“A few years ago, goons from one of the cartels in Acapulco demanded elementary school teachers cough up fifty percent of their salaries or the schools would be attacked. They left a sack of five severed heads out front on the sidewalk to show they weren’t screwing around. The Mexican Drug War has killed more than 100,000 people in the last eight years. Think about that. That’s twice as many as the number of Americans killed during the Vietnam War. The conflict even occasionally spills over the border into the United States”.
The above quote, taken from the body of the article coming up by Michael J. Totten in World Affairs just about succinctly sums up the ongoing problems coming our way from Mexico on a daily basis. The problem in México is a lack of will in the country (the people and the governing class) to implement common sense security policies. They don’t even need to reinvent the wheel, as there is a ready made template that has proven successful in the region: Plan Colombia.
People forget that in the 80s Colombia was the Iraq of the time, with cartels using car bombs to kill journalists and thousands of innocent citizens dying every year. Medellin was once considered the most dangerous city in the world, but now Colombia is so safe that it is considered a tourism Hotspot.
What happened? A Miracle? No, just what happens when the resources of the state are brought to bear on a serious security challenge. The U.S. helped (Plan Colombia was a U.S. program after all), but as we’ve seen in Afghanistan and Nigeria and elsewhere there is only so much that foreigners can do if the locals are not willing to do something meaningful themselves. Under the leadership of president Álvaro Uribe, Colombia went on the offensive by increasing military spending (they were fighting not only the cartels, but two guerrilla insurgencies), placing a heavy emphasis in community policing and better trained security forces.
As Julises Jorge Bido explains it in the World Affairs commentary section: This is just a summary because there is a lot that went into this effort for me to give you an accurate picture of how they went about it; Colombia’s experience is a topic worth studying (more here if interested), but there are two points that I want to make here.
The first one is that any serious effort requires money and Colombia recognized that (and still does); not only did they receive U.S. assistance, but they increased their military spending which today hovers around 3.5% of GDP, about $13.2 billion. They bought advanced helicopters, drones and better training for their security forces. In the past, leftist guerrillas would use the country’s extensive jungles for cover, secure in the knowledge that the army couldn’t get to them; but suddenly they found themselves under siegue by airplanes armed with GPS guided bombs that would blow up their camps without notice.
México could do what Colombia did and more; since the country’s $1.2 trillion economy is three times bigger than Colombia’s and Mexico’s citizens enjoy a higher standard of living. If México decided to spend the same proportion of GDP as Colombia they would have $42 billion available, about the same amount as Germany and higher than South Korea. There is no organized crime cartel in any country in the world that could fight against that, especially with all the forces of the state in collaboration with the citizens arranged against them.
The second point I want to make is that countries show us what their priorities are in the way they allocate limited resources. México really doesn’t care about seriously fighting and destroying the drug cartels and securing their citizens. Today México spends just $7.5 billion in total security spending, equivalent to 0.51% of their GDP. That is simply ludicrous and a total advocation of the state role in securing the country and its citizens (and also proof that no matter all their protestation about “Yanqui imperialism”, “interventionism” and supposed fear of American might… they really don’t fear the Americans).
So what do they care about? Well, they spend $15 billion a year in subsidies for gas and energy and also $4 billion in subsidies for big agroindustrial exporters in the north of the country. So it’s not like they don’t have the money; they don’t even need U.S. assistance in that regard. The only thing the U.S. could do is use its considerable influence to nudge México into adopting more serious policies and use Colombia’s experience as a template.
Needless to say, I don’t think the current occupant of the White House is interested in doing that, and so the mayhem occurring on our southern border will continue unabated until commonsense prevails.
Now on to Michael J. Totten and “The Iraq of Latin America…
Mexico is more like Iraq than any other country in the Western Hemisphere with the possible exception of Haiti. A bewilderingly multifaceted armed conflict has been raging since 2007 between more than a dozen militarized drug cartels, the federal government and a smorgasbord of citizen’s militias.
The Mexican mafia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a Soviet Proxy during the Cold War that remains on the list of international terrorist organizations, back some of the cartels, and according to the Tucson Police Department, even Hezbollah has gotten involved.
The cartels are bribing and corrupting so many government officials that the state fights them only occasionally and only in certain places, leaving citizens at the mercy of murderous criminal enterprises that don’t flinch at even ISIS levels of brutality.
A few years ago, for instance, goons from one of the cartels in the resort city of Acapulco demanded elementary school teachers cough up fifty percent of their salaries or the schools would be attacked. They left a sack of five severed headsout front on the sidewalk to show they weren’t screwing around.
The Mexican Drug War has killed more than 100,000 people in the last eight years. Think about that. That’s twice as many as the number of American killed during the Vietnam War. The conflict even occasionally spills over the border into the United States.
