Concern Grows in the U.S. That the Drug War Is Destablizing Mexico
Concern about a potential failed state -- not Pakistan, not Somalia, but California's neighbor Mexico - is mounting in Washington as an all-out war involving 45,000 Mexican military personnel fails to quell rising drug violence that is spilling from such Mexican cities as Tijuana into the United States.
An estimated 6,290 drug-related murders occurred in Mexico last year, six times the standard definition of a civil war, said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a leading scholar on the issue at the Brookings Institution.
Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, described beheadings of Mexican mayors and police chiefs and said Mexican drug gangs have infiltrated the cannabis fields on both public and private lands in Northern California. He said Mexican villagers are kidnapped and smuggled into the northern coastal forests to grow pot, leaving environmental wreckage in their wake.
He said a timber company employee had been held at gunpoint by a Mexican gang, and he worried that hikers could be threatened. There also have been gang confrontations with firefighters.
"This isn't your '60s hippie growing a little pot on the back 40 to get through winter," Thompson said.
Two House committees will hold hearings today, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has scheduled a Senate hearing for Tuesday to determine how to respond. Ideas range from building a stronger border fence to decriminalizing marijuana.
Mexico "is in the paradoxical situation where the more it intervenes against the drug cartels, the more it destabilizes the drug market, which is the reason it's so violent," said Felbab-Brown. "Drug markets are normally not this violent. This is an aberration. The analogy is Colombia in the 1980s and early 1990s."
Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Redlands (San Bernardino County), told the Associated Press this week that the violence in Mexico is "a lot more important, in my own judgment, than Afghanistan at this moment."
Mexico and Pakistan
The U.S. Joint Forces Command called Mexico and Pakistan the world's two most critical states in danger of failing. While cautioning that Mexico has not reached Pakistan's level of instability, it reported that Mexico's "government, its politicians, police and judicial infrastructure are all under sustained assault and pressure by criminal gangs and drug cartels."
The State Department issued a travel warning in February based on rising violence and kidnappings, especially along the border. It said innocent bystanders have been killed in attacks across the country.
Many, not least the Mexican government itself, take strong issue with labeling Mexico anything close to a failed state, though they acknowledge that the violence is serious and spreading.
"I'm in the heart of Mexico City as we speak, and the buses are full of people, the metros are running, the shops are open and people are walking freely," said George Grayson, a Mexico scholar at the College of William and Mary. "I don't see anything that looks like a failed state."
He said, however, that some areas have been overrun by drug cartels, including Ciudad Juarez across the border from El Paso, Texas, and municipalities in the states of Michoacan and Guerrero.
Others contend that Mexico is in danger of becoming a "narco state" where drug cartels control large parts of the country and the government cannot perform its most essential task, ensuring the safety of its citizens.
"There are different forms of weakening," said Felbab-Brown. Rather than a collapse of the government, she said, "I am more worried that you will have internal pressures within the elite and from the larger society for accommodations with the cartels."
Police corruption remains rampant in Mexico, and she warned that the government could retreat to what she called the "corporatist" model of the 1960s and 1970s, when police regulated and protected drug traffickers.
She said what worries her even more is that the government can neither defeat nor accommodate the drug cartels, and so "simply retreats, gives up territory." In that scenario, she said, state presence in parts of the country would be limited, and the government "abdicates its responsibility to be the sole purveyor of coercive force. That is very consistent with the historic trend in many Latin American countries."
Unlike past battles over immigration, Mexico's current problems are blamed increasingly on the United States: its enormous demand for illegal drugs and its availability of military-style weapons, including bazookas and grenade launchers, that are smuggled to Mexico and used to match or overwhelm the Mexican military.
Mexico also let the drug problem fester for decades, tolerating police corruption. Once established, police corruption is difficult to eradicate; matters have only grown worse with the rise in the drug trade. Well-funded gangs make offers of a "bullet or a bribe" and kill the few who choose the former, along with their relatives.
Drugs and assassinations
Grayson said the notorious Los Zetas group has diversified into assassinations and has begun to target army officers.
Retired army Gen. Mauro Enrique Tello was found tortured and shot last month near the popular spring-break resort town of Cancun. Tello had been hired to clean up the Cancun police force, whose chief has been arrested in connection with the murder.
The former presidents of Brazil, Colombia and Mexico recently called the nearly 40-year U.S. "war on drugs," begun in the Nixon administration, not only a failure but a threat to civil society in Latin America.
"My personal view is, it's us who is more responsible than Mexico," said Sidney Weintraub, a leading Latin American scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "We're providing profits of about $25 billion to the drug cartels. That's a lot of money."
About 40 percent of the drug sales are marijuana, he said. "We imprison more people for marijuana than any other drug. What we have to do is change our policy and decriminalize marijuana. I don't think we can do much unless we cut back on the money. As long as they have all that money, Mexico is in a largely hopeless situation."
Weapons from U.S.
Moreover, Weintraub said, more than 90 percent of the weapons smuggled into Mexico "are sold by our gun dealers to people they know are sending the guns to Mexico. Against this array of money, violence, ability to bribe, being able to outgun the military on any occasion, it's hard for them to do anything. ... Our policy has to change."
There is almost no chance that either Congress or the Obama administration will decriminalize marijuana any time soon. Former President George W. Bush, at a meeting with Mexican President Felipe Calderon in Merida, Mexico, in March 2007, promised $1.4 billion over three years to provide technology and training to Mexico. The first $197 million was allocated last year, but many describe the sum as a pittance next to drug revenue and say it has focused mainly on high-tech gadgets such as surveillance planes that are helpful but no solution.
Some say strengthening the border is a priority, but the cartels have even resorted to using submarines to evade land barriers.