Social Interventions Needed to Reduce Drug War Violence

By Laura L. Acosta

UTEP News Service

The problem with Mexico’s drug cartels will not be solved without social fabric interventions, said Ricardo C. Ainslie, a professor in the Department of Educational Psychology at The University of Texas at Austin.

Ainslie was the first speaker of UTEP’s Fall Centennial Lecture Series on Oct. 22, which marked day 71 of the University’s countdown to the beginning of its centennial year.Ricardo C. Ainslie talks about, “Lessons from Juárez and the Future of Mexico’s Drug War,” during UTEP’s first Centennial Lecture of the fall semester on Oct. 22. Photo by Ivan Pierre Aguirre / UTEP News ServiceRicardo C. Ainslie talks about, “Lessons from Juárez and the Future of Mexico’s Drug War,” during UTEP’s first Centennial Lecture of the fall semester on Oct. 22. Photo by Ivan Pierre Aguirre / UTEP News Service

Room 116 in the Undergraduate Learning Center was filled to capacity with members from the UTEP and local communities eager to hear the award-winning author, filmmaker and psychologist talk about the lessons that were learned from the drug violence that ravaged Juárez, Mexico for six years. He also discussed the future of Mexico’s drug war.

“Mexico must recognize that its organized (crime) problem is tied to broader social issues, including economic disparities, dysfunctional institutions and (varying) levels of culture,” said Ainslie, whose most recent book is The Fight to Save Juárez: Life in the Heart of Mexico’s Drug War.

He also said that to attack organized crime in the community, people need the mechanisms and institutions to help them address these issues.

UTEP President Diana Natalicio described Ainslie as a prolific author, photographer and documentarian.

“He has positioned himself at the intersection of psychology and culture, and his current interests are in the psychological experience of immigration and ethnic conflicts within communities,” President Natalicio said.

Ainslie traced the roots of the drug war to the election of Mexican President Felipe Calderon in 2006, which ushered in an era of violence in Juárez that claimed the lives of 11,000 people in six years.

Audience members cringed when Ainslie mentioned that the number of people killed in the world’s deadliest city exceeded the combined total number of American causalities from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.    

“That’s in two countries over 10 years of war,” Ainslie said. “This is in a single Mexican city. That really tells you something about the dimensions of the violence and the tragedy that occurred in this community.”

Juárez had become the epicenter of violence, Ainslie said. The average victims were males between 15 and 25 years old and execution sites became common places for photojournalists and grieving families to gather.

Ainslie said the city’s recovery began with the project Todos Somos Juárez (We Are All Juárez), which was launched in 2010, a couple of months after the Villas de Salvarcar Massacre on Jan. 31 that year.   

After 15 teenagers at a party were killed by gunmen in the neighborhood of Villas de Salvarcar, the Mexican Government, USAID and Inter-American Development Bank set aside $240 million to mobilize the social fabric intervention program, to fund school construction, after-school programs, sports leagues and other activities.

While some people argue that the drop in violence was the result of the Sinaloa cartel defeating the Juárez cartel, Ainslie credits Todos Somos Juárez with improving the quality of life in the city.

Since the program launched, violence in Juárez has decreased, tax revenues have gone up and the real estate market is making a comeback.

Maria Talamantes, a Ph.D. student in the Teaching, Learning and Culture program in the College of Education, said Ainslie’s presentation hit on several important points about how the community needs to work together to bring about positive change.

“I think that’s a very important point because not all people are bad,” Talamantes said. “There are good people and when society tries to do something good instead of giving up, that’s when we can make a difference.”

Ainslie said that even though Juárez has turned a corner, the drug war is still raging in Mexico, particularly in the state of Michoacán.

“The violence has gone other places,” Ainslie said. “Michoacán is also a state in the country where there is a lot of violence, a lot of chaos, a lot of loss.”

Ainslie warned that Michoacán could become a model for a different kind of organized crime activity, which involves extortions and kidnappings as a way to increase money sources.

Michoacán also has three cartels battling for territory, including the Zetas, Knights Templar and La Familia, a different kind of criminal organization that is actively involved in the drug trade but also has a political agenda and wants to be seen as the protector of the people.

Mexico’s drug war strategy also has changed under President Enrique Peña Nieto.

“There was speculation that President Peña Nieto might negotiate with the cartel once he took office and also that he would reduce his cooperation with American law enforcement and intelligence,” Ainslie said.

As a final thought, Ainslie said that Mexico cannot fight the drug war alone and the United States has to take on some of the responsibility. 

“We have to realize that our strategies today have not yielded a meaningful result,” Ainslie said, referring to the U.S. war on drugs. “As part of that, we have to realize that we are a direct contributor to the violence in Mexico.”

UTEP’s Centennial Lecture Series invites noteworthy speakers to the campus to share their perspectives on a broad range of contemporary issues that are likely to impact our society, culture and lives in the years ahead.

Shannon O’Neil, a senior fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), will present the next Centennial Lecture on Nov. 19.