By Derek Schlickeisen
For a salary of $600 a week, Santiago Meza López made “stew” for the Tijuana Cartel, the notoriously violent drug trafficking organization that for many years controlled the vital US-Mexico border crossing at Tijuana. The ingredients of his stew: more than 300 corpses of the cartel’s rivals, which he dissolved in empty oil barrels using sodium hydroxide.
Stories like this one, which emerged after the arrest of López in 2009, have become increasingly common since the 2006 declaration of full-blown war against Mexico’s drug traffickers by then-President Felipe Calderón in a fight that has since claimed an estimated 80,000 lives.
The violence has continued unabated under the presidency of Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-present), who has maintained his predecessor’s strategy of targeting top cartel leaders, most notably the 22 February 2014 capture of Sinaloa Cartel boss Joaquín “El Chapo Guzmán. While this “leadership decapitation” strategy, carried out by Mexico’s military and federal police, has been the hallmark of government policy throughout the drug war, it goes against evidence suggesting that the removal of cartel bosses simply leads to the violent splitting of their organizations into smaller, competing factions. Moreover, with a shocking 2% criminal conviction rate, Mexico’s appallingly incompetent and corrupt criminal justice system has hampered the country’s legal response.
Yet for all of the shortcomings of Mexico’s counternarcotics strategy, its leaders are also struggling against two key problems that come from north of the Rio Grande: the US’s meager investments in drug treatment programs to reduce demand, and its political unwillingness to rein in the sale of firearms that are purchased in the US and then smuggled into Mexico. Simply put, it is US dollars and US guns that are fueling the orgy of drug violence south of the border.