May 12, 2010 5:05PM

Who Is Fighting (Or Helping) Whom In Mexico’s Drug Wars?

Are Mexican authorities fighting an all out war against drug cartels or simply helping one drug organization win the battle against other criminal gangs for the most lucrative trafficking route to the United States? Street banners alongside Mexico’s highways—put up by rival drug gangs—have long suggested that the administration of Felipe Calderon is in bed with the Sinaloa cartel, that country’s most powerful drug organization. As The Economist reported earlier this year, the Mexican government’s efforts against drug trafficking have been fairly one‐​sided:

“The Sinaloa organisation (named after a north‐​western state) is responsible for around 45% of the drug trade in Mexico, reckons Edgardo Buscaglia, a lawyer and economist at ITAM, a Mexico City university. But using statistics from the security forces, he calculates that only 941 of the 53,174 people arrested for organised crime in the past six years were associated with Sinaloa.”

Leaked documents obtained and reported on Monday by Reforma newspaper suggest that drug corruption reaches the top levels of law‐​enforcement in that country, adding to the suspicion that the Mexican authorities have indeed sided with (some) drug lords. The documents apparently also show the police sharing DEA intelligence with its drug clients, a troubling development when Mexico is asking for more U.S. cooperation in its fight against some drug cartels.

Surveys indicate that the Mexican people still support the Calderon administration in its drug war. However, patience is running out, especially as the number of innocents killed in the violence soars. The tourism industry is also taking its toll, as shootings become commonplace in resorts such as Acapulco and Cancun, driving away visitors. If Mexicans perceive that all this blood and treasure have been paid just to help one criminal gang over the other ones, support for Calderon’s war will rapidly wane.

Also, these allegations present a conundrum for president Obama, who happens to host Felipe Calderon on Monday for a state dinner at the White House. The administration has been pressed by the Mexican government to substantially increase the level of assistance in the fight against cartels. However, if it becomes clear that high‐​ranking Mexican law enforcement officials are in bed with one or more criminal organizations (not the first time that something like this has happened) and that U.S. intelligence has ended up in the hands of drug lords, there will be growing resistance within the U.S. government to further aid Mexico. This in turn, will only exacerbate the tension between both governments.

“Plata o plomo” (which literally means “silver or lead” and refers to how officials are either corrupted or killed by drug lords) has long been a common feature of the drug war in Latin America. It is not surprising that multi‐​billion dollar cartels corrupt the officials who are supposed to fight them. What is surprising is some people in Washington still believe that this is a winnable war.