If you are looking for an in-depth examination of the likelihood that narco-violence will turn Mexico into a failed state, you won’t find it in the new book by veteran Mexico observer George Grayson.
Grayson does examine in great detail the rise of the Mexican drug cartels while also closely detailing the development of the modern Mexican state. But he gives only cursory treatment to the failed state question presented in the book’s title while offering strangely contradictory tidbits of assessment on the country’s prospects for deep instability.
Nor does the book provide much in the way of insight or analysis of the drug-related violence that has besieged sections of the northern border region and other parts of the country. Questions about the geographic concentration of the violence, the degree to which narco-violence is related to the local or U.S. market control, or the role of the military in spreading the violence, among others, go mostly unaddressed.
The absence of hard analysis and sharp perspective on the issues raised in the book’s title is all the more annoying given the increasingly widespread acceptance of the notion that Mexico is a failed state. It’s a notion that is increasingly deployed as an argument for increased border security spending and stricter immigration enforcement, both at the state and federal levels.
Grassroots border-security hardliners and right-wing politicians have long raised alarm about Mexico’s political and social stability. It wasn’t, however, until pronouncements by officials and agencies of the outgoing Bush administration in 2008-2009 about Mexico-sourced threats to U.S. national security that assessment of Mexico as a failed or failing state became more broadly considered.
Immediately before Obama moved into the White House, the U.S. Joint Forces Command issued its annual Joint Operating Environment report warning that Mexico – along with Pakistan – should be considered as nation at risk of “a rapid and sudden collapse.”
With no accompanying analysis, the Pentagon report observed that “the growing assault by the drug cartels and their thugs on the Mexican government over the past several years reminds one that an unstable Mexico could represent a homeland security problem of immense proportions to the United States.”
What is more, while the Pentagon report acknowledged that Mexico’s collapse “may seem less likely” than the disintegration of Pakistan, it warned:
“[T]he government, its politicians, police, and judicial infrastructure are all under sustained assault and pressure by criminal gangs and drug cartels. How that internal conflict turns out over the next several years will have a major impact on the stability of the Mexican state. Any descent by Mexico into chaos would demand an American response based on the serious implications for homeland security alone.”
The credibility of assertions that the U.S. southwest borderland and U.S. homeland security were threatened by drug violence in Mexico was also bolstered at the end of the Bush administration by the warning in the National Drug Threat Assessment 2009 that “Mexico drug trafficking organizations represent the greatest organized crime threat to the United States.”
Shortly before leaving office, Department of Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff contributed to level of alarm about Mexico and border violence. Chertoff told the New York Times that the U.S. government had recently completed a “contingency plan for border violence” and the U.S. military would be brought in as part of a “surge” to work with DHS “assets.”
For his part, outgoing CIA director Michael Hayden warned that Mexico along with Iran would like by the top policy challenges for the incoming president.
The likelihood that Mexico may soon devolve into a failed state has been widely dismissed by most close observers. In Mexico, the ill-considered assessment of the country as U.S. national security threat have been met with derision and outrage by the government and most Mexican analysts.
But, over the past two years, the failed state thesis has provided official cover in the United States for the escalating calls, mostly from the right, for more border security, including the deployment of the U.S. military and National Guard.
A book-length examination of the failed or failing state theses would be a valuable contribution to a fuller understanding – both in the United States and in Mexico – of the governance and security threats associated with narco-violence. It would also inform U.S. policy discussions of “border security” and drug-war aid, notably the Merida Initiative.
The phrase “failed state” appears not only in the book’s title but also in the two final chapters – which makes it all the more remarkable that Grayson gives only passing attention – a couple of pages -- to the question. And what little attention that is given to the question leaves one wondering where exactly he stands on the question.
In the book’s introduction, Grayson points to analysis by several Mexican scholars and journalists that point to what he describes as the “surging debility of a Mexican state whose fragmentation is concomitant with increasing opportunities for drug lords to go about their nefarious trade with impunity.”
