Mexico’s crime wave needs cross-border solutions

George Philip

Organised crime, and particularly the drugs trade, has put Mexico on the map for the wrong reasons. Although the media has at times exaggerated the scale of the problem, the challenges facing Mexico are serious enough. Estimates suggest that approximately 35,000 people have died since President Felipe Calderon launched his administration’s war on the drug cartels in December 2006.

Politics could yet make it worse. One risk now is that the elections due to be held in Mexico in 2012 – for the presidency, congress and several state governorships – will bring to power at least some politicians who would prefer to come to some agreement with the crime cartels rather than fight them. Another risk is that the US elections in 2012 will open up old wounds in US-Mexican relations.

On the face of it, the crime cartels should not be prospering to the extent that they are. Mexico’s long-term problems are no more serious than those of Colombia, and yet optimism about the future of Colombia is growing, which cannot be said of Mexico. The main issues are political and have to do with problems in US-Mexican relations. A recent diplomatic spat between Mexico and the USA over Wikileaked documents has highlighted the sensitivities.

History explains much of the difficulty, as all Mexicans know that the USA used military force to seize more than half of their territory in the 19th century. It was a bitter defeat that Mexico long ago responded to by trying to have as little to do with the USA as possible. This put Mexico on its own political trajectory, which was not reversed until the 1980s – by which time the drugs trade from Mexico to the USA was already growing rapidly.

As recently as the mid-1980s, Mexico and the USA could reasonably be described, as journalist Alan Riding put it, as “distant neighbours”. Although Mexico traded more with the USA than anywhere else, its economy was rather closed and its authoritarian political system opaque and wrapped up in secrecy. Both economic and political nationalism were powerful factors in its political system.

By the same token, the USA saw Mexico as somewhere very clearly foreign. When it tried to deal with issues like undocumented migration and the drugs traffic, it did so unilaterally and ineffectually. And when the USA was periodically called in to bail out Mexico’s public finances, it showed little of the usual understanding that might be expected towards an important trading partner.

But over the last generation there has been a dramatic process of integration within North America, especially since Mexico joined the USA in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994. Even before that, trade and investment between the two countries were increasing dramatically – and this trend has continued.

While economic integration has had mostly positive results, there have been other areas in which the growing interconnectedness has bred friction.

The most obvious cause of tension is the enormous increase in Mexican migration to the USA. Much of this is entirely legal, but there are also an estimated 12 million illegals of Mexican origin currently in the USA, although the numbers have tended to level off in the last few years. Since there is little prospect of the USA either deporting or amnestying 12 million people – for logistical, political and economic reasons – this is likely to be a sore point in US-Mexican relations for years to come. The US government also believes, mostly correctly, that the Mexican authorities – keen though they may be to fight organised crime – are not so keen on clamping down on illegal migration.

Some issues that are relevant to the one country are also relevant to the other – including the easy availability of false papers on the Mexican side. Recent Wikileaked documents show clearly the extent of US frustration at this – such as a cable from the US Embassy to the State Department (dated 27 October 2009 and published in El Pais on 23 February 2011) complaining that “organised crime and drug-trafficking rings also have links to increased production of counterfeit documents”.

Conversely, from the Mexican perspective, the receipt of billions of dollars in remittances from the USA, have helped take the edge off serious social discontent while domestic living standards continue to rise only slowly.

There are also around 30 million US citizens with some degree of Mexican origin. These so-called ‘Hispanics’ already play a decisive role in US politics – helping to elect Barack Obama to office in 2008 – and are likely to play an increasingly pivotal role in future. Republicans living in states of the US south-west, who see themselves as the main losers from this demographic change, are resentful of this. They will, though, be unable to prevent it. There has been enormous change in Mexican political terms too.

Mexico is now a better-functioning democracy than it was. Few people would dispute that this has been a change for the better, but there have been some unwelcome side-effects. For example, while Mexico has significantly strengthened the rule of law domestically and has also signed a whole swathe of international agreements that commit it to international norms, some parts of the Mexican state are still wedded to old authoritarian practices. Conversely, democratisation makes some once-effective authoritarian behaviour unfeasible. In the past, Mexican presidents could order dramatic arrests of powerful but sinister characters who were believed to be involved in criminality but against whom formal proof was hard to assemble.

Today, the president cannot order arbitrary arrests and must instead try to get the system of law enforcement and the courts to work better. This would be a hard thing to do in any country given the fact that the crime bosses are ‘malefactors of great wealth’ with an almost unlimited power to suborn public officials.

Meanwhile, the Mexican authorities have reasons for irritation with the USA. Probably top of the list is the notorious US gun lobby. Tolerant legislation and lax enforcement have meant that organised criminals have been able to buy highly sophisticated automatic weapons in the USA and smuggle them back into Mexico. That is one reason why the Mexican authorities have had little choice but to use the army to tackle drugs crime, despite the army’s doubtful human rights record. The police and other government agencies are also inhibited by inter-jurisdictional conflicts and by a low level of public esteem generally. Reports that Mexico is ‘losing the drug war’ seem to be gaining credence.

Questions have also been raised on both sides of the border about whether the illegalisation of drugs is really necessary. The possibility of legalising marijuana was recently discussed by an international panel – which included Mexico’s highly respected former president, Ernesto Zedillo – and a similar proposal was only narrowly defeated in a referendum in California last year. It is far from impossible that drugs legislation will be liberalised significantly in at least some US states in the coming years. This raises complex issues about whether, and if so how, Mexico should follow suit.

However, the key point about the Mexican gangs has to do with the violence and insecurity that they cause rather than how the drug trade should be regulated. For this reason, it is ominous that some politically well-placed Mexicans are believed to be quietly willing to offer a kind of truce with organised crime – the politicians would accept bribes and look the other way, while the criminals would show restraint in dealing with the general public.

To prevent such an outcome, a significant degree of US-Mexican cooperation is clearly necessary. The problem is that, given the political sensitivities, these raise fears of political interference. The old sensitivities have not gone away.

While there are indeed difficulties, one should not be too alarmist about the future – at least not yet. Mexico’s economy and public finances are in good shape. The efficiency of the Mexican state is on the whole increasing, and the popularity of crime bosses – which was once dangerously high – has declined in the face of extreme atrocities committed by the gangs in order to frighten their rivals. These have included high-profile kidnappings, beheadings and the public display of decapitated bodies with warning notices.

But the public is now demanding an end to all the drug-related violence and is responding with passionate anti-crime demonstrations.

What the war against Mexico’s crime wave most needs now is political will. The 2012 elections on both sides of the border will tell us a lot about whether this exists. Organised crime, and particularly the drugs trade, has put Mexico on the map for the wrong reasons.

About the author:

George Philip is Professor of Comparative and Latin American Politics at the London School of Economics.


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