Stephens: Mexico’s fast track toward a failed state
On a working visit here, I have dinner with one of the country’s elder statesmen and listen to him describe its greatest challenges. He names three: “Rule of law. Rule of law. And rule of law.”
The truth of the observation is underscored a few days later, when gunmen kill nine members of the LeBarón family along a backcountry road in the northern state of Sonora. The motive for the massacre is unclear, but its barbarity is not: three women and six children, including infant twins, shot at close range and burned alive in their cars.
The episode has gained major attention in the U.S. largely because the LeBaróns are part of a long-standing American Mormon presence in northern Mexico. (George Romney, the late Michigan governor and Mitt’s father, was born in a Mormon colony in Chihuahua in 1907, which he was forced to flee as a child during the Mexican Revolution.)
But the reason the killings really matter is that they are yet another reminder that Mexico is on a fast track toward becoming a failed state.
For this, blame a combination of managerial incompetence and ideological inanity from Donald Trump and his Mexican counterpart, Andrés Manuel López Obrador. In 2015, I asked then-candidate Trump whether he feared that his protectionist policies would hurt Mexico in ways that ultimately would hurt the United States as well. His reply: “I don’t care about Mexico, honestly. I really don’t care about Mexico.”
Since then, Trump has forced a dubious renegotiation of NAFTA but has yet to get the new trade agreement ratified in Congress, causing business uncertainties that have brought the Mexican economy to the edge of recession. It took the administration more than a year to replace its ambassador in Mexico, after the last one resigned in disgust. And Trump’s insistence that Mexico militarize its southern border with Guatemala has drained its army of the manpower it needs to fight the drug cartels.
Last month, in the northwestern city of Culiacán, Mexican security forces found themselves quickly outnumbered and outgunned when they tried to arrest the son of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the jailed drug lord. The soldiers capitulated, and the son was promptly freed.
If Trump’s actions have been damaging, López Obrador’s have been disastrous.
His slogan in the face of cartel violence is “hugs, not bullets.” His strategy has been to increase spending on social programs while urging gangsters to think of their mothers. He has claimed, preposterously, that crime is under control and still insists he has no intention of rethinking his approach. In the Culiacán fiasco, he praised the decision to release El Chapo’s son while ordering the disclosure of the officer’s name who had ordered the operation, endangering the man’s life. Much of the army officer corps now openly reviles their commander in chief.
A parody of a policy has produced a predictable result: 2019 is on course to become Mexico’s most violent year in decades, with about 17,000 killings between January and June. In sheer numbers, that’s a figure that exceeds the civilian death toll in Iraq at the height of war in 2006.
So what could work? A conversation with a former senior U.S. intelligence official suggests a bracing analogy.