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What “failed state”?

4 February 2009

Mexico Trucker — one of the best websites on Mexico ever (and a heck of a lot slicker than this one) — looks at what the real experts (as opposed to the Fox News reporters who was “embedded in Tijuana” — sounds like he was holed up in a whorehouse, doesn’t it?) say.  A nice selection of thoughts from the left, right and center about the blather over a “failed state”

Yann Kerevel writes at Allterdestiny;

If anyone has been following headline’s in the U.S. press about Mexico in the last month or two, you might have noticed a lot of alarmist and sensationalist garbage being thrown around suggesting that Mexico is coming close to collapse, is a “failed state” or a “narco state.” Fox news has been spreading this message, along with a number of political commentators on the Sunday morning talk shows, and even Rolling Stone.

The violence in Mexico is worrying, and cause for concern, but the rhetoric seems to lead the uninformed to think Mexico is more like Somalia. It is definitely not.

…Stephen Haber, who is a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution and a professor of political science at Stanford University…. states in part,

Mexico — which is most decidedly not a failing state — there has been a quiet but substantial movement toward the creation of societies that are characterized by increased economic opportunity, social mobility and political democracy.

… There are no foreign troops on Mexican soil. There is no martial law. Garbage is picked up, streets are swept and children go to school. Middle-class couples take weekend getaways, and drive there on highways as good as those in the United States. After falling for a decade, Mexico’s homicide rate increased in 2008, because the Calderón government courageously decided to take on the drug traffickers. If it keeps rising, it may soon be as high as that of…Louisiana.

From the Foreign Policy Blog, we’re seeing similar analysis;

1.The narcogangs still seem to be largely focused on fighting each other, not on bringing down the Mexican state. They have stepped up attacks on Mexican officials, police, and the army, but more out of necessity because Calderon has taken the war to them. …

2. The gangs have no political agenda; their main goal remains selling dope. They are not providing basic services to Mexico’s citizens, nor are they trying to create a parallel system of political order to rival the Mexican state and erode its legitimacy in the eyes of the people. In fact, even if most Mexicans think the gangs are winning, they by all accounts still hate them and what they are doing to the country.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. David Morgan permalink
    4 February 2009 10:50 am

    I’m not very impressed by these analyses. Haber’s article sounds like he’s bought shares in Foxilandia! And as for a “failed state”, the definition goes far beyond the issue of violence.

    It’s facile to say that the state isn’t failing because there’s still garbage collection and schools open – both of which are under the control of municipios rather than the federal government. And anyone who thinks that Mexican highways generally are as good as those of the United States obviously hasn’t travelled any significant distance in Mexico or encountered the routine pozos and baches which put many lunar mega craters to shame! That doesn’t include the various complete collapses of mountain roads, mudslides, bridges etc. Of course there are one or two nice cuota roads…

    The (alleged) “narco violence” is just the tip of the iceberg. What about the kidnappings, the ever increasing violent robberies, burglaries, armed assaults – not to mention the mordidas? And above all the sheer level of corruption and almost total impunity?

    From the article in Wikipedia (look it up) the indicators of a failed state include:

    1. Demographic pressures (Campesinos are staying put?)
    2. Massive movement of refugees and internally displaced peoples (Shanty towns?)
    3. Legacy of vengeance-seeking group grievance (No vigilante groups appearing?)
    4. Chronic and sustained human flight (Mojados anyone?)
    5. Uneven economic development along group lines (No significant inequality?)
    6. Sharp and/or severe economic decline (Don’t mention Cemex, Vitro or the peso!)
    7. Criminalization and/or delegitimisation of the state (Corruption, police forces?)
    8. Progressive deterioration of public services (Citizens are protected from violence?)
    9. Widespread violation of human rights (Atenco? Oaxaca?)
    10. Security apparatus as ‘state within a state’ (Cartels, PFP?)
    11. Rise of factionalised elites (Nobody expects El Yunque!)
    12. Intervention of other states or external factors (Cartels again)

    Don’t get me wrong, I love Mexico but we don’t do anyone any favours by glossing over the inconvenient truths. I have friends and family who live in a state of terror these days in Mexico, afraid to leave their homes except for the most essential journeys. Friends who have been kidnapped, others who suffer daily extorsion from corrupt transitos, ones who have been in the crossfire of the almost daily gunfights (most not narco related, just day to day armed robberies). And all of whom wouldn’t dream of calling the police because they would rather not be robbed, beaten, extorted, locked up or shot all over again!

