Shannon K. O'Neil

Latin America's Moment

O'Neil analyzes developments in Latin America and U.S. relations in the region.

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Breaking Mexico's Fall

by Shannon K. O'Neil
November 19, 2009

armyPhilip Caputo paints a grim picture of Mexico’s current war on drugs in which appears in the December 2009 issue of The Atlantic. His pessimism reflects more than just skyrocketing murders in places such as Ciudad Juarez, or the seeming inability of the local police forces and courts to get to the bottom of these crimes. His chief concern revolves around Mexico’s military.

Caputo suggests that the military is in cahoots with the drug cartels today, much as they were in the past. Laying out what he can piece together from the few wary interviewees willing to speak to him, he depicts an independent military dismissive of human rights in the best case, and a military turned cartel in the worst. With both the Calderon and the U.S. government pinning their hopes in the war on drugs on this military, either scenario is bad news.

However corrupt the military is today, there is a fundamental difference from the earlier parallels he poses, and these differences matter for Mexico’s future. In the 1980s the secretary of defense was found to be working with no less than three drug cartels, and in the 1990s Mexico’s “drug czar” was discovered to be on the payroll of the Juarez cartel. But these incidences were part of a larger systematic relationship between drug traffickers and the long-standing ruling political party, the PRI. The military’s past drug ties can’t be seen in isolation from an organized system of control and enrichment constructed by the PRI that also encompassed the police, courts, and politicians.

Today, it isn’t that corruption has ended. But it is no longer as centralized and coordinated as in the past. Democratization opened up not just the political system to different political parties, but also the illicit economy – effectively ending the unwritten contracts that existed for years between the PRI and particular drug traffickers.

What this means is that corruption in the military today is more autonomous than in the past – not linked to a larger system, not controlled or checked by any political party, and perhaps not coming from the top of the chain of command. For some, this may be even worse news – well armed forces with no master. But, this shift may also mean that it is now much more possible to attack corruption – whether in the military or other parts of the government. With each pocket today no longer part of the larger functioning of an authoritarian system, a focused combination of vetting, training, prosecution, and long-term institution building could yield results. Mexico’s corruption remains a very difficult, but no longer insurmountable problem. And the current democratic political dynamic – forcing politicians to appeal to voters – may increase the chances that the Mexican government goes down a different road.

This better outcome is by no means guaranteed. It will take an incredible amount of work and resources over a long period of time. But the underlying dynamics today are quite different, and they provide Mexico – and the United States –an opportunity so that in ten years another journalist will not be writing a similar “Fall of Mexico” story.

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by Samuel Logan

    Apart from concerns over corruption and human rights, which are both important considerations, we must also keep in mind that the Mx. military is not a sustainable option for Mexico’s and indeed the sub-region’ long-term security.

    When you consider that there is one general for every 333 soldiers in the Mexican Army, compared to one general for every 1,720 soldiers in the US Army, we have a top-heavy scenario. These numbers coupled with the fact that generals earn US$13,000.00 a month, compared to recruits, who earn US$453 a month, spells out what we would consider a significant problem with pay for recruits.

    Another consideration: the contract for a recruit is three years. But when a soldier is deployed, the Mexican Army can extend the recruit’s term of service by a total of six more years. This, in part, is why we’ve seen a consistent number of soldiers A.W.O.L. Keep in mind that when they leave, they know that no one will hunt them down for desertion. The only real penalty, apart from foregone pay, is that their command post retains federal identification documents. These are easily forged.

    Our consistent worry, apart from human rights abuses and corruption, is that the military’s presence in the streets exposes soldiers to a criminal element that can pay them better, offer them better equipment, and in at least the case of the Zetas, can offer them benefits for their families and an esprit de corps that in many places has begun to falter across the Mexican Army deployments.

    We don’t suggest that all who choose to go A.W.O.L. go rogue and join the ranks of organized crime. This is not the case. But there is an opportunity and a strong incentive. The longer the military remains in the streets, the longer soldiers will have to think about crossing to the “dark side.”

    Along with a discussion over human rights and corruption, we should consider this exposure, as exposure is what likely most contributes to abuses and corruption.

  • Posted by Mike Charlton

    But isn’t this quote the real hurdle to overcome:

    Dr. Edgardo Buscaglia, a law professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute in Mexico City and a senior legal and economic adviser to the UN and the World Bank, concluded in a recent report that 17 of Mexico’s 31 states have become virtual narco-republics, where organized crime has infiltrated government, the courts, and the police so extensively that there is almost no way they can be cleaned up. The drug gangs have acquired a “military capacity” that enables them to confront the army on an almost equal footing.

    If this is accurate, then it suggests that the cartels already control most of the country, at least in terms of the number of states. Whatever your view of the Mexican Army, that it is corrupt or that it is top heavy as the other commenter noted, or that it is inept, one thing seems clear: it has already lost a huge chunk of Mexico to the cartels.

    Except that their agenda is criminal and not political, is the current state of Mexico any appreciably different than a successful insurgency? and if that is the case, can Calderon’s army, even if not inseperably linked to the institutional corruption of the PRI, ever succeed?

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