The people of Tierra Colorada, in Mexico’s Guerrero state, have had enough. On March 28, 1,500 armed citizens took to the streets, set up roadblocks, and arrested local officials. Tierra Colorada sits on a major road which runs from the popular tourist city of Acapulco, less than 40 miles away, to Mexico City. Armed citizens have set up checkpoints along the road, stopping cars, taxis, and other vehicles, as well as searching homes for known criminals. They have also arrested the former mayor, the chief of police, and 12 officers. The charges: murder, and collusion with criminals. The force’s spokesman, Bruno Placido Valerio, said: “We have besieged the municipality, because here criminals operate with impunity in broad daylight, in view of municipal authorities.”
Valerio is the leader of a group that calls itself the Union of Peoples and Organizations of Guerrero (UPOEG), which began as a protest movement against exorbitant rates collected by the state electrical monopoly. As the corruption of the Mexican state causes its authority and effectiveness to deteriorate, however, UPOEG has lately taken up the responsibilities of government as they have watched the drug cartels co-opt and corrupt what passes for the local authorities in southern and eastern Mexico. The cartels have virtually taken over the entire region, murdering, looting, and abusing citizens, and they have done so with the active cooperation of the “police,” who are nothing more than another armed gang preying on innocents. When the local “police” murdered Guadalupe Quinones Carbajal, 28, local UPOEG leader, on behalf of a local criminal syndicate, the people rose up and said: Enough!
These uprising are taking place all over Guerrero, as well as in other parts of Mexico, as the central state disintegrates in a morass of corruption, criminal collusion, and chaos. With the drug cartels in virtual control of the state apparatus, including the police, the Mexican people are left on their own to fight against the wave of criminality that is sweeping the nation, leaving ordinary citizens at the mercy of murderers, extortionists, and kidnappers.
Naturally, the politicians in Mexico City are outraged: this, they claim, is “insurrection,” and UPOEG is a “guerrilla army,” a charge not at all unreasonable given the long history of guerrilla movements arising in Guerrero state. This time, however, there is a big difference: instead of seeking to overthrow the central government, UPOEG activists are simply bypassing it, and setting up their own self-defense organizations to keep some kind of order in local communities. Naturally, the authorities consider this a threat.
The war on drugs has devastated the Guerrero region, reaching into every aspect of life in this impoverished agricultural area: farmers, unable to sell their traditional crops, have turned to growing marijuana, and the cartels have pounced, taking over vast tracts of land and maintaining a reign of terror. While the “drug warriors” of Mexican law enforcement are supposed to be taking them on, what we have in Mexico is a classic case of “regulatory capture,” in which the police have become the instruments of the drug dealers, doling out territory to this or that criminal gang and taking bribes.
The leaders of UPOEG demand the legalization of the drug trade, and have called on Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto to raise the issue with President Barack Obama when the latter visits Mexico in May. “They call it a war on drugs,” says UPOEG leader Bruno Placido Valerio, “because they could not call it a war on the poor.” Valerio claims 80,000 have been killed in this “dirty war.”
The spark that set off this Mexican prairie fire was the kidnapping of a local community leader on January 6 in the town of Ayulta de los Libres, in the region of Costa Chica: 800 locals armed themselves with hunting rifles and machetes, put on ski masks, and set up checkpoints, arresting 40 criminals and declaring their defiance of the lawlessness that has gripped their communities. Since that time, UPOEG self-defense groups have sprung up in more than 20 localities. Similar self-defense groups have arisen in 13 states and 68 municipalities across the country.
Mexico is an object lesson in the inability of the “modern” centralized state to deal with the very problem that led to its establishment: the prevalence of crime. Here the criminals have become the government: they have captured the police and the politicians, and are now lording it over the people.
In addition, the indigenous communities of southern and eastern Mexico have to fight off another assault on their sovereignty: the efforts by multinational mining and logging companies to strip the land and cart off the wealth. This has been the pattern of land seizure and exploitation since the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz, which centralized all power in Mexico City and resulted in the pillaging of indigenous lands. There was a mass exodus to the cities, and the resulting economic and social dislocations still plague the Mexican nation.
Mexican elites are sitting atop a social and political volcano just waiting to go off. The cartels have devastated the social and political foundations of the nation, terrorizing ordinary citizens and openly flouting the authority of the government: soon they will be in a position to challenge the politicians in Mexico City, and from that point the collapse of the Mexican nation will not be too far off.
