A Mexican Standoff with Reality

WASHINGTON, DC – Flanked by the embattled President of Mexico, Felipe Calderon and the Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, a weary looking President Barack Obama used a press conference to angrily denounce as “Alarmist and inflammatory” a recent report issued by the conservative Heritage Foundation that declared the massive chain of UN administered Mexican Refugee camps in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas as “a bottomless well for narco-insurgency” and “a threat to the territorial integrity of the United States”. The camps, home to at least 2.5 million Mexican nationals, are dominated by the “Zetas Confederales”, a loose and ultraviolent umbrella militia aligned with the feuding Mexican drug cartels that now control upwards of 80 % of Mexico.

President Obama’s political fortunes have been reeling recently in the wake of high profile incidents that include the kidnapping of his Special Envoy for Transborder Issues, former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, and the car bombing assassination of popular California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger that killed 353 people in Sacramento last month. Both events have been tied directly to factions of Zetas “hardliners” who operate with impunity on both sides of the US-Mexican border. President Obama used the conference to point to the “clear and hold” COIN strategy that has recently restored order and even a degree of tourism to Las Vegas, once the scene of bloody street battles between Zetas, local street gangs and right-wing American paramilitary groups, as a sign of the success for his administration. Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill remain skeptical and say that it is likely that President Obama will face a primary challenge next year from Senator Jim Webb (D- Va), a former Secretary of the Navy in the Reagan administration, who called the president’s COIN strategy “The right course of action” but ” Two years too late”….

That fictional scenario above is offered as a thought experiment.

Thursday, in a statement that was issued in part for public diplomacy purposes, DNI Adm. Dennis Blair, dismissed any strategic implications regarding the strength of Mexico’s drug cartels that the Mexican government is struggling to suppress:

Mexico is in no danger of becoming a failed state. [Let me] repeat that. Mexico is in no danger of becoming a failed state. The violence we see now is the result of Mexico taking action against the drug cartels. So it is in fact the result of positive moves, which the Mexican government has taken to break the baneful influence that many of these cartels have had on many aspects of Mexican government and Mexican life.

While it might be tempting to ask what the good Admiral is smoking, Blair is neither a naif nor a fool but a very experienced and saavy intelligence manager who is engaged in pushing a political line of the Obama administration, in deference to the wishes of the government of Mexico. The line is being peddled on many fronts; Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has just declined offers for increased appropriations for improving border security in favor of “surging” Federal agents on a temporary basis (i.e. a political show that will accomplish nothing). Here is SECSTATE Hillary Clinton on the same subject on the same day as Adm. Blair while on an official visit to Mexico:

On Thursday, Mrs. Clinton noted that no official of the Obama administration had ever used the phrase “failed state.” She said Mexico faced a “public safety challenge,” likening it to the surge of drug violence in American cities in the 1980s. And she lavished praise on the Mexican president, Felipe Calderón, for taking strong measures against the drug cartels.

This line that Mexico is fundamentally sound, while helpful to President Calderon’s political standing when expressed in public, is analytically speaking, sheer nonsense, and if enforced in private, counterproductive to having sober USG interagency planning sessions to make certain that worst case scenarios, like the one imagined above, never come close to materializing. Such politicized groupthink also interferes with effective cooperation with Mexico to address a 4GW type problem that has already mestastasized to a dangerous degree into American territory. Earlier, while still free of Mexican diplomatic and political pressure, the U.S. military accurately assessed the potential threat of Mexico devolving into a failed state in this JFCOM planning document (we won’t be seeing anything like this in public again, barring leaks):

In terms of worst-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 pressure 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. Any descent by Mexico into chaos would demand an American response based on the serious implications for homeland security alone.

Banning terminology like “failed state” or admission of adverse data points from Mexico or the Southwestern U.S. (!) into an integrated analytical picture because the self-absorbed and greedy oligarchy that rules Mexico heatedly objects, is a recipe for policy failure and “snowballing” interrelated problems as each new development is inadequately addressed for political reasons. This new eggshell to tread carefully upon is going to be added to our longstanding, politically determined, refusal to contemplate our own drug policy honestly in light of it’s effect on our national security interests (We are turbocharging guerillas, Islamist insurgents, terrorists and criminal networks all over the globe with billions of American narco-dollars and corrupting and demoralizing our own allies in the process).

If the current situation in Mexico existed anywhere else in the world, our national security elite would already be discussing the potential for a mass exodus of refugees at given levels of escalating violence. The United States government conceives of the border in terms of an economic immigration problem not as a political mass-migration problem; such an event, spilling over into the hot deserts of the American border states, would very likely overwhelm the capacity for adequate humanitarian response. A Katrina moment in the cacti.

Recall the difficulties the Cater administration had with the relatively minor refugee influx in 1980 known as the Mariel Boatlift when 120,000 Cubans were permitted by Fidel Castro to flee the Communist paradise for life in the United States, along with imprisoned criminals and mental patients whom Castro deported along with the boatlift. A full blown civil war in Mexico could generate 20 to 30 times that number of refugees, among whom narco-guerillas or terrorists or independent bad actors could operate freely, much as refugee camps elsewhere in the world have been breeding grounds for militias, criminal organizations and terrorists.

