zenpundit.com » Blog Archive » POINT-COUNTERPOINT on Mexico


My previous post stirred some interest in the blogosphere on the issue of Mexico being in danger of becoming a “Failed State” and prompted others to respond with Mexico related analysis of their own. Here are some that caught my eye:

           POINT – Mexico is a Failed State or at least in some danger of becoming so:

Threatswatch.org (Fraser) Los Zetas and the Denial of Mexico’s Failed State Status

The softening of words and the aversion to stating the obvious by the Administration simply obliterates the reality that President Felipe Calderón of Mexico “leads” a country dominated by the cartels and not governed by the federal government. The transparent denial of the recent Joint Operating Environment report is troubling at best.

To better understand just how close to the precipice he is, it might be worthwhile to take another look at the organization (and movement) of Los Zetas. As a reminder, Los Zetas are a paramilitary group tied to the Gulf Cartel. Their origins and their evolution from being deserters from the Mexican special forces to a criminal organization is chronicled in a report from International Relations and Security Network

….With each of the original members training at least another ten, they grew to over 300 strong by 2003. In just the first quarter of 2009, Los Zetas (the organization) has been linked to a death threat against the president of Guatemala, the hand grenade tossed in Pharr, Texas and various other criminal acts. The ranks of Los Zetas has grown, and strikingly, they have broken ranks with the Gulf Cartel. Over time however, and with the deaths of some of the original Zetas, they have morphed into an organization. This is a very important distinction to note.

RBO Are Afghanistan, Pakistan, Mexico ‘failed states’? If so, then what?

….In particular there is recent debate as to whether Mexico is/is not a failed state. If it is, then we ask whether its “failed” status is on a par with such other failed states as Pakistan and Afghanistan? – Even though there are those who do not subscribe to the notion that either of them is a failed state.

As always, let’s start at the beginning. What is a failed state?

In the simplest of definitions, a failed state is one that has a “shattered social and political structure.”

Writing December 1999 for the International Review of the Red Cross, Daniel Thürer, J.D. (right), Professor of International Law, European Law, Constitutional Law and Administrative Law at the University of Zurich, said

    Failing States are invariably the product of a collapse of the power structures providing political support for law and order, a process generally triggered and accompanied by “anarchic” forms of internal violence.

Dr. Thürer wrote that former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, described this situation in the following way (emphasis added):

    A feature of such conflicts is the collapse of state institutions, especially the police and judiciary, with resulting paralysis of governance, a breakdown of law and order, and general banditry and chaos. Not only are the functions of government suspended, but its assets are destroyed or looted and experienced officials are killed or flee the country. This is rarely the case in inter-state wars. It means that international intervention must extend beyond military and humanitarian tasks and must include the promotion of international reconciliation and the re-establishment of effective government. States in which institutions and law and order have totally or partially collapsed under the pressure and amidst the confusion of erupting violence, yet which subsist as a ghostly presence on the world map, are now commonly referred to as “failed States” or “Etats sans gouvernement”.

Jay Fraser, who has been watching developments in Mexico for some time, drills down on the most violent and fastest evolving faction among the cartel groups in Mexico. Procrustes concentrates on the “Failed State” concept and examines how conditions in Mexico compare to academic yardsticks and the case studies of Afghanistan and Pakistan, two countries that inevitably crop up in discussions of failed and failing states.

          COUNTERPOINT – Mexico is not a failing state or has greater resilience than experts are acknowledging:

Apropos Two Theories – Why Mexico may NOT fall apart – and a way to think about it

I’ve never seen so many American analysts and journalists sounding alarms about Mexico – most for good reasons, others for their own agendas. And it’s true, parts of Mexico have turned awfully violent, barely governable. Government controls have weakened, and security trends are adverse. Domestic terrorism and insurgency are not presently the problem; it’s the extreme crime and corruption, driven by the drug cartels and other criminal gangs.

….Yet, I’m struck that long-time American experts who specialize on Mexico are not providing counter-arguments. A few Mexicans are, lately Enrique Krauze. But no Americans I know of (though I’ve not searched exhaustively).Shouldn’t analysts and journalists who specialize on Mexico be doing a better job of wondering whether and why the growing alarmism may be wrong – again?When I worked as a specialist on Mexico, I experienced three or four periods when Mexico seemed to be on the verge of instability, in particular:

  • In 1968, at the time of the student uprising and its military suppression (I was then a graduate student studying in Mexico City).
  • During 1984-8, when a few U.S. government analysts claimed that Mexico was about to collapse due to multiple economic, political, and other crises.
  • In 1994-5, when the Zapatista uprising raised new specters of widespread insurgency, if not terrorism.

