September is a special time in Mexico. Billboards from Chihuahua to Chiapas celebrate “mes de la patria,” or the month of the nation. This year will be particularly memorable, as the month’s patriotic occasions culminated in last night’s bicentennial celebration of Mexico’s declaration of independence from Spain. Revelers crowded the plazas of Mexico’s cities, cheeks painted in the tricolor of green, white and red. Just before midnight, in accordance with Mexico’s annual custom, city leaders read Father Miguel Hidalgo’s 1810 proclamation against colonial tyranny, and the crowd affirmed its conclusion with thunderous cries of “Viva México!” The Grito de Dolores, as it is called, felt like a cross between July 4th in Washington, D.C. and New Year’s Eve in Times Square.
Sadly, Mexico’s bicentenario is unfolding against the backdrop of the nation’s brutal and complex drug war. This year, 60 percent of Mexicans living in the north planned to avoid the late night festivities because of security concerns. In Nuevo Laredo, a border town currently controlled by Los Zetas, “policemen” extort $300 peso tariffs from drivers traveling south. Local businesses in Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leòn states pay 10 percent of their income in protection charges to whatever cartel controls the region. Consequently, cartels now bring in a growing share of income from extortion and kidnapping, in addition to revenue from smuggling and drug running. This evolution in their business model makes their future ambitions difficult to predict. Will cartel leaders pursue their dominance of local areas towards political ends, or will they relinquish control to proxies once they have fought back rivals? If the government cannot provide security for daily commerce, who will?
At a September 7 speech at the Council on Foreign Relations, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton compared conditions in Mexico to Colombia’s late twentieth century drug war, saying the Mexican situation was “morphing into, or making common cause with, what we would consider an insurgency.” Astonishingly, a day later, President Barack Obama publicly rejected her comments. “Mexico is a vast and progressive democracy with a growing economy,” the president said in the Los Angeles-based Spanish newspaper La Opinion. “You cannot compare what is happening in Mexico with what happened in Colombia twenty years ago.”
The President’s rejection of his chief diplomat’s more accurate assessment is misleading for many reasons. Since December 2006, the pace of death in Mexico has dramatically exceeded previous Latin American insurgencies. Almost 30,000 people have died in four years, a staggering volume of chaos. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, 30,000 were also killed from 1980-1994 in Peru’s war against the Shining Path. Estimates of Colombia’s casualties from their 46 year war against the Medellin Cartel and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC) are between 70,000 and 100,000 from 1963 to today. Although Mexico has twice the population and size of Colombia and three times that of Peru, the pace of death has accelerated at a rate that is, respectively, 5 and 3.5 times higher.
Despite the well-publicized capture of Mexican cartel kingpins, there are no signs that the anarchy south of the border will abate. Mexico’s inability to control the cartels has exposed fundamental weaknesses in the Mexican state, particularly in the north. Regional kingpins seek authority over local governments and businesses in addition to control over smuggling routes. These developments are a natural consequence of many forces-including NAFTA, migration, economic inequality, law enforcement corruption, and political repression-that have plagued Mexico for decades. The outcome of this twenty-first century irregular war, which is only likely to worsen in this decade, will have far reaching consequences for the United States and-barring a major increase in security capacity-will likely threaten the fabric of Mexican society.
Mexico’s drug war may not take the same form as Colombia’s political insurgency, which fused a partnership between the Medellin drug traffickers and the FARC, but that does not mean it is any less a long-term threat to the state. This is particularly true in northern Mexico, whose population has more than doubled since NAFTA was signed in 1994. These population increases have resulted from Mexicans who migrated north in search of work in factories, or maquiladoras, as well as deported U.S. illegal immigrants from Central and South America who remained in Mexico after losing their chance to pursue the American dream. This infusion of money and humanity from both sides of the border has resulted in a peculiar American-Mexican culture throughout northern Mexico. Dollars are common units of exchange as far south as Monterrey, Chihuahua, and Hermosillo. Televisions in bars tune into American baseball, basketball and football. And, interestingly, license plate covers and bumper stickers supporting branches of the U.S. military are common on cars driving through northern Mexico.
Despite proximity and national interest, the U.S. response to Mexico’s drug war has been apathetic, anemic, and wholly inadequate. One reason why is because Mexico City’s political class has focused too much on diplomatic sensitivities and too little on practical, and public, cooperation. In one recent disproportionate response, Mexican politicians castigated an American cartoonist for his depiction of Mexico’s national flag. Angry officials said the September 1 cartoon, which illustrated the eagle on Mexico’s banner as being killed by machine gun bullets, desecrated Mexico’s sacred honor, likening the event to unholy sketches of the prophet Muhammad in a Dutch newspaper. Mexico City missed the point: Americans can see northern Mexico’s crisis, and do not wish to suffer the consequences of the security collapse they are watching evolve to the south.
The U.S. national security establishment, however, would also prefer to avoid dealing directly, and publicly, with tangible solutions. Thorny dilemmas like immigration reform, gun control, intelligence sharing, security cooperation, and especially marijuana legalization must be addressed on the U.S. side of the border for security forces to have any real impact. U.S. security assistance, particularly through state and local partnerships in the border regions, would have short and long-term benefits for both Mexico and the United States; a more stable Mexico reduces long-term incentives for illegal immigration and fuels North America’s economic engine. But U.S. manpower and materiel are now committed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Great Recession has reduced U.S. economic flexibility. Ultimately, neither Americans nor Mexicans seem eager for the United States to invest in a nation-building project across the Rio Grande.
As Mexicans celebrate their bicentennial, Americans should join in saluting the origins and accomplishments of our southern neighbor. However, we should also honestly acknowledge the scope of investment that will be required to curb the chaos now consuming Mexico. Although changes in U.S. policy, particularly decriminalizing marijuana, would probably reduce the violence, Mexico’s law enforcement and judiciary still face severe structural challenges even if prohibition ended tomorrow. Because neither a Plan Colombia nor a Marshall Plan for northern Mexico appears politically or economically possible, we can unfortunately expect to watch violent struggle continuing throughout this decade. As Americans, we can only hope Mexico City restores security to its citizens. But hope alone does not make an effective strategy.
El Norte newspaper, September 8, 2010, poll of residents, page A1.
Extortion statistics taken from interviews and observations in northern Mexico
International Institute for Strategic Studies, Report on Global Conflict, 2009.