The author cites Luis Rubio, director of Mexico City’s Centro de Investigación Center para el Desarollo (CIDAC), stating that “our weaknesses as a society are formidable not only in the police and judicial domains, but also in the growing erosion of the social fabric and the absence of a sense of good and bad…”
Seemingly casting his lot with those who regard Mexico as a state imminently facing the risk of failure, Grayson writes:
“Among factors that uphold the ‘weak’ and ‘failed state” arguments are: a soaring murder rate, a jump in sadistic executions, increased kidnappings, prison escapes, the venality of local, state, and federal police, a failure of policy makers to enforce safety codes, and disenchantment with institutions occupied by officials who often live like princes even as 35 percent of Mexico’s 110 million people eek [sic] out a living in hardscrabble poverty.”
“Evidence of a failed state becomes apparent in efforts to immigrate to the United States,” continues Grayson.
By the end of the book, after devoting numerous chapters to the history of Mexican state, the drug cartels, and U.S. counternarcotics policy, Grayson offers an ambiguous conclusion.
On the one hand, he emphasizes the weakness of the state and the superficiality of the democratic system. Grayson notes that, while Freedom House and the Fund for Peace give Mexico relatively high marks, their criteria – such as regular elections and presence of a multiparty competitive system – focus on “processes rather than practices” and “overlook the chasm between the political elite and grassroots’ constituents, breeding in the latter a sense of helplessness.”
He points to various flaws in the electoral and political systems – including systemic corruption, the prohibition against independent candidates, dominance of party chiefs, absence of run-offs, ban on reelecting chief executives, and forbidding civic groups from airing media ads during campaigns – that weaken the state and distance it from grassroots constituencies.
But then, on the other hand, Grayson veers away from his thesis about a fundamentally weak and fatally flawed Mexican state, asserting:
“Only a Cassandra in deep funk could conclude that Mexico will implode as is possible in Afghanistan or Pakistan. There are too many factors – the Mexican armed forces, the Roman Catholic Church, the middle calls, the Monterrey business community, the banking system, labor and professional organizations, the U.S. government, and international financial institutions, etc. – to let this happen.”
Oddly, this slight treatment is about far as Grayson goes in explaining why -- despite the ravages of the drug war and the large sections of virtually ungoverned territory – the Mexican state will likely remain fairly strong for the foreseeable future. It is also noteworthy -- but understandable given his deep cynicism about Mexican politics -- that Grayson does not include the representative political system among the factors for stability – probably because he sees this system as the facilitating the resurgence of the former ruling party in the last couple of years.
Mexico: Narco-Violence and a Failed State? is a mixed bag. While the analysis on the issues presented in the book’s title is sparse and disappointing, the book, nonetheless, is a valuable contribution for a number of reasons.
One of the virtues of the book is Grayson’s examination of the rise and evolution of the modern Mexican state. Too often the U.S. discussion of Mexico comes without any political context. What makes his examination of the state and politics in Mexico so fascinating is the recent return of the PRI as the country’s major political force – an ominous trend, according to Grayson, given the PRI’s history of patronage politics, its opportunistic “revolutionary nationalism,” and its unreformed ways.
As Grayson explains, PAN, the historic opposition party that captured the presidency in 2000 and 2006, has not fully dismantled the corporatist structures. Nor has it succeeded in moving the country beyond the ideology of “revolutionary nationalism” that has animated the state since the 1930s, as evident in the failure to open up the petroleum production sector to much-needed foreign investment.
Grayson comes down especially hard on two social sectors that formed part of the PRI’s corporatist infrastructure – the SNTE teacher’s union (with annoyingly repeated references to the power of Elba Esther Gordillo) and the PRI-allied unions in the state’s oil and electricity companies.
The book is also valuable as a reference volume. An abundance of tables and appendices set out the main personages, institutions, and events in the drug war.
Another excellent contribution is the author’s overview of the various strategy options for addressing the challenges to state authority and social stability presented by the drug trafficking organizations – the main ones being 1) a more focused and strategic drug war against the cartels, 2) a return to the PRI practice of reaching a modus vivendi with the main criminal syndicates, and 3) decriminalization.
Grayson should also be commended for adding his voice to those calling for the end of the U.S. drug war. In the concluding paragraph of the book’s final chapter, Grayson writes:
“Drug abuse is bad, but the drug war is worse. Few public policies have compromised public health and undermined our fundamental and civil liberties for so long and to such a degree as the war on drugs.”