Monday, February 23, 2009

Let's Understand Mexico's Troubles Correctly

The State Department has just renewed a traveler's advisory warning. A military report suggests Mexico might, in worst-case scenarios, fall victim to "rapid and sudden collapse." An Albuquerque Journal article ominously reads, "Mexico Verges On Failed State Status." The violence spills over to the U.S. side in many border towns, including El Paso, where the city council approved a resolution (vetoed by the mayor) calling for an open debate about drug legalization as a means of stemming the violence. Are these dire warnings for real?

As is the case with many stories about the U.S.-Mexico border, there is a strong tendency to exaggerate. Just a few years ago commentators were talking about the dissolving U.S.-Mexican border, and a post-border epoch was imagined as about to begin, where the practical meaning of border controls was about to be reduced, if not eliminated. One glance at the new border fences in the Paso del Norte region is enough to assure anyone that these fantasies were just that. And today, Mexico is in no greater danger of "collapsing" than the U.S. was in the scary aftermath of 9/11. Our institutions remained intact, there was national resolve to go on with our business, and life went on. So too in Mexico the institutions of the state remain intact, there is national resolve to go on with business, and life goes on.

But if Mexico as a nation state is in no danger of collapse, this doesn't mean there isn't a problem on Mexico's northern borders. In Cd. Juarez last year more than 1600 persons died violently in drug-trafficking-related incidences, a record high. At its worst moment as the homicide capital of the U.S., in 1991, Washington DC registered a rate of homicide that was half the size of Juarez's rate in 2008. Drug-related homicides are not solely the province of turf battles among rival criminal gangs. Increasingly, government officials are targeted for murder, and in the border states a palpable current of fear is evident as other indices of crime have skyrocketed, including "express" kidnappings and armed robbery and assault. Many restaurants in Cd. Juarez are closing at 8 p.m., since fear of these robberies has dissuaded many citizens from venturing out at night.

What appears to be happening is that state and local institutions are losing their ability to maintain law and order consistently in areas where drug traffickers formerly were able to operate with impunity. The resources available to the strongest drug traffickers can overwhelm honest local and state law enforcement efforts and, in truth, elements within local and state institutions have been compromised for a long time, making it difficult for honest agents to know exactly who is who within a law enforcement agency. Federal drug enforcement agencies have for a long time suffered from the same problem, and the Mexican national government has had a difficult time making honest brokers out of drug enforcement officials across the board. While at the moment the scenario has all of the makings of a serious crisis on the border, it also provides an opportunity for the government and citizens alike to reflect on the kinds of changes the Mexican law enforcement system must make in order to remake antiquated institutions in a sharper image of the needs of the twenty first century.

Given the fact that drug trafficking in Mexico is attractive almost exclusively because of the demand for drugs in the U.S., and that in the U.S. drug policy has for several decades been heavily border-intensive, focusing on interception of drugs at the border, rather than aimed at demand reduction, this would be a good moment for U.S. national policymakers to state an obvious fact: the failure of U.S. border controls to intercept more than a trickle of the volume of drugs entering from Mexico, is an important factor in Mexico's current border crisis. So important, in fact, that it is impossible to imagine success at any level without stronger serious cooperation between the two countries.

Cooperation with Mexican law enforcement agencies has been problematic up to now, for good reasons. Drug organizations have penetrated the higher levels of law enforcement as well as lower levels, in Mexico, and a serious exchange of intelligence at the operational level would probably result simply in tipping off the criminal gangs.

But the U.S. has a growing corruption problem on our side, too, and more can be done to foster cooperation between the two countries. A period of thorough re-examination of U.S. drug enforcement policy is in order, and this time it should be done without taboo subjects, without preconditions, and in conjunction with a stronger strategic, rather than operational, consultation with the highest levels of official Mexico. It might be helpful, as well, if state and local officials, who after all have felt the greatest burden on the border, were part of this conversation, as well as the citizens living in the border region.

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