 40,000 lives, on a par for audacity and cruelty with a twin-grenade attack on Independence Day revelers in Michoacan in September 2008 that killed 8 and wounded more than 100. But then Calderón went from condemning the attack to making an attack of his own -- against the United States, for its role in the drug dilemma.

Calderón is right to point the finger at the United States, but not at this particular moment in time. Drug consumption in the United States was not what allowed the attack in Monterrey to occur. The total impunity that reigns in Mexico -- due to the failure of police and security forces to maintain any semblance of trustworthy authority, the dragging speed of reform in the police forces, and the absence of any investigative capacity or will whatsoever -- is responsible for this atrocity. And Calderón's inability to admit fault or honestly describe the sorry state of his signature initiative is exactly what is making it so difficult for him to convince Mexicans of anything, including the notion that his party should remain in office next year.

Since the Calderón administration took office in December 2006, its biggest failure has been in communicating with the Mexican public. Calderón took the electorate completely by surprise when he launched the drug war (he ran for office on a platform of job creation), prompting critics to accuse him of trying to divert attention from allegations of electoral fraud.

Then, shortly into his term, Calderón was photographed wearing a military uniform -- not a welcome sight for many Mexicans, who remember the dirty wars of the 1970s, when the military was responsible for killings and mass graves now associated with the drug cartels.

Calderón has tried in vain to communicate both his administration's victories and setbacks. But kicking a soccer ball into a net and proclaiming that he has scored a goal in the war on organized crime has played about as well as George W. Bush's "now watch this drive"; praising the arrest of a "narco" on Twitter when the alleged trafficker has yet to be tried or even charged has done little to instill public confidence in a judicial system that is finally undergoing much-needed reforms.

Calderón's impassioned plea at Interior Minister Juan Camilo Mouriño's funeral in late 2008 was not much better. Instead of dispelling false rumors than Mouriño's plane had been blown up by drug traffickers or simply mourning the tragic death of his friend and political ally, the Mexican president turned his eulogy into a speech about the war on organized crime. "Today, more than ever, is the moment to look to the future, the moment to persevere in the fight to overcome adversity and to build this country [into] a more just, prosperous, and safe country that our countrymen dream of and that millions of Mexicans seek each day," he pronounced.

National Security spokesman Alejandro Poire has not fared much better than the president. Just this week, he asserted, confusingly, that marijuana consumption was up thanks to a rebounding economy. This may be true, but it's hardly responsible to make that point when the government has continually tried to take a moral line against drug trafficking (rather than an economic or legal one).

There is no doubt that the drug violence in Mexico is reaching new lows of viciousness and that the number of killings continues to climb. And with the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, poised to take the presidency next year, the Calderón administration must do more than continue its crackdown on the brutal drug thugs -- it must actually show some progress.

The closest thing to a stated strategy or end goal to the drug war is that the authorities hope to dismantle the organized crime syndicates and to transform a national security threat into a local security problem -- in other words, to break down the cartels so that Mexico has a gang problem similar to that of the United States.

But no one in the administration has personally explained the military strategy or offered explanations for why it doesn't appear to be working. Nor has anyone explained how exactly a reformed police force will be created and more important, maintained. The army has repeatedly entered cities like Ciudad Juarez, Tijuana, Nuevo Laredo, or Culiacán, taken over the local police forces and purged them of their bad apples, only to retreat again. The supposed goal is to attract more educated young people into the police force and to combine municipal and state forces under one command -- which is all good in theory, but in a country where plomo (lead, as in bullets) is favored by the narcos as a currency for coercion over plata (silver, as in cash corruption), it's difficult to believe that education will be much of a match for firepower.

Nor has it been. In general, police forces simply revert to their old ways once the soldiers leave. And as a result of the continued failure, many citizens and even security experts believe the war on organized crime is little more than a dog-and-pony show to keep Washington happy and the Merida Initiative money flowing.

