Steven Pinker is a big believer that things have been getting better for humanity in many ways for a long time. At the dawn of the Twenty-First Century, you could look at Central and South America for signs of progress. At the start of the century, Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) finally yielded its monopoly on political power in favor of multi-party democracy.
From 1929 to 2000, the PRI deployed patronage to hold power. Along the way, as in any other one-party state, corruption became endemic. Obviously, in retrospect, one of the most important tasks of post-PRI government would be to build up honest and competent public administration right from the base to the peak of government. It was going to take time.
Mexico turned out not to have any time. At the same time that Mexico moved toward multi-party democracy, another improvements took place. Columbia won its long war against drug cartels. Mexican crime gangs who had served as conduits for Columbian drugs now took over production as well. Then they fought each other—and any interlopers—for control of the trade. Along the way, policemen, prosecutors, and judges “on the pad” became a valuable resource. This happened just as Mexico tried to abandon the PRI’s policies. Now a “vacuum of corruption” sent public officials in search of new patrons.
The drug cartels appeared invulnerable to the normal justice system. The “narcos” even began to become celebrated public figures. In 2006, the Michoacan cartel let loose a carnival of highly public, grisly killings. Also in 2006, Felipe Calderon squeaked through a close election to become president of Mexico. Calderon decided to fight the drug cartels as hard as possible. Knowing that the local police and courts were in the pockets of the cartels (and that they were incapable from long habit in any case), Calderon opted for a response from the national level. Resources were diverted from local government to the military, which had the firepower to shoot it out with the gangs. The government targeted the cartels’ leaders.
It worked—up to a point. Cartels were de-capitated over and over again. Factions formed and succession battles blazed in the streets. However, the younger and wilder new drug lords led smaller gangs than had the older cartel chiefs. They had less cash piled up; they had fewer connections with cops and judges; their connections to suppliers and distribution networks were thinner. Many of them got pushed out of the business. These losers in the Jurassic Park of Mexican drug dealing branched out into other forms of violent crime. Kidnappings for ransom, armed robberies, and extortion all rose sharply. This pushed the war between drug gangs and between the gangs and the government into the lives of ordinary civilians.
All across Mexico the government is losing not just the war against crime, but the war for its own survival. Popular revulsion against the corruption and ineffectiveness of the government is leading to gangs becoming the effective government in many places. Or it is leading to private self-defense initiatives—militias, security contractors, lynchings–that ask nothing of the state.
A failing state on the southern border should deeply concern citizens of the United States.
 Max Fisher and Amanda Taub, “Mexico’s Record Violence Is a Crisis 20 Years in the Making,” NYT, 29 October 2017.
 Old NYPD parlance for crooked cops. See: Peter Maas, Serpico (1973).