The Meaning of Murders in Mexico.

            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.[1]  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”[2] 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.[3]  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. 


[1] Max Fisher and Amanda Taub, “Mexico’s Record Violence Is a Crisis 20 Years in the Making,” NYT, 29 October 2017. 

[2] Old NYPD parlance for crooked cops.  See: Peter Maas, Serpico (1973). 

[3] See for example, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Narcocorrido   

Narcostate within a State.

The Clinton administration (1992-2000) made a great push against the Columbian drug cartels and this effort was continued by the Bush administration (2000-2008). American blocking of sea and air imports forced the Columbians to switch to overland shipments through Mexico. A Mexican gang—the Guadalajara cartel– then sank their talons into the flow of drugs. “If you want to move it through Mexico, then we’re the ones who are going to move it. Or else.” In 1989 the leader of the cartel got arrested. His former subordinates grabbed chunks of turf, creating the Sinaloa, Juarez, and Tijuana cartels. Then they started to fight with one another for larger shares of the flow.

Mexican drug gangs haul in an estimated $8 billion to $23 billion a year. This kind of money buys a lot in a poor country. It buys machine guns and rocket-launchers, policemen and judges, politicians and government officials, and lots and lots of gunmen. From 2006 to 2008 drug gangs killed 3,500 people; during 2008 they killed 6,000; and by April 2009 they killed a further 1,000. Often they did it in gruesome fashion. Possibly as many as 60,000 people have been killed. In a sense, every level of Mexican society has a stake in the trade. Almost half a million Mexicans are involved in the business in some way; songs celebrating the drug lords (”narcocorridos”) are wildly popular with poor Mexicans, and Raul Salinas, the brother of a former president, is sometimes alleged to be the ruler of the Mexican drug transportation business. (“The gang war that’s ravaging Mexico,” The Week, 21 March 2008, p. 11.)

Nevertheless Mexican president Felipe Calderone moved aggressively against the drug lords from early 2007 on. Why did he do so? The huge profits from the drug trade allowed the drug lords to begin buying chunks of the legitimate economy. In a sense they posed a grave threat to the ruling elite in Mexico by seizing both its economic and political power. War followed between the drug lords and the government. When the drug gangs savaged the police forces, Calderone called in the army. Forty-five thousand soldiers flooded into some of the most lawless towns of Mexico. Thousands of low level gun men and dealers have been arrested. However, it isn’t clear that the government is winning this fight. The army may prove just as vulnerable to corruption as have the police and the rest of the government. (“Mexico’s brutal drug war,” The Week, 10 April 2009, p. 11.)

What are the national security implications of this for the United States? The violence and corruption creates the danger that Mexico’s government will collapse or fall captive to the drug lords. This will put a narco-state on the porous border with the United States. If we can’t keep out the drugs or the illegal immigrants, how are we going to keep out the killers and corruptors? For a long time, we didn’t: they were just busy in Mexico. Now the Mexican drug gangs have invaded the United States. They operate in 230 American cities. (“Mexico’s brutal drug war,” The Week, 10 April 2009, p. 11.)

The Sinaloa cartel is the most powerful of these. It centers its American operations in Chicago because it is a major transportation hub in the center of America’s densest population distribution. Moreover, there is a suspicion that the Sinaloa cartel cooperates with the DEA to weed-out other cartels. Apparent victories in the “war on drugs” merely hide the growing power of the Sinaloa cartel. (“Mexico’s drug kings,” The Week, 31 January 2014, p. 9.)