Mexico is a fragile state, and without action, faces the risk of becoming a failing, or worse, a failed state. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development defines a fragile state as one that is “unable or unwilling to perform the functions necessary for poverty reduction, the promotion of development, protection of the population and the observance of human rights.” In 2009, U.S. Joint Forces Command released a statement expressing concerns over Mexico, highlighting the potential even then for a total collapse. At the time, then-President Felipe Calderón responded to the report, stating it was entirely false; allegedly, he even wanted President Obama to release a statement to that effect.
In August 2018, the State Department released a do-not-travel warning for five of the thirty-two Mexican states. Many other states are still considered dangerous, and the U.S. State Department has advised American tourists caution if not total reconsideration. The warning indicates a lack of stability and control on the government’s part in the region. The Mexican government is in a prolonged state of civil war with various cartels, and the state is losing. Rampant corruption from the local to federal level breaks down the fundamental principal-agent relationship between the government and its population, encouraging locals to turn to militias for protection. The militias are, in part, a result of widespread corruption as well as the Mexican military’s deterioration. Mexico’s military faces large numbers of desertions, while measures to provide security for its population continue to fail. The United States should continue to treat Mexico as a welcome economic partner but accept that Mexico is a fragile state, and thus a serious security risk.
The drug war in Mexico is escalating, and it is creating a spillover effect in the United States. In the United States, the majority of the concern from the Mexican drug war focuses on its impact on the opioid epidemic, a growing topic in both countries. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the total economic burden for opioid misuse, often leading to heroin abuse, is $78.5 billion a year. CNN reported that from 2002 to 2016 the number of heroin users increased from 404,000 to 948,000, a 135% increase. The opioid epidemic is part of the drug war in Mexico, where violence spills over. Demand in the United States for narcotics profit drug trafficking organizations and money is then laundered back to the cartels who use these funds to purchase weapons in order to take more territory or assert control in Mexico.
The spillover effect is hurting both the United States and Mexico. Assistant Secretary Brownfield, representing the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, noted in a 2017 teleconference that an estimate of 90-94% of all “heroin consumed in the U.S. comes from Mexico.” While 90% of cocaine samples seized in the U.S. in 2015 originated from Columbia, the cartels smuggle them through Mexico to the U.S. While drugs flow into the U.S. from Mexico, illegal arms are trafficked back into Mexico, fueling the violence. A 2009 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office noted that approximately 87% of firearms seized in Mexico over the past five years could be traced back to the United States. Stratfor disputes this claim, arguing the number of weapons in the figure were those submitted by Mexican authorities to the ATF and successfully traced. The figure did not include the total number of weapons seized. Even if Stratfor’s claim is true and the actual percentage is less than 12%, it is still a concerning number, indicating American arms and associated illegal arms trafficking contribute to the violence and corruption in Mexico.
Corruption in Mexico affects public services and industry, negatively impacting the economic well-being of its citizens. A 2016 World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Report noted bribery and corruption could increase business costs in Mexico by 10%. Even tax administration is affected, and a 2014 Reuter’s report states that Mexico has one of the weakest tax revenues in the 34-nation Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. According to the report, “Crime, corruption and tax evasion drained $462 billion from Mexico’s economy in 2011, trailing only China and Russia.” Corrupted tax revenue creates a cyclical effect where the government cannot afford to pay for necessary services or even its military. Corruption increases the cost for basic necessities and thus further incentivizing farmers and other vulnerable populations to support the narco-economy.
Kleptocracy creates an environment that economically incentivizes farmers to support illegal economies and allows these farmers to fall victim to the cartels. A December 2018 New York Times article covering the trial of Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán’s trial discussed various testimonies in the courtroom that highlighted Mexican corruption at very high levels of office. Mr. Guzman’s testimony supported other reports of widespread corruption throughout Mexico’s government at both state and federal levels. Rural farmers fall victim to cartels, because the Mexican government cannot protect them. Stuart Ramsay, a correspondent for Sky News, traveled to Mexico to report on Mexico’s continuing drug war. Many of the interviewed farmers admitted that economic incentives to support a narco-economy, in conjunction with death threats, overruled legal crop farming. Krishnan Guru-Murthy, a British journalist for Channel 4 News, traveled to Cancun to discuss the current state of Mexico’s drug war. Part of his report showcased the cartel’s ability to murder with near impunity farmers who resisted. The inability of the police to combat this form of terror explains why farmers tend not to resist. Farmers who do resist, typically through an ad hoc militia, add further chaos into an already unstable situation.