The self-organizing and defensive measures taken by ordinary people are the first step on the road to revolution, which the government no doubt recognizes but is apparently powerless to do anything about – just as they are powerless to take on the cartels. In effect, municipalities such as Tierra Colorada are seceding, a phenomenon that is sure to pick up when the gale force winds of the economic and political crisis are brought to bear on the Mexican central state.
This spells trouble for the United States on its southern border, where the effects of Mexico’s implosion are already being felt. As usual, US foreign policy is exacerbating the problem: the “war on drugs,” which Washington insists the Mexicans must fight, has already destabilized much of the country – and done little if anything to neutralize the cartels. The US currently ships $757.7 million to the Mexican government annually, a great deal of which goes to the military and law enforcement.
As a worldwide economic contraction exacts a heavy price on peoples outside the global metropolis, the countryside of the world is increasingly in turmoil. It won’t be possible to ignore the growing disorder a few miles from American cities like El Paso – now one of the safest cities in the US.
The roots of this crisis are firmly planted in Mexico’s long history of centralized control exercised from Mexico City, and particularly in the abrogation of just land titles. These were violated and obscured by feudal land grants during the colonial period, and then further complicated by government land seizures labeled “privatization” which only succeeded in enriching various oligarchs and government officials. Concessions were sold off to mining companies, railroads, and other big ticket industrial cartels, while the indigenous people were driven off their land and herded into the big cities, mostly Mexico City. The lands surrounding the urban center metastasized into giant pockets of poverty.
Those that remain on the land are besieged, on the one hand, by the drug cartels, who murder, extort, rape, and loot with impunity, and on the other hand by the urban technocrats in faraway Mexico City, whose interests in no way coincide with the rural folk of Tierra Colorada. Bruno Placido Valerio and President Nietos may inhabit the same country, but they live in different worlds.
The hardscrabble state of Guerrero has a long history of insurrections: it is also one of Mexico’s poorest regions. As the ability of the central state to defend itself and its citizens weakens, the legitimacy of the regime in Mexico City will break down. At some point the unitary nature of the Mexican state will be seriously called into question – and no doubt, alarm bells will go off in Washington, with our leaders straining at the bit to take some sort of “action” to stem the “crisis.” After all, as the Mexican government loses its grip, “terrorists” could step into the power vacuum! And then who would be to blame for the emergence of “Al Qaeda-in-Mexico”?
The vast territory we call “Mexico” was never a united country, not in the sense that, say, Luxembourg is and has been since the late medieval period. The Spanish invaders enslaved a great variety of indigenous peoples, and these descendants of the Incas, Aztecs, Toltecs, and numerous other native ethnicities and language groups had their own long history of territorial disputes, economic competition, and clan-based conflicts. The conquistadors overlaid the institutions of colonial society on this rich mosaic of indigenous diversity, and a fresh layer of oppression was added by the crony capitalist regimes that succeeded the Spanish and French occupations.
This made-in-Mexico form of statism is exemplified by Gen. Porfirio Diaz, standing at the beginning, and the 50-year reign of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), standing quite near the end. With all power centralized in Mexico City, government officials and their political machines administered the wealth of the country, doling out franchises and special privileges for political support. Over the course of time, a vast machinery of patronage was affixed to the country’s economic engine, with graft perhaps the nation’s single largest industry right after the illicit drug trade.
After a short interregnum, the PRI succeeded in regaining power in 2012 amid widespread allegations of fraud, and they have brought to the job the same high standard of corruption and indifference to the suffering of the nation that party has maintained for half a century. The Mexican elites are daring the rest of the country to come after them – and I wouldn’t be in the least bit surprised if the campesinos obliged them sooner rather than later. If ever a regime deserved to fall, it is this one. The national mood is that of a revolution just waiting to happen.
The natural inclination of the Washington policymakers will be to intervene, first with “advisors” and billions in “foreign aid,” and later with drone strikes and perhaps even boots on the ground. Such a course would result in a nationalist backlash of major proportions and a long guerrilla war right in our own “back yard,” as we used to say.
It isn’t “our” back yard, of course: as far as the Mexicans are concerned, we’re in their back yard, and we haven’t always been the best of neighbors. The blowback from the Mexican-American war was a long time coming, but today it is practically here.
What this means for the future of American foreign policy isn’t difficult to foresee. The prospect of a civil war breaking out a few miles from major American cities is likely to focus our policy wonks on the question that is supposed to be the real subject of national security studies: how best to defend the territorial integrity of the United States from foreign incursions. Forget the “Asian pivot,” or the big debate about how to best bring about peace in the Middle East – the real question of the future is how do we ensure the peace in El Paso.
That should knock the imperial pretensions of our Washington elite down a peg or two.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
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