    Why are foreign investors pulling out of the country? Why are empresarios moving en-masse to the United States? Why are investors dumping Mexican government bonds?

    Mexico is not yet a failed state, but it’s teetering on a very narrow fence…

  2. el_longhorn permalink
    4 February 2009 12:07 pm

    I 100% agree with the above poster. And I love Mexico. But it is hard not to describe parts of Mexico as a failed state right now, particularly the northern border cities.

  3. 4 February 2009 8:45 pm

    I would respectfully disagree with the above poster, although this economic situation is far worse than anyone thinks, and will do more to sink Calderon and the PAN than any other factor – including narcos. (Witness the uproarious comments recently from PAN president German Martinez about the economic crisis as he said, “It’s not our doing.” So what. Voters will only blame one party.)

    To address these points.

    1. Campesinos have been departing rural Mexico for decades. Visit rural Jalisco, Guanajuato and Zacatecas and you’ll witness a generations’ old tradition.

    2. Internal migration has always been robust. Mexico City pulls in people from the outlying provinces like a magnet. Places like Cancun and Baja California Sur are also attracting internal migrants abandoning small towns.

    3. As for the rest of these points, talk of unrest has been rife since the Revolution – with it ebbing and flowing. Human rights have not been respected. Long before Atenco and Oaxaca there was the Agua Blanca massacre in Guerrero and crackdowns on strikes – like the railway workers in the 50s. (What about the Dirty War, also?)

    Cops have long been crooked. (Is it any worse now than Mexico City in the 70s under Arturo Durazo?) Inequality has unfortunately been rampant, while the pesos has crashed several times. Yes there’s an elite, but long before the Yunque – the biggest boogeyman in Mexican politics – got close to power there were PRI elites and other shadowy outfits like the Tecos. As for public services, it’s hit or miss.

    This country has long been troubled. Thus I’m skeptical of all this “failed state” talk, although I would confidently say it’s fueling a PRI revival. Who else is offering “order” and a firm hand in tough times?

  4. el_longhorn permalink
    5 February 2009 1:06 pm

    Mexico is a rough and tumble country, has been for a long time – no doubt about that. But when in recent Mexican history have narcos been able to gun down people in a bar or restaurant (including innocent bystanders) with total impunity? When have people attacked newspapers, tv, and radio stations with grenades and not feared prosecution from the police? When have the police (local, state and federal) been too afraid to intervene in a gun battle in the streets, in the middle of a city? When have mayors and police chiefs been assassinated, with the assassins fearing no arrest or reprisal?

    There is a difference between the corrupt, poorly trained police that Mexico is used to and the complete absence of police authority that much of northern Mexico is experiencing.

  5. David Morgan permalink
    5 February 2009 8:27 pm

    El_longhorn has made the very point that I would. It’s not that corruption, mass migration, inequality, violence and impunity etc., are somehow new phenomena, but that the sheer scale and intensity of these (and many other problems) has recently reached intolerable proportions.

    Ten years ago in some areas like Monterrey for example, a typical example of average police corruption was that for a minor but real traffic infraction, you slipped the officer 100 pesos to “thank” him for not giving you a multa and got away with it! Nowadays, you are lucky if you don’t get randomly stopped whilst committing no offence whatsoever and the officer doesn’t put a gun to your head, and demand 2500 dollars (not pesos) not to go and kill your family because he has your ID and knows where you live! This is no exaggeration, this has happened to people I know.

