BY LUIS RUBIO
The debate about Mexico’s stability and viability has now become commonplace in the United States. Ominous books warning about dire scenarios for the country from nonexperts have long been a staple of the tabloid media. But this time it is different: now mainstream business magazines have joined the fray, as have credible and independent entities such as Stratfor, a global intelligence firm. Much more relevant, the U.S. Joint Forces Command recently published a study warning that Mexico, as well as Pakistan, could become a failed state.
Is the Mexican government really about to collapse?
The concept of a “failed state” does not have a strong academic foundation. It has become popular, however, largely because of the yearly index that Foreign Policy magazine publishes, based on work done by the Fund for Peace. There are two good books written by Robert I. Rotberg, a Harvard professor, which discuss the concept mostly in the context of a series of African nations. Mexico has never been one of the sixty states that the Foreign Policy index tracks and bears little resemblance to those in the list. Nonetheless, the debate has taken hold of the media.
Although imprecise, the concept of a failed state incorporates issues such as: loss of physical control of its territory or of a monopoly of the legitimate use of force; erosion of legitimate authority to make collective decisions; an inability to provide reasonable public services; and the inability to interact with other states as a full member of the international community. Some writers add themes such as public safety, economic performance and migration. The theoretical foundation for the concept stems from Max Weber, the German sociologist that in the 19th century worked on the issue of legitimacy and what makes a government viable. Those who employ the term “failed” or “failing” state generally mean that a given government has ceased to be capable of keeping the peace because it confronts armed opposition that is at least potentially capable of threatening its existence and because it cannot maintain the rule of rule or some semblance of it.
Given this definition, any reasonable observer of the Mexican reality would have to conclude that, despite its shortcomings, the Mexican government cannot be categorized as a failing state. In spite of the many problems of public safety, law enforcement and economic performance, the government operates in a rather normal fashion, where public services work and it remains in charge. Hence, nobody would be surprised if government officials and opinion makers were to condemn the very notion that the Mexican government could fail. The problem is that, in typical Mexican fashion, the discussion in Mexico has been defensive and not about the arguments being made.
Probably the most articulate argument about Mexico’s risk as a potentially failed state comes from Stratfor. In a study published in May, 2008, Stratfor argues that violence has been increasing, that it has included assassinations of key public officials and that this course of events poses a strategic problem for the Mexican government. “The bulk of its effective troops are deployed along the U.S. border, attempting to suppress violence and smuggling among the grunts along the border, as well as the well-known smuggling routes elsewhere in the country.” The report then argues that the government now faces multiple, well-armed organized groups that have the strategic and tactical capability of hitting it in its weakest points. “There comes a moment when the imbalance in resources reverses the relationship between government and cartels. Government officials, seeing the futility of resistance, effectively become tools of the cartels… Government officials begin giving their primary loyalty not to the government but to one of the cartels. The government thus becomes both an arena for competition among the cartels and an instrument used by one cartel against another. That is the prescription for what is called a ‘failed state’ — a state that no longer can function as a state.”
In this hypothetical situation, the very individuals that are key to the functioning of the government end up having to make a rational calculation that may lead them to choose the cartels. Thus, the argument is not one of corruption, as in the past, but of survival. If that scenario were to materialize, Stratfor goes on, the state would face a systematic breakdown and collapse.
The Stratfor argument is not that the Mexican government is about to fail and collapse, but that there are many clouds on the horizon that could, at some point, align to create a catastrophic situation.
The scenarios developed by Stratfor and by the U.S. Joint Forces Command are speculative in nature and are not intended as predictions of what will happen. Instead, they are designed to provoke and develop policies that would avoid the failed-state scenario. It is this message that was ignored by the Mexican public officials who flatly denied any relevance to the Mexican reality.
If one looks at the Mexican panorama, it is evident that there are many sources of concern and good reasons to be preoccupied. First, there is no question that there are regions of the country where all vestiges of a functioning government have simply vanished. Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez, two cities along the U.S.-Mexico border, and parts of the states of Michoacán, Oaxaca and Tamaulipas, are vivid examples of a violent reality. In fact, these examples show how the disappearance of authority can take place, which inevitably leads to speculation as to whether such a process could expand to encompass all of Mexico.
