Could a Sudden Collapse of Mexico Be Obama's Surprise Foreign Policy Challenge?

Free-trade politics and the drug war created a social crisis in Mexico, and a militarized response to it may push events to an explosion.

A year-end report by the Pentagon's Joint Forces Command names two countries as likely candidates for a "rapid and sudden collapse" -- Pakistan and Mexico.

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The report, named "JOE 2008" (for Joint Operating Environment), states:

"In terms of worse-case scenarios for the Joint Force, and indeed the world, two large and important states bear consideration for a rapid and sudden collapse: Pakistan and Mexico. The Mexican possibility may seem less likely, but the government, its politicians, police and judicial infrastructure are all under sustained assault and press by criminal gangs and drug cartels. How that internal conflict turns out over the next several years will have a major impact on the stability of the Mexican state."

Mexican officials were quick to deny the ominous claim. Exterior Secretary Patricia Espinosa told reporters that the fast-escalating violence mostly affects the narco gangs themselves, and "Mexico is not a failed state."

Enrique Hubbard Urrea, Mexico's consul general in Dallas, actually boasted improvement, asserting that the government has won the war against the drug cartels in certain areas, such as Nuevo Laredo -- one of the border cities that has been the scene of recent nightmarish violence.

But U.S. political figures were also quick to react -- using the Pentagon's lurid findings to argue for increased military aid to Mexico. As President-elect Barack Obama met in Washington with Mexican President Felipe Calderon on Jan. 12, the former U.S. drug czar, retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, just back from a meeting in Mexico of the International Forum of Intelligence and Security Specialists, told a Washington press conference: "Mexico is on the edge of the abyss -- it could become a narco state in the coming decade." He praised Calderon, who he said has "launched a serious attempt to reclaim the rule of law from the chaos of the drug cartels." The International Forum of Intelligence and Security Specialists is an advisory body to Mexican federal law enforcement.

Also weighing in was Joel Kurtzman, senior fellow at the Milken Institute, who warned in a Wall Street Journal editorial: "It may only be a matter of time before the drug war spills across the border and into the U.S." He hailed Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff for his "plan to 'surge' civilian, and possibly, military law-enforcement personnel to the border should that be necessary…" He also lauded Calderon's deployment of 45,000 military troops to fight the drug cartels -- but raised the possibility of a tide of refugees flooding the U.S. Southwest. "Unless the violence can be reversed, the U.S. can anticipate that the flow across the border will continue."

Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., joined the chorus. On Jan. 11, the day before Calderon arrived in Washington, Gingrich told ABC's This Week with George Stephanopoulos: "There is a war under way in Mexico. More people were killed in Mexico in 2008 than were killed in Iraq. It is grossly undercovered by the American media. It's is on our border. It has the potential to extend into our country side. … The illegal narcotics teams in Mexico are in a direct civil war with the government in which they are killing the police, killing judges, killing the army ... [I'm] surprised that no one in the American system is looking at it very much. It's a very serious problem."

Gingrich doesn't have his facts quite right. The Iraq Body Count Web site puts the number of just Iraqi civilian deaths last year at a maximum of 9,028 (compared to 24,295 in 2007). The Mexican daily El Universal reports that according to its tally, there were 5,612 killings related to organized crime in Mexico last year -- more than double the 2007 figure, and the highest since it started keeping track four years ago.

Yet even if Gingrich is exaggerating, and the Pentagon is paranoid, there is definitely cause for concern. The violence -- at its worst in the border cities of Juarez and Tijuana -- is reaching spectacular levels redolent of Colombia.

In Juarez (and elsewhere across Mexico), severed heads are left outside police stations in chilling numbers; mutilated, decapitated corpses left outside schools and shopping centers -- or hanging from overpasses as a warning to the populace.

A man recently arrested in Tijuana -- charmingly nicknamed the "Stew-maker" -- confessed to disposing of hundreds of bodies by dissolving them in chemicals, for which he was paid $600 a week. A barrel with partially dissolved human remains was left outside a popular seafood restaurant.

Bombs hurled into a crowd celebrating Mexico's independence day in Michoacn on Sept. 15 left seven dead.

The mysterious wave of femicide, which has haunted Juarez for more than 15 years, has spiraled hideously. Authorities report that 81 women were killed in the city this year, breaking all previous records -- in fact, more than doubling 2001's record and bringing the total since 1993 to 508.

And the cartels' agents have penetrated the highest levels of Mexican federal power. Several high-ranking law-enforcement officials were detained last year in Operacion Limpieza ("Operation House Cleaning"), aimed at weeding out officials suspected of collaborating with the warring drug lords.

Cartel hit squads operate in the uniforms of Mexican federal police agents, and in towns such as Nuevo Laredo, the local police became so thoroughly co-opted that the federal government dissolved their powers. It is questionable whether the Mexican bloodletting is really a war of the cartels against the state or among cartels for control of the state.

State security forces are hardly less brutal than the drug gangs they battle (and overlap with). Mexico's National Human Rights Commission issued several recommendations last year calling on the defense secretary to punish those responsible for torture and gratuitous killings. Up until now, those recommendations have been ignored.

Despite the blatant corruption, the U.S. is pouring guns into Mexico -- an illicit trade from north of the border arming the cartels (and their paramilitary units like the notorious "Zetas," made up of military veterans) with assault rifles and rocket-launchers, while Washington is beefing up the Mexican army and federal police over the table. "Mexican law enforcement and soldiers face heavily armed drug gangs with high-powered military automatic weapons," warns McCaffrey, oblivious to the incestuous interpenetration of these seeming opponents.

