international analysis and commentary

Mexico between takeoff and collapse – and America’s dilemma

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As if Mexico’s exceedingly violent drug war wasn’t disturbing enough, Human Rights Watch recently issued a report in which it brought to light the involvement of Mexican security forces in the “forced disappearances” of at least 149 civilians. It also highlighted cases of collusion of the police and the military with criminal networks, often in the extortion of the victims’ families. If anything, this report should drive the final nail into the coffin of the Mexican government’s disastrous, misguided and US-financed military approach in the fight against the country’s drug cartels. And the report’s fallout should by no means be limited to Mexico, as President Obama has to wake up to the basic reality of the Mexican crisis. First, the US has an important role to play in bringing about a shift to a more prudent strategy. Second, the US has a big stake in doing so, both because of Mexico’s wholly unremarked-upon potential, as well as the grave peril the country currently finds itself in.

On the plus side (and how many Americans know this?), Mexico is currently America’s second largest export market, with much discussed China merely being third. After decades of failing to live up to glittering expectations, Mexico now stands a real chance of making it; it will soon have lower labor costs than Beijing. Already Mexican giant Cemex is America’s largest cement maker, while Univision is presently the fifth largest network in television-obsessed America.

Yet all these tantalizing economic possibilities are presently at grave risk, as Mexico is balanced on a knife’s edge between transformational economic success and startling collapse. Let us be clear about the gravity of the problem: Mexico is being overrun by criminal networks to the point where it is becoming a failed state. The official body count for the period 2006-2011 stands at a staggering 47,515 drug-related deaths, which may well be an undercounting of the carnage (60,000 deaths is probably a better estimate). Entire regions are ruled by the cartels, and there is little to suggest that the Mexican government will soon regain the upper hand, with previous President Felipe Calderon mournfully admitting during his last days in office that given present conditions, it is “impossible to stop the drug trade.”

The two most important criminal organizations responsible for Mexico’s endemic violence are the Sinaloa and the Zetas. The Sinaloa cartel, led by people with apt but uncool nicknames like El Chapo (Shorty) and El Gordo (Fatty), is the larger of the two in terms of turnover. Even according to the most conservative estimates, the Sinaloa make some $3 billion a year, which would put them on a par with legitimate companies like Facebook and Netflix. While sometimes brutally violent, the Sinaloa are aware of the adverse effect force often has, leading to the alienation of the local population and state retaliation. Bribes rather than gunfire and torture are their preferred means of persuasion, as they don’t get in the way of business.

In this, they differ from their main rivals, the Zetas. Founded by rogue elements of the Mexican Special Forces, the Zetas are known for their proclivity for extreme violence. They mutilate bodies and put them on display to intimidate their competitors as well as to terrorize local populations into silence. In their conflict with the Sinaloa, which accounts for a large part of the current violence in Mexico, the Zetas have made some headway, as they now control more territory than any other cartel in the country. Several sources have even reported daring raids by the Zetas into Sinaloa territory.

While it is true that the Zetas recently lost several leaders in shoot-outs with the police, it is far from clear that this has had much impact on the group’s functioning. There are plenty of eager candidates to fill the elite ranks, with many underlings generally considered to be even more cruel and violent than their predecessors. However, far more worrying from the Zetas’ point of view is the schism that is currently believed to be tearing the group apart. But even this is not good news for average Mexicans, as confrontations between the two main factions may well lead to further escalations of violence.

During his term as President, Calderon wholly committed himself to a US-backed war on the cartels, which included greater intelligence exchange, US training missions for Mexican security forces and a series of constitutionally dubious US drone flights over Mexican territory. Calderon’s hard line, however, failed to yield any meaningful results. The new President, Enrique Peña Nieto, is probably less willing to follow the White House’s lead, as he campaigned on a platform of reducing violence being the new priority; his main concern is the security of his population rather than the dismantlement of the cartels. This, to the obvious detriment of US policy, opens up the possibility of a silent entente in which the Mexican state and the cartels stay out of each other’s way.

The condition of the patient is only likely to worsen until the underlying nettle is grasped by both the US and Mexico: soft drugs remain illegal whilst traffickers buying cop-killing assault weapons remain legal. The situation being as dire as it is, President Obama should quickly agree with Peña Nieto on a common approach to stop the cartel violence, one that involves America taking a good, hard, look in the mirror rather than pretending that the violence south of the border is someone else’s problem. A saner American policy toward drugs – focusing on treatment, rehabilitation, and even considering the legalization of soft drugs – coupled with an outright ban on assault weapons would bear wondrous fruit, both for America and in stabilizing its vital neighbor to the south. Failure to do so could well find America with a wholly failed state directly on its borders. The stakes could scarcely be higher.