The Real War in Mexico
Increasing Violence in Mexico
Brazen assassinations, kidnappings, and intimidation by drug lords conjure up images of Colombia in the early 1990s. Yet today it is Mexico that is engulfed by escalating violence.
The U.S. media breathlessly proclaims that Mexico is "on the brink." But this rising hysteria clouds the real issues for Mexico and for the United States.
The question is not whether the Mexican state will fail. It will not. The actual risk of the violence today is that it will undermine democracy tomorrow.
Mexico's escalating violence is in part an unintended side effect of democratization and economic globalization. Ties between Mexico's long-ruling political party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), and drug traffickers solidified by the end of World War II. Patron-client relationships led by the government limited violence against public officials, top traffickers, and civilians; made sure that court investigations never reached the upper ranks of cartels; and defined the rules of the game for traffickers.
Mexico's political opening in the late 1980s and 1990s disrupted these long-standing dynamics. As the PRI's political monopoly ended, so, too, did its control over the drug trade. Electoral competition nullified the unwritten understandings, requiring drug lords to negotiate with the new political establishment and encouraging rival traffickers to bid for new market opportunities. Drug-trafficking organizations took advantage of the political opening to gain autonomy, ending their subordination to the government.
Drug markets began to change in the late 1980s and 1990s as well. As the United States cracked down on drug transit through the Caribbean and Miami, more products moved through Mexico and across the U.S.-Mexico border. Mexican traffickers gained power vis-ŕ-vis their Colombian counterparts, professionalizing their operations and militarizing their enforcement arms.
The current surge in violence is largely a result of these long-term political and economic processes, but President Calderón's self-proclaimed war on drug trafficking has also contributed.
Since taking office in December 2006, Calderón has mobilized some 45,000 troops to combat drug trafficking organizations. Record numbers of interdictions, arrests, and extraditions to the United States have interrupted business as usual.
Nevertheless, some perspective is needed.
This is not the first time Mexico has brought out the military to quell drug-related violence.
President Miguel de la Madrid mobilized troops in the mid-1980s to fight drug gangs, and every subsequent Mexican president has followed suit (although Calderón's current effort far surpasses former shows of force). This is also not the first time the United States has offered technical aid and assistance (though, again, never before on the current scale).
If history is any lesson, these approaches will neither stem the violence nor provide real border security.
Instead, the United States needs to develop a comprehensive policy to bolster North American security -- one that treats Mexico as an equal and permanent partner. To do so, the United States must address its own role in perpetuating the drug trade and drug-related violence. Mexico, in turn, must continue to challenge the drug cartels, and in particular address its Achilles' heel: corruption. Even after the transition to democracy, accountability mechanisms remain either nonexistent or defunct; most of Mexico's various police forces continue to be largely incapable of objective and thorough investigations; and impunity reigns -- the chance of being prosecuted, much less convicted, of a crime is extremely low. Mexico's challenge is no less than recreating its law enforcement and judicial systems.
Together, Mexico and the United States need to work to broaden their focus beyond immediate security measures -- and to foster Mexico's democracy and growing middle class. Benefiting from economic opening and stability, Mexico's middle class is now nearly 30 million strong. It is these voters that ushered both Presidents Fox and Calderón into office, and that have supported Calderón's security efforts so far. Calderón's ratings, in fact, have risen as he has confronted organized crime, with fully two-thirds of the public supporting his actions.
Mexico's middle class is threatened not just by the lack of public security, but also by the growing economic crisis.
In January, Mexico's GDP shrank by almost ten percent year on year as manufacturing tumbled. In March, the peso skidded to a 16-year low against the dollar. The government now predicts a nearly five percent decline in GDP for 2009, and many private economists are bracing for an even greater fall.
Mexican middle-class preferences for law and order, fairness, transparency, and democracy benefit Mexico, but they also benefit the United States.
Although hardly an antidote for all challenges, a secure and growing middle class would help move Mexico further down the road toward achieving democratic prosperity and toward an increasingly able partnership with the United States. But if this center is diminished or decimated by economic crisis, insecurity, or closing opportunities, Mexico could truly descend into crime-ridden political and economic turmoil.
The best the United States and Mexico can hope for in terms of security is for organized crime in Mexico to become a persistent but manageable law enforcement problem, similar to illegal businesses in the United States.
But both the United States and Mexico should hope for more in terms of Mexico's future, and U.S.- Mexico relations. This though will require a difficult conceptual shift in Washington - recognizing Mexico as a permanent strategic partner rather than an often-forgotten neighbor.
Shannon O'Neil is Douglas Dillon Fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and Director of the CFR task force on U.S.-Latin American relations.
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