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The Silent War in Mexico

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Family members grieve in front of a car in which two men lay dead on March 22, 2010 in Juarez, Mexico. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

A war is raging in Mexico, but silence from newspapers, international organizations, and politicians has prevented most U.S. citizens — and indeed many publics around the globe — from taking notice. The war is not dissimilar from the violent conflicts in the Northern triangle in Central America. The immigration flows from Central America into the United States have, however, provided greater visibility for the plight of countries like Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, polities beset by seemingly intractable wars between governments and drug trafficking criminal gangs. There is more awareness — even among those Americans who support the Trump Administration’s approach to Central American would-be migrants — of the insecurity that characterizes everyday life in places like San Pedro Sula, San Salvador, or Guatemala City. But in the case of Mexico, the combined effect of a Mexican foreign policy premised on “aquí no pasa nada” (nothing happens here), and a U.S. foreign policy establishment habituated to looking far beyond its own borders, has made Mexico’s plight somewhat invisible.

For the past ten years, the government of Mexico has actively worked to downplay the seriousness of the security situation. Beyond national pride, these efforts were motivated by a perceived need to dispel any notion of Mexico being at risk of becoming a failed state. Back in 2009, when some analysts began talking about state failure in the Mexican context, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a trip south in order to display explicit U.S. support for the Mexican war on drugs and to dispel any notion of the lack of capacity of the Mexican state. The Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs regularly instructs its ambassadors and consular officials to neutralize discussions related to violence and drug trafficking, emphasizing that the vast majority of the national territory is actually safe, notwithstanding the detailed travel advisories issued by the State Department. And Mexican federal administrations have been reluctant to seek out help from multilateral aid agencies in fears that it may reinforce any image of state fragility.

The downplaying strategy has worked in part because the security situation in Mexico is geographically uneven. A Level 4 State Department travel advisory — “Do not travel” — has been established for the Mexican states of Colima, Guerrero, Michoacán, Sinaloa, and Tamaulipas. Presumably these places in Mexico are as unsafe as the other countries in that category — namely Afghanistan, Central African Republic, North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Mali, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. Yet U.S. and European tourists continue to flock to Mexican beach resort enclaves, to a large extent because they correctly perceive they are in no greater risk in those hotels and towns than in any island of the Caribbean.

Similarly, business-as-usual continues among those involved in managing North American supply chains; major economic players in the region are not particularly interested in highlighting the current levels of violence. Indeed, the profound economic integration of the North American economies under NAFTA (now USCMA) has not been visibly disrupted by the drug war. Meanwhile, Mexicans who have done well for themselves live in their gated communities and hire private security to protect them. This is, after all, one of the privileges they get from living in such an unequal country: their incomes are high enough, while the salaries of their private guards are low enough, that they can afford to pay for their own protection.

The war in Mexico has taken more than 200,000 lives in the past ten years, mostly young men in their prime. Mass graves dot the Mexican landscape, with tens of thousands of people gone missing, most presumed killed. Entire towns have been displaced.

Among political scientists, a conventional definition of an interstate or civil war is when a conflict involves over 1,000 war-related casualties per year, with a minimum of 100 from each side. Mexico surpassed this conventional threshold more than a decade ago. The last few weeks alone have seen the deaths of Mexican law enforcement, community police, and soldiers numbering in the triple digits. Just a few weeks ago, at least 14 state police officers lost their lives in an ambush in Aguililla, Michoacán. In that same state, at the end of May, municipal police stations in the city of Zamora were attacked, leaving three police officers dead and ten seriously wounded. In Tepalcatepec, one of the most infamous Mexican drug cartels, the Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación, clashed with the local militia in a declared war against their leader “El Abuelo,” leaving nine dead and 11 wounded. Although Michoacán is currently a hotspot of violence, the war is raging in many other states, including Guerrero, where a confrontation left 14 civilians and one soldier dead in the village of Tepochica three weeks ago.

The Guerrero Violence Project offers perhaps the most comprehensive effort to document violent death in another Mexican state, where the now infamous resort of Acapulco is located. Chris Kyle and his collaborators document 372 violent deaths between June 1 and July 31 of this year, including dozens of police officers — most of them volunteer indigenous community police — as well as drug traffickers. There is also the collateral damage of the deaths of taxi drivers, peasants, students, car-washers, peddlers, tourists and their guides. This source also documents dozens of unidentified bodies found in the streets or in mass graves. In many other states in Mexico we simply do not have such detailed documentation of the death toll from the war. Violent death has become routinized for millions of Mexicans who live amidst the conflict.

The administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO as he is generally known) came into power a year ago with the promise of taking a different approach toward violence and drug traffic organizations than that of his predecessors. The hawkish administration of Felipe Calderón Hinojosa (2006–2012) embraced a callous stance against organized crime, responding with an escalation of a declared war on drug traffic organizations. The strategy was based on the faulty premise of believing that the best way to weaken drug cartels was by beheading the organizations, capturing or killing the leaders and lieutenants. The strategy turned out to produce even more violence, as fragmented and undisciplined criminal organizations competed for the vacuums of power left by captured or missing kingpins.

The administration of Enrique Peña Nieto (2012–2018) did not shift the core elements of this national security strategy, except that it used a different approach of public communication, choosing to downplay events related to violence and public safety. AMLO has promised to change the strategy into one that seeks to emphasize peace, reconciliation and prevention. He has created a National Guard, mostly drawing form the military that were already carrying out police activities throughout the territory. But beyond the surface rhetoric and these symbolic moves, it’s hard to say if there is a more developed strategy waiting to be deployed.

The scenarios for a more coherent security strategy in Mexico are not very promising, and there seems to be little room for maneuver. It is possible that violence will continue to gradually spread, while a few enclaves will concentrate federal manpower and security resources to ensure that their inhabitants are protected. This scenario would imply a normalization of the current violence. Mexico City, some of the main tourist resorts, and maybe some of the border cities would remain somewhat safe, while the rest of the country will bleed more and more profusely.

That’s a projection of what maintaining the status quo would yield. But there is also a more catastrophic scenario, of which we recently got a foretaste in Culiacán, Sinaloa. There, a botched attempt to capture the son of “El Chapo” Guzmán led to an urban siege, shootouts, and the eventual liberation of the criminal — a controversial decision made by the Federal government on the argument that Guzman’s release prevented mass bloodshed of civilians and soldiers alike. The seriousness of what happened in Culiacán cannot be downplayed. It was not just one more episode of political violence, unrest, or the display of incompetence by the government. The Mexican state was unable to exercise its legitimate monopoly on the use of force.

Criminal organizations may take the example of Culiacán as a signal that they can operate openly, with impunity, threatening mass civilian deaths any time their activities are challenged, terrorizing entire towns and cities, and bribing or killing public officials, police chiefs, mayors, and judges. Their extortion of economic activity would spread, threatening the everyday life of most citizens. Migratory flows to the United States would doubtless increase, due to the displacement of peoples typical of any war.

The AMLO administration, however, could still avert the worst. And the United States could and should play a role. Mexico ought to accept more aid and technical support to sustain institutional reforms to strengthen the rule of law and train its police officers. The Mexican government should ask its northern neighbor to help with the sharing of intelligence, and the two countries should work seriously on better ways to coordinate the fight against organized crime.

Of course, the temptation for the President of each country to pander to his own constituencies — to either bash Mexico as an electoral piñata or to play the nationalist anti-American card — unfortunately remains. Such shortsightedness, however, needs to be avoided. The costs of maintaining the status quo, and the very real danger of far worse outcomes, are far too real to ignore.

Note: This article originally appeared in The American Interest on November 7, 2019.