McCaffrey, who was an architect of Plan Colombia 10 years ago, is today a booster of its new Mexican counterpart -- the $1.4 billion, multiyear Merida Initiative. At his Washington press conference, he decried that this is "a drop in the bucket compared to what was spent in Iraq and Afghanistan. … We cannot afford to have a narco-state as a neighbor."

The first $400 million Merida Initiative package was approved by Congress in June, and the first $197 million of mostly military aid sent south in December. Although it differs in not actually introducing U.S. military advisors, the Merida Initiative is clearly modeled on Plan Colombia, and is dubbed "Plan Mexico" by its critics.

It has moved apace with the Homeland Security's ambitious plans to seal the border. And indeed, Plan Colombia's supposed success in bringing a tenuous "stability" to Colombia has done nothing to dethrone the nation from the dubious honor of both the hemisphere's worst rights abuser and biggest humanitarian crisis -- nearly 3 million internally displaced by political violence, with the rate of displacement growing since the intensive U.S. military aid program began in 2000.

With all eyes on Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine, this is the grim situation that Obama inherits on the nation's southern border. But he also faces an active resistance to the "Plan Mexico" model and concomitant border militarization -- both sides of the line.

Obama, who was famously made an honorary member of Montana's Crow Indian nation last year, received a letter just before he took office from women elders of the Lipan Apache, whose small south Texas reservation is to be bisected by Homeland Security's border wall. The letter calls the land seizure unlawful, and urges Obama to call a halt to the wall. Texas ranchers also have litigation pending against the seizure of their lands for the wall.

Environmentalists are incensed at the border wall's exemption from EPA regulations, and one -- Judy Ackerman of El Paso, Texas -- was arrested in December for blocking Homeland Security's construction equipment in an act of civil disobedience.

Elvira Arellano, a deported Mexican woman, who in 2006 took sanctuary for weeks in a church in Obama's hometown of Chicago to highlight immigrants' rights, held a press conference at the U.S. embassy in Mexico City two days after he took office to ask the new president to call a halt to Homeland Security's coast-to-coast immigration raids.

Arguably, NAFTA is to blame for what could be Mexico's impending destabilization. The largest surge ever in both legal and unauthorized Mexican migration to the U.S. began after the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement took effect.

Sociologist James Russell finds that the percentage of all North America's Mexican-origin persons living in the United States jumped from 13.6 percent to 20.5 percent between 1990 and 2005. Russell argues that "NAFTA allowed tariff-free imports to flood into Mexico, taking markets away from many Mexican peasants and manufacturers. With work no longer available, displaced peasants and workers joined in increasing numbers the migrant route north into the United States."

The privatization of Mexico's communal peasant lands -- the ejidos -- was another NAFTA-related measure that helped force hundreds of thousands from their traditional rural communities. In these same years, Mexico's narco economy exploded, the trafficking of cocaine and growing of opium and marijuana filling the vacuum left by the evaporation of the market for domestic maize and beans.

And when the oil shock prompted the diversion of U.S. croplands of Mexico-bound corn to biofuels, a now-dependent Mexico experienced a "maize shock" in 2008 -- and food riots.

Even amidst the spiraling violence of the narco wars, nonviolent political resistance to policies of free trade and militarization persists in Mexico.

As Obama was taking the oath of office, farmers in Chihuahua state, just across from Texas and New Mexico, blockaded roads and used farm equipment and animals to erect barricades at the entrances of Agriculture Secretariat offices to demand rises in the price of their maize and other (legal) crops.

Days earlier, thousands of fishermen went on strike on Mexico's Pacific coast to protest the rise in the price of diesel fuel. The Zapatistas and related peasant movements in Mexico's south continue to occupy disputed lands and resist their privatization. On Jan. 9, some 4,000 marched in Jalisco to protest the police killing of a local youth. And in December, public-sector workers and students in Ciudad Juarez staged a 24-hour strike to protest the wave of narco-killings in the city.

Obama pledged on the campaign trail to consider a renegotiation of NAFTA. And in his third debate with Republican Sen. John McCain, when asked about the pending free trade agreement with Colombia, he noted that in the Andean nation "labor leaders have been targeted for assassination on a fairly consistent basis and there have not been prosecutions." This won him public opprobrium from Colombia's President Alvaro Uribe, who was Bush's closest ally in South America.

But despite criticisms, Obama supports the Merida Initiative and has spoken of extending it into a comprehensive hemispheric security bloc. Obama and Vice President Joseph Biden support continued military aid to Colombia, albeit with a greater emphasis on human rights conditions.

Apart from the security implications of its mere proximity to the U.S., Mexico is the third-largest oil supplier to the U.S. Free-trade politics helped create a social crisis there, and militarization in response to this crisis may only push it to the point of explosion. If Obama doesn't rethink the Merida Initiative as well as follow through on his campaign pledge to take another look at NAFTA, the prospects for escalation are frighteningly real.

The last direct U.S. military intervention in Mexico was under Woodrow Wilson -- a Democrat who won re-election in 1916 by pledging to keep the U.S. out of World War I, just as Obama won the White House with pledges to get us out of Iraq.

A resurgent American left putting Mexico and Latin America back on its agenda may help assure that this history does not repeat itself.

Bill Weinberg is editor of the electronic monthly World War 4 Report and author of Homage to Chiapas: The New Indigenous Struggles in Mexico (Verso, 2000).