SECSTATE Clinton, at least, should know all of this very well. The handling of the Marielitos issue by Jimmy Carter probably cost her husband the governorship in Arkansas and led him later as President to enforce a very tough line against Haitian refugees, fearing a deluge of desperately poor Haitians fleeing dictatorship and internecine political violence. It would be far better to prioritize Mexico as a national security issue today, than let it evolve into a transnational powder keg tomorrow. There are, I must observe, far more Mexicans than Haitians in this hemisphere.

But proper resonse requires empirical investigation and analytical clarity, followed by sensible and determined policy designed to short-circuit negative trends, not empty political assertions designed to tread water, obfuscate and delay action. We have time, but not unlimited time.

(Special thanks to Morgan, Pundita and John Robb for their insights, concerns and/or suggested links yesterday on this issue which were helpful in clarifying my thoughts).


State of Siege: Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency (Full PDF Article) Stratfor reports on Mexico, news ignored by our mainstream media

Latest Academic Mexico Trip ReportMexico: On the Road to a Failed State?Mexico’s Instability Is a Real Problem

Mexico – Failed State/Failed Policies? Among top U.S. fears: A failed Mexican state Why Vicente Fox is going straight to Hell

MEXICO’S BAZAAR OF VIOLENCE What if A State Failed and Nobody Cared? American Narcotics: $10 Billion In Mexico

Mexico: Growing Terror and Close to Collapse The effects of our drug war in Mexico

Mexico is not a poor country Assessing the threat at our southern border Mexico’s Columbian Exchange State of War

Look who’s sneaking into the country using known drug routes Mexico plagued by myriad interlaced netwars – a TIMN analysis

12 thoughts on “A Mexican Standoff with Reality”

  1. An entire country doesn’t have to collapse for regional chaos to ensue: southern Thailand, Northern Ireland, Chechnya, Detroit, etc.

  2. Zen-

    Very informative, but then this . . .

    “Failed states”?

    How often that pops up. I thought the lesson was that our own policies/lack of policies create these for us seen/shown as threatening “failed states” . . . ?
    In regards to Mexico, your assumption is that this civil unrest yields itself to 4GW interpretation. This is wrong imo. 4GW needlessly confuses the issue. Mexico as “failed state”? What about the Mexico of the 1920s and 30s when US oil companies essentially employed their own private militias there? We have a long and difficult history with Mexico and avoiding that fact at this point in time is counter-productive imo.

    We need a theory of war, not one of warfare . . .

  3. Alcibiades

    True enough. What I wrote was an imaginative scenario, a plausibility rather than a prediction. Calderon may prevail or at least muddle through. Or Mexico City may opt to tolerate narco-cartel autonomy in exchange for a modus vivendi as Beirut does with Hezbollah. Or it can all go to hell in a way unlike I surmised.


    I understand the academic problem you have with the terminology of “failed state” ( I still need to respond at the CvC thread)but in this instance it is being used by senior officials (Blair, Clinton)probably in a more generic context (the Mexican govt. has lost control) rather than with the deterministic-millenarian meaning that Martin van Creveld would use it. At least I’m pretty sure in Clinton’s case that The Transformation of War was not on her nightstand for bedside reading.

    You are right that we have a long history of meddling in Mexico. However, that is not really germane to this particular problem except as a caution to tread lightly and to make certain that we deal with the demand equation on our side of the border.

    If you wish to drop “4GW” as shorthand descriptor, fine. Suggest something that fits a complex situation of multiple, often competing, criminal networks sliding into terrorism and subversion. I think you would agree, that the need for Mexico to use military force testifies to the scope and magnitude of the situation which is beyond Mexican law enforcement capabilities to handle.

  4. “4GW type” is fine. 4GW, despite its many problems is clear enough, particularly as explicated by Col. Hammes.

    It is that 5GW thing I don’t think is value-adding.

    “Failed state” is also a term that can be coherently understood.

  5. The DEA should set up camp in Bolivia and buy every single ounce of the next coca crop at 110 percent of the going price, then burn it, just after making a down payment on the next crop at 70 percent of the going price, with the remainder put toward buying seeds, etc. for alternative crops.
    Within a couple of years, the price of cocaine will be far out of the reach of anyone who can’t afford their own private full-coverage health insurance. Then we can just legalize it.
    The narco police will have to learn a new job skill, as will their enablers on the other side of the equation.