Federal Police Chief Genaro García Luna recently said that he doesn't expect the levels of violence to diminish for another seven years -- in other words, by the end of the next presidential term. As honest as that assessment was, it will be difficult for the Mexican public to swallow if they don't see immediate results in policing and security.

While the mass graves and massacres that have hit the Mexican states of Durango and Tamaulipas in the past year are clearly acts of barbarity, atrocities like the one in Monterrey will resonate more with the Mexican people at large. Monterrey, after all, is Mexico's industrial hub, home to both the elite and a growing, hard-working middle class. It is considered the most North American city in the country, and prides itself on being more forward-looking and modern than the rest of the country. Yet the narcos are exerting more and more influence there, and disorganized freelancing thugs in the area are causing mayhem -- first, blockades on major highways for no apparent reason, and now the casino attack. Some Mexican pundits are saying, "If Monterrey falls, then Mexico does too."

At the end of the day, Calderón's actions will obviously define the last days of his leadership, but his choice of words now is still vital. Mexico may be an 11-year-old democracy, but its electorate is still somewhat accustomed to authoritarian rule and decisive, father-knows-best messages from its leaders (whether they are perceived to be right or wrong). Mixed messages simply add to the current state of anxiety. Mexico does not need more promises that the authorities will hunt down those responsible. The people need to hear that the authorities will prevent this from happening ever again and an explanation as to how they will achieve that -- and then they need to see the transformation with their own eyes.

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Nigeria's Terrorism Problem

Why the suicide bombing of the U.N. compound in Abuja isn't just a lone incident -- and why it could spark an ugly religious war in Africa's most populous country.

At mid-morning on Friday, Aug. 26, a car packed with explosives rammed through two gates at the United Nations compound in the capital of Nigeria, Abuja, before smashing into the building's main reception area and detonating. The suicide terrorist attack, the largest ever on a Western target in Nigeria, has claimed at least 18 lives and injured dozens.

By the afternoon, the Muslim rebel sect Boko Haram had claimed responsibility for the attack. In recent months, Boko Haram's operations have been expanding outward from its base in Maiduguri, a city in the country's northeast. Boko Haram, which comprises hundreds of members and appears to enjoy some measure of popular support in the northeast, aims to strengthen sharia law in Nigeria and overturn the rule of Western-educated elites. In a country with a history of polarization between the majority-Muslim north and the majority-Christian south, Boko Haram's message is a polarizing one at the national level and within the Muslim community; the movement has killed Muslim leaders who reject its use of violence. The movement draws recruits by capitalizing on the disappointment many northerners felt when the implementation of sharia in northern states from 1999 to 2001 failed to eliminate corruption, revitalize the northern economy, and address the north's feelings of political marginalization. Northern grievances were compounded by the reelection this April of President Goodluck Jonathan, a southern Christian who came to power after the death of northern Muslim President Umaru Yar'Adua. Some northerners argued that Jonathan should have stepped aside in favor of a northerner, and thereby held to an unofficial power-sharing agreement that rotates the presidency, every two terms, between north and south.

Boko Haram's tactics have changed over time. In 2003 and 2009, the movement launched mass uprisings against police in the northeast, but suffered hundreds of casualties when security forces put down the rebellions; during the 2009 uprising, their leader, Muhammad Yusuf, was killed in police custody, and the movement went underground for over a year. Reputedly now under the guidance of Abubakar Shekau, a lieutenant of Yusuf's, Boko Haram shifted to guerrilla and terrorist tactics in 2010. During the past year, it has conducted dozens of drive-by shootings, bombings, and small raids on police stations, banks, churches, and bars in the northeastern states of Bauchi, Adamawa, and Borno (of which Maiduguri is the capital). The United Nations reportedly received intelligence last month that it was a potential target for the sect, but the compound appears to have had only minimal security. The attack on the United Nations suggests that Boko Haram wanted to embarrass the Nigerian state in front of an international audience, signal to foreigners that they are now targets, and prove that the military's crackdown in the northeast has not weakened the movement.