Max Weber theorized on the state’s monopoly on legitimate violence as a fundamental tenet of the modern state, and militias challenge this legitimacy—they degrade the state’s ability to maintain order, and they disrupt the basis of a social contract between the state and its society. These militias are a symbol in that they challenge the state as the sole entity with the monopoly on the legitimate use of force. The rise of militias and Mexico’s inability to make gains in securing territory against the cartels suggest the Mexican government is no longer in control over parts of its country. One might consider the growth of local militias within Mexico’s rural areas as a way forward, but they are dangerous and indicate the Mexican government cannot defend its citizens. Mexican militias operate outside of the law, and many create their own rules on how to protect their towns. While some militias work with their communities and achieve some level of peace, others act with more questionable methods. In a 2016 Al Jazeera report, journalists recorded militias who patrolled towns and even stopped Mexican police at gunpoint. The police did not resist as they were ordered to present documentation, weapon serial numbers, and a reason for movement. The power dynamic changed. Along with the militias, the Mexican government is struggling to sustain its armed forces.
One of the reasons Mexico cannot gain ground over the cartels is because its military is deteriorating through ineffective leadership. The first indicator of the military’s breakdown is the deterioration of discipline where there is a growing number of unlawful killings and human rights violations. Human Rights Watch reported that by 2016, the National Human Rights Commission received almost 10,000 complaints, and more than a 100 cases were considered as “serious human rights violations.” Of those abuses investigated from 2012 to 2016, only 3.2% reached a conviction. Instead of cracking down on these abuses, President Nieto expanded military participation in policing. As the drug war continues, and the federal government does not crack down on the human rights violations, the Mexican military will further deteriorate. The Mexican military leadership’s lack of control over the behavior of their forces indicates an erosion in the chain of command and the respect for their Code of Military Justice, and it suggests further corruption.
Mexican cartels provide financial incentives for members of Mexico’s armed forces to defect, a symptom of the Mexican military's weak state. A 2008 USA Today article noted that from January to September 2007 4,956 soldiers deserted, approximately 2.5% of the force. Fox News reported that by 2012 over 56,000 soldiers deserted. As of 2016, the total approximate number of deserters is around 150,000. PBS interviewed local reporters in Cancun and a former police officer, learning the cartels would offer payments of $26,000 compared to the soldier’s $600 salary. Also, these underpaid officers were poorly trained and equipped, some to a point where an officer carried only six rounds of ammunition. The article also reported the cartels were waging a propaganda war against the military. They posted ads and offered better pay than the army. The cartels successfully recruit from the military, specifically even finding recruits from Mexican special forces communities. Many of these deserters end up working for the cartels as trained hitmen who comprehend Mexican military tactics. These trained ex-soldiers understand how to circumvent Mexican patrols, and have a basic understanding of how to effectively engage conventional military forces.
The gradual comprehensive collapse of order in Mexico is unlikely to reverse even with the recent election of Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Obrador’s counter-cartel policy platform of amnesty, as well as his aspirations for a military reformation, will only embolden the cartels. However, as he just took office, it is important to wait and see what he and his cabinet will pursue and the effectiveness of their policies.
Obrador’s amnesty proposal, a way to attack cartel funding and offer a peaceful alternative for certain low ranking and non-violent cartel members, is idealistic but naive. Vanda Felbab-Brown is a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of Narco Noir: Mexico’s Cartels, Cops, and Corruption. She discussed Obrador’s platform in a 2018 Foreign Affairs article, critiquing Obrador and specifically focusing on the problematic reality of Mexico’s lack of ability to adequately fund its programs, much less its military. For example, she highlights President Nieto’s Social Prevention of Violence and Delinquency program, with its limited success. Unfortunately, that success was not expanded, as the program’s funding ran out by 2016. Brown discusses targeting mid-level cartel leadership instead of the top leaders as a means of preventing violent successions of their rule. Her suggestion targets Obrador’s platform of amnesty for non-violent cartel members.
This paper suggests that the problem with both policy proposals is that they neither adequately address nor combat the rampant established corrupt culture. Poor farmers are unlikely to follow Obrador’s deal as the cartel will likely kill those who desert their ranks. Decades of sophisticated and brutal violence is an established deterrent against idealistic change. Cartel leadership have the finances and the manpower to regroup even if they purge their ranks of individuals who might consider Obrador’s deal. Instead, it would increase violence in the region, shaking Obrador’s and Mexico’s ability to rise above this further disintegrating environment.
In conclusion, neither President Obama nor the U.S. Joint Forces Command owe Calderón any apology—a kleptocracy and a vast narco-economy rot Mexico’s weak institutions. Continuous gun battles and the failing military and police force raise concerns over Mexico’s stability as a state. The power dynamic continues to shift where the state continues to lose any monopoly on the legitimate use of force, and there's a real possibility that Mexico can fail as a state and one that is on the United States’ border. The United States needs to take a hard look at Mexico and treat it as a growing security threat.
Alexander Grinberg is an officer in the U.S. Army. The views expressed in this article are the author's alone, and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
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Header Image: Protest in Mexico City (EPA)