Since Mexico's crackdown on organized crime was launched in December 2006, it has become popular to compare the fight with Colombia's own drug war between the 1980s and early 2000s. But the comparisons are both risky and wrong.
Consider the circumstances in which these two wars started. Colombia in the 1980s was already in the midst of a violent conflict. Two guerrilla groups, the FARC and the ELN, comprised thousands of trained fighters. These guerrillas were driven by a Marxist ideology, and had ambitions to take over the state -- or at the very least create their own independent territories within Colombia.
The cocaine trade that centered on Medellin, home of the notorious Pablo Escobar, was not the dominant security concern for Colombia at the time. To be sure, Escobar and his cronies had sparked a wave of urban violence, but the Colombian state was largely occupied with pushing back the growing guerrilla movements, and not a rise in homicides (largely among the urban poor) in Medellin. In fact, Medellin wasn't even a priority for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
According to some DEA agents, Escobar wasn't yet on the radar, even though he had been trafficking cocaine for over a decade. A spate of killings in Miami in the late 1980s, according to former DEA Special Agent Javier Peña, suddenly brought Escobar to the foreground. The DEA learned that almost all the cocaine being seized in New York and Miami could be traced back to one person. "His name was always coming up as being the boss," Peña recalled in 2008. "So we started asking, 'Who is this guy? [Who is] Pablo Escobar?'"
When the DEA finally got a good bead on Escobar, the pressure on the Colombian government began. And so did Escobar's own efforts to challenge the state.
When President Felipe Calderon launched this phase of the Mexican drug war in December 2006, he, too, was reacting to intelligence gathered about a new player on the drug scene -- the Familia Michoacana, whose members had rolled five heads onto a dance floor in Uruapan, Michoacan, and was apparently now in control of the methamphetamine industry in Calderon's home state of Michoacan.
But the Mexican authorities and their DEA counterparts were hardly unaware of the main players in the Mexican drug trade. They had already captured or killed dozens of high-level lieutenants during the previous administration of Vicente Fox (who, incidentally, had also deployed the army with far more force than any of his predecessors in the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI); they were monitoring the growth of the Sinaloa cartel as the Gulf, Juarez and Tijuana Cartels took hits from both law enforcement and rivals. They knew about the Familia, although they had not predicted its rapid growth and ambition, or its bloodlust.
So, the Mexican authorities and DEA have not been playing a reactionary game like their counterparts in Colombia did. At the height of his reign, Escobar pushed every conceivable limit. He tried to run for Congress. He vowed to kill officials who openly opposed him. Escobar tried to assassinate a presidential candidate who challenged him and his drug trade. (He failed, as Cesar Gaviria Trujillo didn't get on the Avianca plane to Cali that he ordered to be bombed. But all 107 passengers on board died.)
Another long-time vocal opponent, journalist-cum-presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galan, was assassinated later in 1989. Immediately, everyone pointed the finger at Escobar.
According to DEA agents on the ground in Bogota and Medellin at the time, then-President Virgilio Barco called the U.S. Embassy shortly after hearing the news of Galan's death. "I've just authorized extradition on my own decree," he reputedly said. "I am bypassing Congress. I want to start extraditing everybody as soon as we can."
Many of the Mexican capos have learned from Escobar's over-exposure and unrelenting ambition. Each Mexican organization's leader has had his quirks, his own penchant for the spotlight -- but thanks to the tutelage of Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, the so-called Godfather who in 1989 delegated Mexico's various drug plazas, the cartel leaders in Mexico have historically kept their ambitions in check. Prior to 2006, they rarely, if ever, provoked the state.
The Arellano Felix brothers were notorious for their bloodlust and random violence. "They would be out drinking at a bar or eating at a restaurant, for instance, and Ramon Arellano Felix would suddenly ‘have the urge to kill," recalls former DEA Special Agent Errol Chavez, who was based in San Diego in the late 90s, the Arellano Felix brothers' heyday. "So they would just drive off down the road -- and kill somebody."
But they rarely challenged the authorities directly, preferring instead to co-exist with a corrupt political system.
Amado Carrillo Fuentes, the so-called "Lord of the Skies" in Ciudad Juarez, was famous for his lavish parties -- but equally well-known for his diplomacy, particularly when it came to rival cartels and the authorities. His one similarity to Escobar was that he reputedly sought to strike an immunity deal with the authorities, but was turned down.
Carrillo Fuentes rarely challenged the authorities directly, preferring instead to co-exist with a corrupt political system.
Osiel Cardenas Guillen, the leader of the Gulf Cartel, was perhaps the most brazen of the Mexican capos, threatening a DEA and FBI agent in Matamoros, when they went to meet a source in the late 90s. He and his men surrounded the agents, and Cardenas Guillen warned them off: "You fucking gringos. This is my town, so get the fuck out of here before I kill you."
Compared to Escobar's threats, Cardenas Guillen's words were nothing. Yet the DEA vowed to hunt him down, sparing few resources. DEA agents vividly remembered the death of agent Enrique "Kiki" Camarena at the hands of a group of old-school Mexican capos in 1985. They caught Cardenas Guillen in 2003 -- he was later extradited to the United States and is now serving a 25-year sentence.
Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada and Juan Jose Esparragoza Moreno, "El Azul," would not be drawn into such traps. They laid low in the northwestern state of Sinaloa and in Sonora further to the north, so far below the radar that it took several years to learn that Guzman was actually running the show. They learned from Escobar's mistakes. They grew into the most powerful drug trafficking organization on the planet, thanks in part to their reliance on corruption and good business sense (delegation over micromanagement, franchising of operations and, effectively, the encouragement of free enterprise under the umbrella of their organization) rather than pure greed and megalomania. Guzman has done so well in failing to provoke the authorities' wrath that many experts and journalists in Mexico believe the federal government is actually protecting him and his operation.
Read the second part of this article.
Malcolm Beith is a freelance journalist and author of a book on Mexico's drug war, "The Last Narco." He has written about the drug war for Newsweek, Slate.com, Jane's Intelligence Weekly, Foreign Policy magazine and other publications. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org