  6. I would approach the whole siutation differently. Considering Clausewitz’s concept of cohesion (material versus moral), we could say that the Mexican state has gone through a series of highs and lows in terms of material cohesion. A hundred years ago Mexico was on the verge of a revolution which lasted over 10 years and killed about 1 million people. It was however during the late 1930s when the Mexican state achieved perhaps its highest level of material cohesion, but this has not been maintained. Material cohesion would correspond to the quality of Mexican governmental institutions and how they in turn are perceived as protecting the interests of the Mexican people. This being relative to cultural expectations . . . what Northern Europeans expect from the state and what Southern Europeans (defined loosely as “a Latin mentality”) expect varies wildly. I’ve lived in Germany and now in Portugal, and believe me there is a big difference. What a Northern European sees as chaos, a Southern European sees as normal working procedures.

    The other element we need to remember and take into consideration here is “power” (at the level of states, this being military/political, economic, and cultural). The US exerts a huge amount of power either intentionally or unintentionally in Latin America. Power being a relationship in this sense. The material cohesion of the Mexican state reached its height when US influence was at a historic low, that is during the Great Depression. Could it be that one of the main causes of low material cohesion is due to perceptions among Mexicans that their govenment is not operating in their interests, but in the interests of the US? I would consider the whole controversy concerning US responses to Mexican attemtps to reform their drug laws back about seven years ago. How much is the current Mexican state a reflection of US power/interests interacting with Mexican interests? That is Mexican material cohesion is being hit from various sides, not only criminal gangs taking advantage of a deteriorating situation. . .

    As to “failed state”, it says nothing and describes nothing, but rather only indicates that a government apparatus has lost the monopoly of exercising violence within the territory defined as the state in question (using Weber’s basic definition of the state). This situation has been true for much of Mexico’s history, so what’s new?

    We need a conceptual framework imo (theory) which allows for this diversity and complexity, not one – like 4GW – which simply blurrs out what we should rather be taking into consideration.

  7. “As to “failed state”, it says nothing and describes nothing, but rather only indicates that a government apparatus has lost the monopoly of exercising violence within the territory defined as the state in question”

    So, you agree, “failed state” says “a government apparatus has lost the monopoly of exercising violence within the territory defined as the state in question” in two syllables instead of thrity-nine syllables. That’s good enough.

  8. I would offer “Null State” to label a situation in which an area lacks a force monopoly. “Null” doesn’t have the pejorative connotations of “failed.” It also doesn’t have the implication that a true functional state did exist in the past.

    I think we view areas with no force monopoly as “failed” because our occicentric world view tends to make us view countries as intrinsically coherent. We view cohesion as the default state and incoherency as unusual. In reality, only the ethnic-states of Western Europe have any intrinsic cohesion. Most states in the world are multiethnic with borders drawn by European interest. Their people’s have no intrinsic emotional bonds to the state as do the people of ethnic states. Neither do most have a unifying ideology like America.

    Mexico has little inherent cohesion beyond xenophobia. It is strongly segmented by race and class. People’s primary loyalties lay with family, patronage networks and ethnic group. During times of “stability” the white, largely Spanish upper class creates a force monopoly but due to the corruption and exclusionary nature of patron networks, they can’t maintain the monopoly for more than a decade or so.

    Mexico’s history, like that of all latin America is one of “revolution” in which one elite replaces another, followed by a short period of peace and relative prosperity, followed a longer period of increasing corruption and economic decline, followed by a period of anarchy, followed by the rise of another elite which starts the cycle all over again.

    We interrupted this cycle in during the Cold War largely by making it clear we would not tolerate a Communist government in Mexico. Since almost all revolutions were Communist support during the Cold War, that interrupted the cycle. Once the Cold War ended, the cycle resumed.

    Mexico is entering a period of anarchy. For a time, it will become a null-state just as it did in the period of 1910-1920. Then a new elite, hopefully a more democratic one, will take over. This cycle will not end until the culture supports a rule of law, individualism and separation of economy and state. Until then people in government, any government of any ideology, will treat the state as a mechanism for enriching themselves, their families and their patrons and clients. This culture makes the country intrinsically unstable.

  9. Shannon Love-

    Anarchy = Null state. Well, like it better than “failed state” which has too much baggage. Agree as to Mexican elites and the various divisions in Mexican society, but they are at the same time nationalistic, perhaps seen more as moral rather than material cohesion, a reaction to American power as you mention?

    Perhaps we could say that when a political community develops a sense of national identity which can influence and superceed class, ethnic, religious and other interests then a political community is mature enough to form a nation state, providing of course that they are in fact ruled by their own elites. Once again I think this fits very well with the Clausewitzian concept of cohesion (recall the “Tartar state” being the ideal type of a political community with moral, but little or no material cohesion and without even a territory). One can see why elites encourage nationalistic sentiments in order to defuse class/economic antagonisms. I would add that the combination of material and moral cohesion only begins with the French Revolution according to this concept.


    So you liked my definition of “failed state”? Admit it is better than what I had seen offered so far. . . Would only add “legitimate” to the violence part, in that the state in question would have lost all legitimacy in the eyes of its own people. But then it still doesn’t tell us how such a situation comes to pass and given how the term has been misused/abused so recently and its more deterministic aspects . . . I think I prefer “collapsed state” tied very closely with the Weberian definition, but only as a starting point.

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