    Only about 6 months ago, many of my friends and family told me I was being alarmist when I told them I was worried about increasing violent crime, the response for the most part was that such things only happen to narcos and if you avoid getting involved with narcos you will never have a problem. Today, not one of my family or friends disagrees with me because most of them have seen it first hand and some unfortunately have been victims. And in nearly all cases the violence and disorder they have witnessed has had nothing to do with narcos. It’s been things like shop robberies in broad daylight by gangs with heavy automatic weapons whilst police either stand by and watch without intervening or simply run away! Or being stopped at retenes and threatened by corrupt police. Or simply finding themselves in a hail of bullets whilst walking down the street whilst various unidentified armed groups engage in gunfights openly in the street. A friend of mine who ran a successful string of tiendas had to close and sell them all because of the daily armed robberies. She also lives in a reasonable area in a well secured house which was never burgled in the previous 10 years she lived there. Today she tells me that every few days somebody tries to literally smash their way in at night and she lives in a state of terror, too afraid to even let her children go to school. Which doesn’t matter because, incidentally, the school has since closed because they started getting broad extorsion demands that if the school didn’t pay a daily ransom the children would be kidnapped or killed.

    I know dozens of people who had successful businesses who have recently simply shut up shop and gone away – most of them to other countries. Not because of the global economic crisis or any business failure but simply because they couldn’t operate in such a severe climate of violence and corruption, being threatened and attacked from all sides (both “official” and criminal) on a daily basis.

    I could write vastly more if I were so inclined on the false statistics being promoted by government offices, the blatant misappropriation of funds, the corruption of public officials and more. Sure, these things have always happened in Mexico (and in every other country too!) but never so openly and in such a blatantly cynical way as in Mexico today. The reason of course is because there is effectively no law enforcement to deter such things, and in the almost total absence of law what can you reasonably call it other than a “failed state”?

  6. 6 February 2009 6:31 am

    Thanks for the kind words Richard.

    I have to disagree in theory with the other two posters.

    Having homes in Nuevo Laredo and Monterrey, and traveling between the two, as well as frequent road trips to Celaya and the City, the roads are excellent, in my opinion and experience. In many cases, much better than in the US, and I drive 130,000 miles a year on US roads.

    When the “way” started a couple of years ago in Nuevo Laredo, the first “battle” was at Ave Colon y Reforma, about 1/2 mile from my home. We heard it, saw it on TV and lived the aftermath.

    For the citizens of Nuevo Laredo, life continues as normal, albeit with a certain wariness.

    When they suspended all law enforcement in Nuevo Laredo and only had a few patrols of PFP and PET on the streets, things were quiet and life went on as normal. Matter of fact, there seemed to be less crime on the streets. We survived.

    The violence never touched the civilian population. But the bad guys, when they wanted someone dead, they were dead with little or no collateral damage.

    It’s been two years now, violence free in Nuevo Laredo, with the exception of the occasional “crime of passion’.

    There are still small pockets of corruption, especially in the ranks of the transito, those who haven’t been caught yet. The Policia have been vetted and retrained and the ranks filled with new, better educated and motivated recruits and la mordida has practically disappeared. (The exception being the old bastards that patrol Boystown)

    In my travels, which have been many in Mexico, I have NEVER been harrassed by any Mexican authority. The military that operates checkpoints throughout the country have always been polite and very professional in their duties. I have been asked very politely to use my seatbelt by transito in Monterrey and Celaya spoiling a perfect opportunity for the cop to ask for a “handout”.

    People look for the bad about Mexico. They are quick to seize upon a small thing and blow it up into something ugly and for the most part, it is people that have no idea what Mexico is about nor anything about it people or society.

    Many of these so called experts, have gained their expertise from drunken forays into the whorehouse of the border towns, or from the protection and isolation of 5 star hotels in the DF. Others become experts from frequent vacations to Puerto Vallerta, C ancun and other “destinations”. None of these portray the real Mexico.

    I applaud Calderon for the courage he has shown going after the cartels and I hope his successor has the same cojones to continue.

    Personally, I would like to see the Mexican government throw all caution aside and go after these bad boys without restraint.

