Is Mexico heading south?

Is Mexico heading south?

By Christian Brose

For too long, Mexico’s intensifying war against narcogangs has gone largely unnoticed in U.S. debate. At last, that’s changing. For starters, there was the Joint Forces Command report late last year warning that Mexico, like Pakistan, is in danger of near-term collapse. Barry McCaffrey weighed in with his now famous memo warning much the same thing. Alma Guillermoprieto offered a bleak picture in beautiful prose in the New Yorker. Even Newt Gingrich is jumping in, warning that Mexico is worse than Iraq and Afghanistan. Mary O’Grady raised a red flag yesterday in the Journal

This is all good, but by going from 0 to 60 as fast as we have, are we now in danger of painting the situation as more dire than it actually is? To be sure, a country that had more than 5,300 citizens killed in drug-related violence last year isn’t in good shape. But from reading recent U.S. commentary and analysis, you’d think Mexico is the next failed state. This isn’t sitting well with Mexican President Felipe Calderon, as the L.A. Times reported yesterday, and his government is pushing back against their country’s depiction as Pakistan south of the border. (By the way, while most major newspapers have largely missed the Mexico story, the L.A. Times has totally owned coverage of it. Their series Mexico Under Siege is not to be missed.)

Now, of course the Mexican government is supposed to say that things aren’t as bad as recent U.S. coverage would have us believe, but to some degree they have a point. I’m still horrified and alarmed about what’s going on in Mexico, but here are a few reasons to keep our feet on the ground — for now. 

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. As yet, there is no alliance unifying all of the narcogangs into one force that seeks to challenge and topple the Mexican state. Now, this could still happen, and even if it didn’t Mexico could still be fatally compromised, but thus far the gangs are still mostly killing each other.

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. In that sense, Mexico’s gangs are not a true insurgency. There are signs — literally, in this sense — that the gangs are beginning to compete for the allegiances of the Mexican people and wage a strategic communications battle against Calderon. This is a troubling development. But for now, these campaigns are not focused on advancing rival forms of gang-led governance; their goal is simply to brand their cartel opponents as illegitimate in the eyes of the Mexican people.

3. Calderon’s government is fighting for its life, but it hasn’t lost (yet). In fact, there is still a chance that the worsening trend of the past few years actually reflects a problem getting worse before it gets better. Calderon may yet break the backs of the gangs, and the recent surge in violence may reflect the increasingly desperate actions of cartels that, for the first time in Mexican history, are now up against an adversary that is not content merely to look the other way, but is instead willing to do what is necessary to reclaim his country. Even if he succeeds, for his troubles, Calderon will likely spend the rest of his life after government in exile from his own country out of fear for his life.

The Merida Initiative will help Calderon, and thus far, President Obama — rightly — seems committed to carrying on the unprecedented security assistance to Mexico that President Bush and the last Congress began. This is good. Calderon was the first head of state Obama chose to meet, which is likely more than just the old visit-with-the-neighbors-first tradition. Obama would also be wise to recognize how the Mexican gangs are largely fighting their war with U.S.-bought weapons, a point well made in this FP column by Shannon O’Neil — who, by the way, has a great Latin America blog.

I would be interested to know what the counterinsurgency community’s read of Mexico is: Does it fit the model of an insurgency? And if so, should Calderon be mounting more of a COIN campaign, focusing on population security as opposed to the largely seek-and-destroy operations his army seems to be waging?