No one could cover all this in a single article or even a feature-length film. In a book, perhaps, but it would be as mind-bogglingly complex as Jason Stearn’s Dancing in the Glory of Monsters about the impossibly tortured great war in the Congo.
Matthew Heineman covers a piece of it, though, in his searing new documentary Cartel Land, produced by Katherine Bigelow of Zero Dark Thirty fame. He embeds with militia leaders in both Mexico and the United States—Dr. Jose Mireles in the state of Michoacan, and Tim Foley in Arizona—and follows them on patrol and into battle.
Dr. Mireles leads the local Grupo de Autodefensa, a citizen’s militia that rose up to fight the Knight’s Templar cartel, a ghastly mafia/terrorist hybrid, after it took over the small city of Tepalcatepec an hour or so south of Guadalajara.
“What would you do?” Dr. Mireles says when asked why a medical doctor is moonlighting as a militia commander. “Wait for when they come to you? Or defend yourself?”
Heineman even manages to interview some of the cartel members. “We are the meth cooks,” a masked man says on screen. “We know we do harm. But what are we going to do? We come from poverty.”
Foley, meanwhile, leads the Arizona Border Recon, a vigilante group that hunts drug smugglers and human traffickers on the American side of the border. “It’s the cartels,” he says on the safer side of the line in America. “They’re the ones terrorizing their own country, and now they’re starting to do it over here.”
Cartel Land is a mostly political tale in America’s back yard punctuated with heart-stopping scenes of battle we associate more with war-torn countries like Syria and Iraq than where millions of us like to go on vacation. Most of it focuses on Michoacan’s autodefensas, a militia movement that starts out surprisingly civic-minded considering the fact that it’s…a militia. “When the government can’t provide basic security for its people,” Dr. Mireles says, “we take up arms.”
The story on the American side is, by contrast, a bit on the dull side. Heineman seems to know it, too, so most of the screen time is down there in Mexico. The American “militia” isn’t really even a militia, at least not in the Mexican sense of the word, and certainly not in the Iraqi sense of the word. The only thing Foley’s crew really has in common with Mireles’ autodefensas is that the drug cartels are the enemy.
The Arizona Border Recon is filling an American Border Patrol gap rather than liberating conquered cities. They’re not fighting pitched battles. They’re just wandering around in the no-man’s land of the desert and making occasional citizen’s arrests.
Dr. José Mireles, on the other hand, actually liberates cities. That’s how bad it is in some parts of Mexico. The government sits on its ass while entire cities need to be liberated from armies of killers.
The first time we see the Mexican government, the army rolls into town and disarms not the cartel members but the citizen autodefensas. Furious residents chase the army away and ensure the militia gets its guns back.
In another town, though, the autodefensas are met with an icy chill. A huge throng of concerned citizens gathers in the town square and insists that the state should have a monopoly on the use of force, that unaccountable militiamen could all too easily become the very monsters they’re fighting against.
It’s an interesting moment, and it’s initially not obvious who we should side with. So many state officials have been bought off by cartel money that the government won’t do its job. The government at times even facilitates the cartels. The concerned citizens are surely right on general principle, but Mexico is a place where foxes guard the henhouse. What are regular people supposed to do? Just sit there and take it?
The autodefensas, however, lose their moral authority over time. Dr. José Mireles is shoved aside by his bodyguard, a fat man with a beard known as “Papa Smurf,” who lacks Mireles’ civic-minded decency. “We can’t become the criminals we are fighting against,” Dr. Mireles warns Papa Smurf, but to no avail. Under new leadership, the autodefensas begin running roughshod over people.
Papa Smurf initially hated the cartels for the same reasons as everyone else, but he likes power a little too much. It’s an old story. It predates even antiquity.
Mireles flees and Papa Smurf agrees to transform the autodefensas into a deputized wing of the state security apparatus. That’s exactly what should have happened, in theory. In a better world, in a better Mexico, militias would be either disarmed or integrated into the government. The state really does need a monopoly on the use of force. We’ve all seen what happens in countries elsewhere in the world—Somalia, Iraq, Libya, Lebanon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo—where military power is dispersed among various factions.
There’s a moment of hope, then, when the autodefensas become part of the government The problem is that nothing else changes beforehand. The state is as corrupted by cartel money as ever. And now theautodefensas—led by a Papa Smurf drunk on his own newfound power—have become a part of that corrupt state.
Cartel Land ends on a note that’s positively Middle Eastern in its bleakness. The cartel-government hybrid swallows the citizens’ movement as if it’s the Borg. The deputized autodefensas are now workingwith rather than against the cartels while Dr. Mireles languishes in prison on weapons charges.
It’s clear as glass by the end that Mexico is no more prepared to emerge from its quagmire of crookedness, crime, armed conflict and poverty than it was when I was a kid. Yet somehow, despite it all, the enormous tourism industry is still flourishing.
You can still go down there on holiday if you want, but don’t watch Cartel Land on the plane, and don’t take the kids.