You hardly need to read deep into the news reports about Manssor Arbabsiar to realize what a bumbler the man was. He was attempting, you remember, to enlist a Mexican narco in an Iranian plot to kill the Saudi ambassador to the United States—and all he needed for that plot was a complete misunderstanding of how the drug traffickers of Mexico operate.
If nothing else, Arbabsiar seems not to have realized that his reported offer of $1.5 million for the assassination would not have impressed Mexican drug gangs as a lot of money. But perhaps the thing he most failed to grasp was the chilling prudence these criminals display as they trample Mexican civil society. As they have repeatedly demonstrated since the 1990s, the drug cartels understand their situation in Mexico with nearly perfect clarity. They know when to be brazen, and they know when to lie low. And assassinating a Saudi Arabian ambassador for pay was not on the list.
Arbabsiar is hardly alone in underestimating the cartels. Even while news emerges of the bizarre Fast and Furious program through which U.S. law enforcement allowed guns to walk out of Arizona gun shops and into Mexico, the American public still has not grasped the depths to which Mexico has fallen.
Los Zetas, the Gulf Cartel, the Sinaloa Cartel, and the rest have inflicted a depressing array of indignities on their victims. They have turned Mexico into the kidnapping capital of the world. If young people dare to use social media to speak out against them, the drug gangs will come for them, disembowel them, and hang their remains from a bridge. Narcos operating in Acapulco recently ordered the city's schoolteachers to hand over their teaching bonuses. The entire police force of the town of General Terán, in the northern state of Nuevo Leon, resigned early this year when drug gangs beheaded two of their colleagues.
All that is the brazen part of the drug traffickers' work. Most of their crimes, however, happen south of the Mexican border—and that is the prudent part of their murderous reign. When moving cocaine, heroin, and other drugs inside the United States, they hire American street gangs "precisely because they respect the FBI and the U.S. justice system," drug-trade expert Samuel Logan told InsightCrime, a site that reports on Latin America. "If it's true that Los Zetas agreed to target a foreign national on U.S. soil, with a bomb no less, this group is either more stupid or more desperate than we thought."
Unfortunately, these groups are not stupid or desperate. Mexican President Felipe Calderón has sent Mexico's army against the drug cartels, supplied with Blackhawk helicopters and other advanced American aircraft (in a program known as the Merida Initiative, begun under President Bush and continued under President Obama). While Calderón himself is not popular, his use of the army against the narcos polls well among Mexicans, with a plurality recently agreeing that the campaign is making headway.
It is not clear, however, that the campaign actually is doing enough good to force the cartels to make mistakes. There are no Latin Americans more haughty or thin-skinned than Mexican elites, and their strange combination of pride and defensiveness has led U.S. officials to confine themselves to security-assistance measures such as loaning aircraft. In particular, what seems off the table—the unmentioned and unused tool in these Latin American struggles—is the threat of extradition to the United States.
In previous decades, such figures as Panama's head of state Manuel Noriega and Colombia's cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar were indicted in U.S. courts. The leverage that the Colombian government had, however—the threat of sending "the Extraditables" to the United States for prosecution—the Mexican government consistently refuses to use. Colombia possessed a bargaining chip with Pablo Escobar and employed it, dropping extradition efforts in exchange for an end to his bombings, abductions, and assassinations of Colombian presidential candidates. (To be sure, it was a fragile truce: After Escobar surrendered, he escaped from his not-very-secure Medellín jail to kill still more people before being shot to death in a police ambush in 1993. Nonetheless, his surrender marked a milestone on the road to ending the narcos' sway in that country.)
Another thing Mexicans have never had is an intellectual class able to set aside left-wing sympathy for outlaws, even outlaws as savage as the narcos. A public-relations campaign that began earlier this year, No Más Sangre ("No More Blood"), seemed humanitarian and commonsensical at first. Its creator was an editorial cartoonist known as Rius, one of the most respected journalists in the country. But it turned out that he and others were interested only in generating cartoons and posters depicting undue force by federal authorities—leaving out those who caused the war. As the campaign's spokesmen, cartoonist Antonio Helguera, put it: "We never direct our criticisms against [the victims]—not even in the cases in which the victims were probably criminals—because, in the end, they're dead. It's just something you don't do."
One Mexican writer, Javier Sicilia, joined the No Más Sangre campaign for the saddest of reasons: His son had been murdered, along with six of his friends, and suspects in the killings include the Gulf Cartel and a rival drug gang, the Beltran Leyvas. Nonetheless, Sicilia has lobbied President Calderón to pull back the army, arguing that its aggressive tactics are doing more harm than good.
And the response from the drug cartels? The drug traffickers routinely issue proclamations on public banners called narcomantas, and a banner about No Más Sangre was displayed in the city of Cuernavaca this May. Posted by the Beltran Leyva organization, it read, "Javier Sicilia can count on our support."
The support, in other words, of those who probably murdered his son. It is their brazen boast, in their prudent and accurate judgment of where they stand and what they can get away with. Since the Sinaloa Cartel began its invasion of Ciudad Juarez in Chihuahua in 2008, the city has suffered 7,000 dead, 250,000 displaced, 25,000 homes vacated, perhaps 10,000 businesses closed, and 130,000 jobs lost. And that is all in a single city.
Until the United States understands that Mexico is not capable of solving the drug problem—and until the Mexicans understand they need such American help as strong extradition—the drug war will go on, and Mexico will continue on its way toward civil collapse.
Joseph Bottum is a contributing editor to the Weekly Standard and the author of The Second Spring: Words into Music, Music into Words. Lauren Weiner contributed material for this report.