Each time Mexico remained stable and recovered. And it did so mostly for reasons that American analysts had not understood or anticipated well at the time – including American experts on Mexico who did not buy into the alarmism.In these three instances, the key stabilizing factor turned out to be some kind of social or organizational network that American analysts were barely aware of:

  • In 1968, it was intra-elite networking that revolved around the mysterious camarilla system (or so I think, though I was just a grad student then).
  • In the mid 1980s, it was familial and other social networks that cushioned the effects of unemployment and other economic displacements.
  • In 1994, it was the roles played by newly-formed networks of human-rights and other activist NGOs, first in calming the Zapatista scene, later in monitoring the 1994 presidential election campaign.

Conditions in Mexico look worse than ever this time around – much worse, not just along the U.S. border, but everywhere that the drug cartels are powerful. So I’m not suggesting optimism, but rather a search for additional factors that may moderate the equations of gloom.What might keep Mexico from disintegrating this time? My guesstimate is that networks will be the decisive factor again. And the networks that will matter most this time are:

  1. Informal intra-elite social networks that reflects what’s left of the old camarilla dynamic.
  2. Cross-border organizational networks for U.S.-Mexico security (military, police, intel) cooperation

David Ronfeldt, for new readers here, is a major “edge” thinker in the national security field at RAND and is a co-author (with John Arquilla) of the influential “classic”,  Networks and Netwars: The Future of Terror, Crime, and Militancy , which sits on my shelf about two feet from me as I type this. As it happens, Ronfeldt also specialized in Mexican and Latin American security as an analyst during the Cold War which gives means that his caveats are worth careful consideration. Frankly, we are all better off if Ronfeldt is correct and the “alarmists” are wrong, though I think the grim state of affairs south of the Rio Grande is deterring most Mexico experts  from going out on a limb to make positive predictions.

8 Responses to “POINT-COUNTERPOINT on Mexico”

  1. T. Greer Says:

    The thought occurs to me that if we are to begin comparing Mexico to failed states and near-failed states, the proper model would not be Afghanistan or Pakistan, but Columbia.
    According to a 2008 GAO report on Plan Columbia, 10% the country’s land is controlled by ELN, FARC, et. al, several thousand armed narco-guerillas still roam across the countryside, and the number of homicides across the country has only dropped to 20,000 per annum.

    With this in mind, would anybody call Columbia a failed state right now? Did people refer to Columbia as a failed state when matters were at their worst, 10 years past? If not, is it fair to call Mexico a failed state now?

  2. Samuel.Logan Says:

    I would like to forward the idea of Mexico becoming a "hollow state." Here follows the first fews paragraphs of a piece I recently posted on National Journal’s National Security roundtable entitled: Mexico, Failing State?Those who have studied Mexico’s history know that our southern neighbor will never reach state failure. There is the possibility, however, that Mexico will become a hollow state.The so-called "Hollow State Theory" evolved as analysts in South America watched how corruption and organized crime deteriorated the state of Paraguay from within. After years of this evolution, Paraguay became little more than a shell, one that looked like a relatively well functioning democracy from the outside, but was a machine of corruption, organized crime, terrorist financing, and the hub of South America’s largest black market on the inside. The hope of taking back the Paraguayan state under the leadership of Fernando Lugo is in part why his election was such a cause for celebration.In Mexico, Felipe Calderon’s election will have the effect of accelerating Mexico’s evolution into a hollow state…

  3. zen Says:

    Hi T. Greer,
    I think prior to the ramping up of the right-wing paramilitaries through the period of deepest multi-group violence in Colombia where the paramilitaries and the army severely dented FARC and the ELN, until their gradual disarming that left Uribe’s government in a stronger position, Colombia was a failing state. It is still in some danger, in my view, so long as FARC can rely on Venezuela as their "strategic depth".
    Mexico’s situation is both better and worse than Colombia’s in that period. Better, in that Mexico can bring a preponderance of hard power to bear anywhere, at least for a while and that huge sections of mexico have not been formally ceded to narcotraffickers. Worse, in that the narcos are a more decentralized enemy that lack the center of gravity of a FARC and even fewer moral constraints on operations. FARC delusionally wishes to rule Colombia someday and acts "politically"; the narcos want a free hand to sell drugs, not responsibilities of governing Mexico, so chaos suits them well enough. Nor does the Mexican state yet have a groundswell movement of paramilitary allies to "fight fire with fire". Colombians were willing to fight for the state while acting outside of it – is the same true of Mexicans? Time will tell.
    Hi Samuel.Logan
    I agree with you. "Hollow state" seems a very realistic waystation for Mexico and would actually benefit the narcos far more than upending the entire system. I have not followed Paraguay since the end of Stroessner’s philo-nazi dictatorship, but your description would indicate that his successors were less determined to fight for their own supremacy when bribery sweetened their decline in stature.
    Your book looks interesting BTW   I look forard tto reading it when itcomes out this summer

