The arrest of drug lord Edgar "La Barbie" Valdez Villarreal in Mexico last week illustrates the good, the bad and the conundrum of President Felipe Calderon's war on cartels. Valdez was the third kingpin taken out of commission in less than a year and the first to be captured alive, offering an opportunity for intelligence-gathering on the multibillion-dollar drug smuggling business. Generally speaking, getting rid of crime bosses is good. It wreaks havoc on organizations that otherwise would be wholly focused on consolidating their formidable power; Valdez was nabbed in the midst of a bloody battle to succeed Arturo Beltran Leyva, who was killed by Mexican troops in December. Yet removing leaders also can be an endless game of whack-a-mole. It doesn't put the cartels out of business, and the ensuing turf violence can undermine public support for the drug war.
Calderon has been unable to forge a national consensus around the drug war. Mexicans tell pollsters they are unhappy with the security situation in their country, but they are not optimistic that the assault on traffickers will succeed. Soldiers, police, prosecutors, politicians and journalists routinely are killed by traffickers, yet Mexico's political classes do not seem to regard this as a strategic threat to the Mexican state. Calderon tried to bolster public support for the drug war with a national "dialogue" last month, to no avail. Critics said he was selling his strategy, not listening or consulting; opposition parties largely boycotted it, more preoccupied with partisan politics than with forging a unified response to a national crisis. The media, meanwhile, have accused Calderon of manipulating Valdez's arrest to bolster his own popularity, timing the announcement to coincide with his annual state-of-the nation address.
Mexican authorities have trotted out Valdez, handcuffed and smiling, to the media, prompting speculation that he would be handed over to the United States, where he is a citizen and might be allowed to cut a deal for informing on others. Valdez already has told investigators that leaders of the major cartels met in 2007 to divide up distribution routes, but that Joaquin "Chapo" Guzman, head of the Sinaloa cartel, broke the pact, setting off a war among the cartels that has claimed many of the 28,000 lives lost to drug violence in the last four years. In video of an interrogation in police custody, Valdez speaks of having received trailers full of cash from north of the border. Which gets to one of the weaknesses of the drug war: In his annual address, Calderon said authorities had confiscated $72 million in U.S. banknotes and $9 million in Mexican pesos in the previous year — a drop in the bucket in a business that by some estimates earns $39 billion a year. Besides nabbing crime bosses, U.S. and Mexican officials need to find the money. And Calderon must unify his country around a long-term strategy for fighting drug trafficking.