Second, the climate of impunity, extortion, protection money, kidnapping and, in general, crime has become pervasive, which further adds to the argument. More than five thousand murders, mostly of members of the drug mafias, took place last year. Most resulted from the ongoing war involving both the Calderón administration’s decision to recover territories that had long been abandoned by the federal government, as well as the mafias’ relentless war against each other to dominate ever larger markets and regions.
Despite the violence and lawlessness, it is not true that Mexico is on the road to becoming a failed state. If one looks at the indicators that Foreign Policy employs to categorize sixty nations, for example, Mexico’s government shows weaknesses in some, but nothing out of the ordinary. Save for a few specific towns and regions, the government retains effective control of most of the territory, and provides a wide range of services. And it continues to enjoy substantial political legitimacy and support.
On the other hand, a few mega-cartels could end up consolidating themselves in some regions of the country and the criminal mafias might penetrate the government and impose conditions upon it. However, this is not happening today, and the government has the political will and capabilities to deal with it.
Many analysts and commentators, both in the United States and in Mexico, argue that there are only two ways around this conundrum. One would be to negotiate with the mafias; the other is for the government to legalize drugs. Regarding negotiations, even if the government were willing to entertain that possibility (which the Calderón administration, to its credit, is not), it is quite obvious that at present there is nobody with whom to negotiate. The mafias themselves are fighting for their survival and livelihood as they try to retain or expand their territories. In this context, it is possible that, as some of these mafias begin to secure their own space, the violence will begin to wind down. But that would be a very dangerous scenario, for it could imply that one or a few large organizations have become dangerously powerful.
The problem with the legalization issue is more obvious. In the abstract, it is easy to argue that legalization removes the violent component of the narcotics industry, thereby transforming it into one more legitimate business activity. No more violence, no more killings, no more concerns of a failed government on the United States' doorstep. As the history of the Italian mafias shows, however, once a criminal organization exists, it will always be in the business of crime: it may change from alcohol to gambling, or from prostitution to drugs, but it will remain a criminal business. Indeed, many of the early losers in the Mexican drug wars already may have shifted to extortion and kidnapping. Legalization would not alter the picture.
Today, although the Mexican government is not failing, it is waging a major war for which it is ill equipped. The Merida Initiative, a modest program designed for the United States to supply materials, equipment and training to the Mexican police force, goes a long way toward dealing with this problem. In fact, it constitutes a recognition that the United States shares responsibility for the violence in Mexico. As General Barry McCaffrey, former cabinet member of the Clinton administration in charge of U.S. drug policy, writes in a recent report, “The U.S. government cannot impose a solution. The political will is present in Mexico to make the tough decisions that are required to confront a severe menace to the rule of law and the authority of the Mexican state.” But the United States is part of the problem in other ways: the mafias are armed with automatic and assault weapons, and sophisticated technologies that flow freely from the United States. American federal agencies could enforce weapons laws controlling their exportation and, ideally, impose a ban on such exports. Most important, the United States needs to exhibit staying power in its aid to and cooperation with Mexico for, as General McCaffrey says, “This is an eight-year campaign –not a short-term surge.”
Time will tell whether President Calderón succeeds in reestablishing a lasting federal presence throughout the territory and in drastically reducing the violence. But it is already clear that the Mexican government should not ignore the partial parallels to a failed-state that the escalation of violence presents. Equally important, the U.S. government needs to support Mexico’s efforts to avoid a failed-state because if this were to happen, both nations would be severely impacted.
Luis Rubio is Chairman of Centro de Investigación para el Desarrollo, A.C., an independent research institution devoted to the study of political issues, in Mexico City.
This column is based on an excerpt of a policy paper that was published by the University of Miami’s Center for Hemispheric Policy in its Perspectives on the Americas series. Republished with permission of the center.