Adam Elkus Headshot

What If a State Failed and Nobody Cared?

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When most Americans think of Mexico, they probably think of mariachi bands or Tijuana. If they're in a bad mood, they think about illegal immigration or drug gangs. But no one puts Mexico in the same category as a violent, unstable state like Pakistan. No one, that is, except the Pentagon.

"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 U.S. Joint Forces Command cautions in its Joint Operating Environment 2008 report. The report in itself is not a prediction of Mexican collapse but an analytical wargame designed to test all possible contingencies. Nevertheless, the JFCOM report is a wakeup call to an America in denial of our Southern neighbor's increasingly desperate condition.

Mexico is under siege in a bloody drug war that has claimed the lives of thousands. Powerful drug cartels utilizing former Mexican Special Forces operatives as enforcers have wreaked bloody havoc, assassinating beat cop and high-ranking federale alike. Their mission: make Mexican President Felipe Calderon, who cracked down on them with police and military forces, an offer he can't refuse. They will not cease their assault until the Mexican government buckles and recognizes their unlawful authority.

The cartels are empowered by the structural dysfunction of the Mexican state. As Mexican public intellectual Enrique Krauze argues in Mexico: A History of Power, seventy years of one-party rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) have created massive corruption within the Mexican government. The PRI's legacy is the criminalization of the state and the creation of an atmosphere where political power can be bought and sold as a raw commodity.

Immense profits from drug trafficking created an independent base of power that cartels have effectively utilized to co-opt the Mexican state, buying the allegiances of policemen, soldiers, and high-ranking civil servants. This illicit economy has not been affected by Mexico's low real wages and falling oil prices, factors that are sure to deepen the cartels' hold over underpaid government officials.

Mexico will not collapse like Somalia or Afghanistan. Instead, we should fear Mexico as another Colombia -- a feudalized state where the central government cannot exercise power over a multitude of violent non-state actors. A weak Mexican state increases the the power of cartels and puts US citizens at risk from their predations. Illegal immigration may increase -- but this time as refugees rather than economic migrants. And certainly any terrorist group seeking to operate in the Americas would find a feudalized Mexico to be an excellent operations base.

America should offer law enforcement and military advisers, but make aid conditional on genuine Mexican efforts to improve the rule of law. Law enforcement cooperation and intelligence sharing, within reasonable bounds, should also be increased. Whatever aid is offered must be done in a manner that respects Mexican sovereignty and popular sensibilities, taking stock of our negative image throughout Latin America.

Most importantly, coordination should not be limited solely to Washington and Mexico City. Border governors should take the lead in collaborating with their Mexican counterparts in the struggle against disorder and crime. Forums like the annual Border Governors' Conferences should be greatly expanded to give political executives on both sides of the Rio Grande an opportunity to build sustainable strategies combining law enforcement response and social reform.

Looming over the Mexican problem is our failed war on drugs. Mexican cartels owe their prominence to America's insatiable desire for illegal drugs, a desire that defies ham-handed attempts at prohibition. A change in strategy -- whether a more effective means of prohibition or alternatives such as legalization or decriminalization -- is necessary to reduce the power of criminal organizations. Unfortunately, there is a bipartisan consensus to continue the present failing strategy, making a drug policy switch of any kind unlikely in the near future.

We will have to make do with the tools we already possess in order to shore up the Mexican government against non-state threats. But we should never forget that the solution to Mexico's problems ultimately lies in the resilience and ingenuity of the Mexican people themselves, not Washington diktat. Our heavy-handed drug war strategies in South America succeeded only in turning the people against us -- and a Mexican stabilization operation must not become another Plan Colombia.

Walling off the problem, as many anti-immigration groups suggest, is impossible in a world of globalized threats and porous borders. And indifference, like a subprime mortgage, is sure to incur a steep cost.