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Mexico hails drug lord Coronel's death but democracy remains at risk

The killing of one of Mexico's most wanted drug cartel leaders last week is being heralded as one of the most significant victories in the on-going war against increasingly violent and militarized narcotics gangs.

Mexican drug cartel leader Ignacio Coronel Villareal, aka Nacho Coronel.

Coronel's death may actually cause more violence not end it

Ignacio "Nacho" Coronel Villareal, one of the leaders of the Sinaloa cartel which is run by Joachim Guzman - Mexico's most wanted criminal, was killed in a shootout when troops raided his house in Guadalajara on July 30 in an operation which also led to the arrest of one of his top lieutenants, Iran Francisco Quinonez Gastelum.

Government officials have hailed the killing as the most spectacular blow against drug traffickers yet for Mexican President Felipe Calderon, who has been struggling to make an impact on the Sinaloa cartel's methamphetamine traffic to North America and Europe or stem the violence which has claimed around 5,000 lives already this year.

But while Coronel's death removes one of Mexico's drug kingpins from the picture and provides Calderon with some welcome breathing space, some experts remain cautious.

The lucrative nature of the drug business means that when one leader is removed, there are always many other traffickers ready to take their place so Coronel's death maybe nothing more than symbolic in the on-going battle against the cartels. Also, the arrest or killing of top bosses in the past have led to increased violence, sometimes through retribution, other times through rival gangs taking advantage of the power vacuum.

There are fears that Guadalajara, which has been spared the bloodshed suffered by other cities around Mexico, may now be more vulnerable to cartel violence and turf wars. This was the case when the military killed another prominent figure, Arturo Beltran Leyva, in December. His death set off gunfights in the previously more stable city of Acapulco.

The death of one cartel leader, however prominent, is unlikely to make a huge difference in a war which is threatening the very structure of Mexico. Despite the government's efforts to fight the cartels, violence is on the rise. The country is not a failed state yet but the drug trade poses a serious threat to Mexico's democratic institutions.

Democratic institutions at risk

A Mexican Navy sailor stands guard as seized drug is burned in the port town of Progreso, Mexico, Thursday, June 25, 2009.

The four-year long war has claimed thousands of lives

Just days before recent regional elections, the leading candidate for governor in a Mexican border state was assassinated by gunmen. The murder of a high-level politician rocked a country in which violent crime and drug wars have become a fact of life. According to estimates, 25,000 people have been killed in connection with the drug trade since President Felipe Calderon launched his war against Mexico's drug gangs four years ago.

"The murder of a local mayor doesn't necessarily make it on the front page of the newspapers anymore, it must be someone more prominent these days," Frank Priess told Deutsche Welle, putting the recent assassination in a larger context.

Priess has been heading the Mexico City branch of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, which is connected to Germany's Christian Democratic Party, since 2006.

In a study, the US Defense Department had already warned back in early 2009 that Mexico due to its drug crimes could become a failed state. That discussion has been revived in US media after the recent spate of violence in Mexico.

But experts interviewed by Deutsche Welle, don't consider Mexico a failed state or even a failing state yet, despite an increasing level of violence and grim statistics.

Government still controls most of Mexico

Mexican army soldiers pass near a clandestine methamphetamine laboratory in Tamazula, Mexico, during an operation Monday, Aug 10, 2009.

Mexico's military is fighting cartels all over the country

The question whether Mexico, which seems incapable over a extended period of time to defeat an identifiable armed opponent that is targeting the state, its security apparatus, parts of the population and its rivals, is a failed state, is legitimate, says Thomas Fischer, director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the Catholic University in Eichstaett:

"But on the other hand it is a fact that despite the violence, the most important institutions in Mexico - which handle its economic, monetary and financial policies, but also its infrastructure and its social systems - are working."

His colleague Priess offers another reason: "There are areas which the government obviously doesn't control any longer. But this is definitely not the case for all of Mexico and also not for the majority of the country."

Still, Mexico, the 12th-largest economy in the world according to purchasing power-adjusted GDP is in dire straits. And the experts see no easy way out for the nation that is not only a vital member of the North American free trade zone NAFTA, but also has a free trade agreement with the European Union.

"I don't think one can expect that anything will change in the near term," says Priess.

Drug cartels influence political life

A cross demands justice for the victims of violence

The rampant violence has changed Mexican society

He is deeply concerned about the mounting political influence of organised crime in certain Mexican states. By targeting and killing undesirable politicians, the drug cartels have sent the clear message that no politician or official can feel safe, adds Priess. That has had the chilling effect that in some communities it has been difficult to find candidates for political office.

"And that is obviously a very direct influence by drug cartels and organised crime on the political life in Mexico that simply can't be underestimated," says Priess.

What makes combating the drug cartels so difficult is the fact that the rampant drug trade is only part of a larger problem for Mexico. The country which was ruled for 70 years by the Institutional Revolutionary Party still lacks a mature civil society, argue the experts.

"When one looks at Mexico's history, political assassinations have never been just a few rare events, but rather common," says Fischer who adds that the same holds true for corruption which also has a long tradition in Mexico.

While a tradition of assassinations and corruption is problematic in and of itself, combined with the drug trade it produces a lethal mix for Mexican society.

Poison for democracy

"The narcotraffico, with all that it implies - arms trade, extortion, corruption, money laundering - and especially the disregard for social norms represent an enormous threat for democracy and most importantly for the basic values which are the foundation of a democracy," says Fischer. "That is poison for a country which has been governed for 70 years by a de-facto one party regime."

Both experts agree that the military solution to the drug trade, that Mexico's president after prodding and with the help of the US has launched, won't be effective.

Instead of short-sighted military options, Mexico with its decentralised political structure must undertake far-reaching administrative and social reforms, argue the experts.

Soldiers guard a suspect next to packages containing 15, 445 kilograms of marijuana seized in a truck

The military seize huge amounts of drugs, but still only a fraction of the overall drug trade

"Mexico has almost 2,000 independently organized police units," says Priess. "Every community is responsible how it hires, trains, pays its police and how they communicate with other police units and citizens. That is incredibly inefficient."

What's more, note the experts, the Mexican government, in order to win back the trust of its citizens, has to rebuild its justice, security and political apparatus which has been undermined und infiltrated by organised crime.

And finally, the country must improve its education and social systems, so young people have an alternative to joining the ranks of the drug cartels.

"Unfortunately, there is no masterplan," says Priess.

But if Mexico doesn't begin to tackle the problems soon, it could become a narco state like Colombia was. Only much bigger and with its 3,000 kilometer-long (1,860-mile) border with the United States.

Author: Michael Knigge
Editor: Rob Mudge

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