  4. david ronfeldt Says:

    many thanks for including me.  i’m delighted. 

    the little feedback i’ve received on my posting indicates the following:  yes, camarillas are still important, esp for PRI leaders, but camarilla dynamics are now more about garnering contacts than striving for power.  and yes, there’s increasing awareness among american officials operating along the border that more/better networks are needed with mexicans, but there is also immense inertia and distrust impeding their organization, informally and formally.  so, i too remain pessimistic, but still reluctant to turn alarmist, given my past experiences, as well as my ccontinuing sense that my post’s points remain on a likely track.

    meanwhile, what i’ve most wondered these past few days is the extent to which all the new u.s. border-line (borderline?) security measures (esp the fence) are "causing" much of the upsurge in violence by and competition among the different types of criminal gangs in mexico, and also against the government, perhaps in part because of how those measures re-channel access routes.  surely this proposition has already been noted and discussed somewhere(s), and i just haven’t read enough yet.  if the proposition is valid, it could have quite a mix of implications, positive and negative.


  5. zen Says:

    Hi David, good to have you here!

    The PRI era camarillas as you described them reminded me of the old, Soviet, nomenklatura "clans" – except that the Mexican camarillas seem to have stayed relatively benign while the Russian nomenklatura fractured into siloviki, mafiyas and oligarch factions and have been anything but positive in their influence.
    Border security, unless it is comprehensive and systemic, might be like squeezing a balloon as you suggest. We’re raising transaction costs but ultimately drug smugglers could put their drug product on a plane or boat to a third country and just raise the price by the marginal difference. Coyotes can head deeper into the desert – the border is long and the ppl manning it are relatively few relative to it’s size. Unless underlying structural issues ( drug laws, temporary labor access) are addressed, tweaking gun control laws, adding "smart" fences etc. just nibbles at the edges.

  6. david ronfeldt Says:

    hey zen  — i just spotted your comment here, and maybe it’s too late to reply significantly, but here’s a quick remark or two:
    i’m not as familiar with the mexican terms as you are with the russian ones, but i can add that mexico has its own varieties.  camarillas come in all varieties, benign and malign, open and closed.  they may contain old-school "dinosauros" as well as modernizing "technocratas."  some may have "mafias."  today, the leftist prd party is said to consist of several competing "tribus" (tribes), which are like hardened camarillas. 
    i see the stratfor and fabius maximus blogs have just posted new material on the dark possibilities for mexico.  i’ve tried to keep the brighter possibilities alive and in view through comments at the rethinking security blog, the only one i know that has a lead post on mexico that is not entirely negative.  — onward, david

  7. zen Says:

    Hi David,
    Adam Elkus at RS has been partnering with Lt. John Sullivan of the (I think I have the correct police agency here but maybe not) of the LA county Sheriffs department on researching Mexican security issues for at least a year or two. They have a new paper coming out very soon – and I think also some articles at GroupIntel and Red Team Journal ( Adam – if you are out there reading this, could you clarify?).
    I think you are correct to keep pushing the brighter possibilities for Mexico in public view. Not so much for USG folks, as I have heard there’s a "speak no evil" line in effect right now in high places on Mexico, but for analysts in and out of tanks or bloggers like myself who might otherwise get locked into a particular frame. It’s hard to keep the entire range of probabilities in mind unless one consciously keeps the entire range of possibilities in mind 🙂
    I’ll frankly admit, I need to learn more about Mexico in terms of granular detail and I’m making assessments here by looking for comparative patterns/dynamics; while what I see I find worrisome but that needs to be balanced with more Mexico specific data.
    So much to read in life, so little time!

  8. A.E. Says:


    JPS works at LASD. We’re trying to iron out the paper but it is pretty much about 80% done. We’ve published on Mexico at Small Wars Journal and GroupIntel, but our RTJ paper wasn’t actually about Mexico–it was on Robert Bunker’s "BLACKFOR" red-teaming model and the concept of criminal insurgency.

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