  7. el_longhorn permalink
    6 February 2009 1:17 pm

    I am from Laredo and know N. Laredo, Monterrey and most of the towns in between (Sabinas, Bustamante, Villaldama) very well – I have family throughout the area.

    If things are so good in N. Laredo, why did Cannanas (a popular club/bar) move to Laredo? What about La Unica, and El Rancho and all the other bars and restaurants in N. Laredo – why have they all moved to Laredo? Why have so many people from N. Laredo boarded up their houses and moved to Laredo? Why is this happening all across the border? What about the tax on every trailer moving through N. Laredo by the Gulf Cartel? Is that just the cost of doing business nowadays?

    It is true that if you are not a narco, you are probably OK. But it is also true that if the narcos gang rape your sister, the police will not come and help. The narcos completely and totally control N. Laredo, and Sabinas. They are working on Monterrey. Who knows, maybe they will do a better job running things than previous bosses, but for all intents and purposes, much of northern Mexico is under the control of the cartels.

  8. 6 February 2009 2:49 pm

    When I said things were good/peaceful, take it as you will, I was referring to day to day life.

    This clubs moved during the height of the “war”, although EL Rancho is still in business. I had dinner there the other night.

    I couldn’t tell you about any “taxes” on trailers other than to say our company moves trailers in and out of Mexico without paying anything other than the duties required in the aduanes.

    Sure, the cartels have a handle on things and if you’re not a narco or wannabe, chances are you’ll have no problems.

    And speaking of the cartels.. With all the fear mongering going on trying to convince people the war is coming to the US, people don’t stop to think with the cartels in control of who and what crosses the border, they are another line in the defense of the US.

    It is in their best interest not to let anything cross that could cause the US to put a military clamp down on the border.

  9. Don Quixote permalink
    6 February 2009 11:24 pm

    It is impossible to discuss Mexico without bringing in the heavy hand the U.S. has in her problems. Those so-called “drug wars” are being fought with U.S. arms and ammo and a lot of U.S. dollars (Merida initiative). The entire root cause is our fiendish insatiable demand. As drugs flow north, our guns and ammo flow south.

    Gringos get high. Mexicans die. Nice.

    But you hardly ever hear about our own hand in all this. It simply doesn’t jive with how we imagine ourselves as a morally and culturally supreme nation and society. Forget that the U.S. drug-related murder rates are much, much higher, and the wealth gap is lower here, but most people would be surprised to find that there’s not a huge difference. Check out the CIA World Factbook.

    We forget history. We forget that Mexico’s poor is their massive indigenous population. We forget that the U.S. was particularly efficient at the mass genocide of its own indigenous. The gap between our Warren Buffet, and the poorest Native American tribes isn’t all that the different from the gap between Carlos Slim and the poorest Mexican indigenous tribes. In order for the military-industrial-political complex to get public support for mass militarization of our southern border, fences, detention centers and all, Mexico needs to be demonized. We have to made afraid, very afraid of her in order to allow our tax dollars to line the pockets of Boeing and Halliburton. The brown people need to be made to appear really scary and menacing. Mexico must be rhetorically conflated with terrorism, and we have to use war words to do this. Our media becomes a state tool to dose the sheeple. Hence the “drug war.” Hence the war against “illegals”. The skittish gringos have to see Mexico as a failing/failed state which can’t govern itself, a defective culture and race.

    With only about 5% fo the world’s population, we consume the vast majority of all illegal drugs. Mexico has the misfortune (fortune if you’re a drug cartel) of being wedged between the the world’s most insatiable drug fiends to her north, and the world’s largest producers of drugs to her south. But we’re not supposed to notice how so many of our citizens, young and old, rich and poor, find it necessary to numb themselves with so many drugs. We’re not supposed to ask: What is sick about our society?

    What is more pathetic? A wealthy society that puts illegal toxic substances up its nose, in its lungs, in its veins, etc. to numb itself? Or a poor nation that gives it what it wants? They’re both pretty pathetic but the former takes the cake in my estimation.


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