Boko Haram increasingly seems to favor the use of suicide bombings. This June, the group carried out an apparent suicide car bombing at the police headquarters in Abuja, though later analysis from Nigerian police suggested the bomber may have intended to park the car and detonate it remotely. On Aug. 15, a suicide-bomb attempt failed at the police headquarters in Maiduguri. As journalist Geoffrey York writes, the bombing of the U.N. office fits into the broader pattern of Boko Haram's geographical expansion and increasing tactical sophistication.

Speculation has been increasing that this tactical sophistication indicates growing links between Boko Haram and outside terrorist groups, especially al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), one of whose largest attacks to date has been the double car bombing of the U.N. office in Algeria in December 2007. Some analysts see Boko Haram's use of large bombs as an indication that it is receiving training from AQIM, as well as encouragement to attack more ambitious national and international targets. As the New America Foundation's Andrew Lebovich points out, the presence of even a few individuals from AQIM could boost Boko Haram's prowess. Others see an even broader threat. During a visit to Abuja this month, the head of U.S. Africa Command, Gen. Carter Ham, stated that Boko Haram was increasingly coordinating activities with AQIM while pursuing a "loose" partnership with al-Shabab, southern Somalia's Muslim rebel movement. Ham warned that a pan-African terrorist alliance would vastly increase security threats to Africa and the United States. Hard evidence of sustained operational ties between Boko Haram and AQIM, however, has yet to become publicly available; AQIM's centers of operations in northeastern Algeria and the remote desert areas of northern Mauritania and Mali are far from northern Nigeria. It is also quite possible that the expertise in bomb attacks comes from within Nigeria, for example from former soldiers.

Regardless of whose expertise guided Friday's attack, the incident will increase pressure on Nigeria's federal government to stamp out the movement. The problem authorities in Abuja face, though, is that no single approach to confronting Boko Haram's expansion has yet gained broad political backing or attained major momentum. An ongoing military crackdown in Maiduguri, modeled after a military deployment in the Niger Delta that partly succeeded in reducing violence there, fulfills the desires of some elements in the security forces, as well as some southerners, for tough action. Yet the brutality of the crackdown has angered locals, prompting protests against security forces and possibly driving an increase in Boko Haram's recruitment. Prominent northern politicians and Muslim leaders have urged dialogue with Boko Haram's leadership and amnesty for its fighters, but the terrorist group has yet to accept the offer and some southern politicians feel the suggestion is naive.

Caught between these competing pressures, the federal government has moved cautiously, setting up a fact-finding panel whose report, likely to be controversial, has already been delayed. With criticism of the federal government mounting at home and abroad, and with President Jonathan taking hits for shying away from the spotlight after the attacks, Boko Haram may already be achieving part of its goal of weakening the Nigerian state's legitimacy.

The attack confirms that Boko Haram has entered a new phase, one in which its activities are a truly national problem. The effects, in a country of 150 million with a roughly even split between Muslims and Christians, could spread well beyond the zone of Boko Haram's activities. Since the bombing in June, fear of the movement has been increasing among southerners. Christian hard-liners have threatened retaliatory violence against northern Muslims who live in the south. Incidents of local Muslim-Christian violence, which occur cyclically in some parts of the country's Middle Belt (where the Muslim and Christian zones meet), could become a national interreligious conflict. Boko Haram's activities could also strain the state's capacity to respond to other problems, particularly if violence and political unrest flare up in the Niger Delta once more.

Friday's tragedy in Abuja will also affect Nigeria's relationship with the international community. Foreign investors, many of whom have already been nervously watching Boko Haram's expansion, could begin to reduce their presence in Nigeria. International organizations will face heightened security challenges and could curtail operations in the north by UNICEF and the U.N. Development Program, both of whose offices were housed in the Abuja compound. Pressure from abroad will mount on Jonathan to "solve" the problem, and further militarization could prove the easiest path to follow. All these developments could mean a less secure, prosperous, and cohesive Nigeria -- an outcome that could, sadly, give even more momentum to Boko Haram.

Henry Chukwuedo/AFP/Getty Images