Five years ago, I was on a bus in Cordoba, Veracruz, located in central Mexico on a mission trip. Winding along the mountain roads, there were regular police checkpoints we stopped at, where M‑16-toting officers checked the bus. One local pointed out that having the police around should not make me feel safer.
There is no such thing as trusting the authorities in Mexico. With the extraordinary power of the cartels, there is widespread corruption, as many of the police and authorities work for the cartels.
The violence and corruption of a nation that is largely controlled by organized crime syndicates is Mexico’s norm and has been for decades now. Mexico is dangerously close to becoming a failed state as the cartels grow in power and the government weakens. But Mexico is the United States’ third biggest trade partner and one of our biggest oil exporters. The United States has to keep finding ways to work with Mexico.
But Americans are still getting used to the idea of such lawlessness being so close to our own nation, and many were shocked a few weeks ago when women and children, who were dual citizens, were caught in an ambush and killed while traveling on a road in northern Mexico. Whether it was a matter of mistaken identity or not, the ambush was most likely part of the continual turf wars between rival Mexican cartels.
Americans are horrified by such violence, and though it is a tragedy, it’s simply another day in Mexico. Cartel control and violence are normal, and each new occurrence in the turf wars shows how the Mexican government is giving up sovereignty to the cartels and becoming a failed state.
Americans act as if the murders last week are a sign of Mexico falling into greater violence, but Mexico has been like this for a long time. There is pervasive corruption at the very highest levels of Mexican government, and it’s not uncommon for policemen, politicians, and lawyers to be working for the cartels.
Former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo once said that Mexico had three big challenges: “Rule of law, rule of law, and rule of law.” Though Zedillo made that comment nearly twenty years ago, it still rings true today. Just look at Mexico’s 2018 election cycle. Within months of the election season beginning, more than 120 activists and politicians were murdered and many more threatened by cartels. In Ocampo, Michoacan, politician Fernando Ángeles Juárez was murdered and the entire police force of the town was detained by federal agents on suspicion of having been responsible for the murder and corruption.
The former President Enrique Peña Nieto tried to battle corruption and organized crime by establishing the authority of the state, like his predecessor Felipe Calderón, but both Calderón and Nieto made little headway. Meanwhile, violence and homicide skyrocketed.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador was elected in 2018 on the promises that he would cleanse the country and drive the homicide rates down. But he has since embraced a policy he calls “abrazos, no balazos” — hugs, not bullets. AMLO, as the president is commonly known, wants to boost social outreach to would-be cartel recruits and so end bloodshed and cartel control that way.
But in 2018, Mexico broke a record for murders. Authorities opened 33,341 murder investigations in 2018, which is a 33% uptick from 2017, despite AMLO being president. Central states like Guanajuato have seen murder rates triple since they have become battlegrounds for the competing cartels. In the state of Jalisco, there were so many murders that authorities reported that they ran out of morgue space and had to store victims in a mobile refrigerated trailer.
The cartels have read AMLO’s new “abrazos, no balazos” policy as weakness and have thus taken even more liberties in doing whatever they please as their power and turf wars increase. The Mexican government’s weakness has been highlighted as it becomes clearer that the cartels hold the most power and sovereignty in Mexico.
This has never been more clear than when the Sinaloa Cartel, which controls most of northwestern Mexico and the major drug trade routes into New Mexico, Arizona, and California, mobilized its paramilitary wing on Oct. 17 and forced the city of Culiacán to release Ovidio Guzmán, son of the infamous Joaquín Guzmán, better known as “El Chapo.” This was a stunning blow against the Mexican government and brought into question its sovereignty and legitimacy.
What implications does this carry for the United States? Mexico is not yet a failed state, but it is getting closer and closer as the rule of law is abandoned and the cartels keep gaining sovereignty. It is important for the United States to understand that Mexico is a delicate state and, as a major trade partner, the U.S. influence on Mexico cannot be underestimated.
A major part of a state’s failure is economic failure. The drug trade is one of the biggest markets in Mexico, and the cartels are the powerful corporations bringing in billions of dollars into Mexico every year. Having massive illegal organizations make up such a large part of the economy, of course, does not bode well for either Mexico or the United States as its trade partner.
Mexico is the United State’s third largest trading partner, and the United States is Mexico’s biggest trading partner. In 2018, U.S. goods and services traded with Mexico totaled around $671 billion, with about $299.1 billion in exports and $371.9 billion in imports.
It could only be beneficial for the United States for Mexico to be more stable. There are multiple ways to try to stabilize Mexico, but the first and most basic is to keep trading and economically investing, but remember that Mexico is in a delicate situation, losing its sovereignty to cartels, and getting closer to a failed state.
Abby Liebing is a senior studying history and a columnist on foreign politics. She is the associate editor of The Collegian.