As the US continues and expands its worldwide "war on terror," extending its militarized tentacles into Africa as well as the Middle East, a festering threat looms closer to home: the ungluing of Mexico and its rapid descent into the status of a failed state. How Washington responds may determine not only the fate of our southern neighbor, but also our own.
Mexico is undergoing a crisis of authority – a direct challenge to its ability to maintain a monopoly on the use of force within its borders – and this is coming from two directions. The first challengers are the drug cartels: these go under a variety of names, from the "Knights Templar," known as "Templarios," to the Sinaloa gang, which got its start in Mexico’s Sinaloa province but soon spread across the country. While each gang has its unique regional allegiances and internal culture, all employ the same brutal practices: aside from the sale of illegal drugs, the cartels engage in massive extortion, collecting "taxes" from both wealthy businessmen and poor campesinos in the fields. Anyone who refuses to pay is ruthlessly – and often graphically – eliminated.
The municipal police are no help: indeed, they are a hindrance to those residents who wish to live in peace, unmolested by criminal gangs, for the simple reason that the police are the biggest criminal gang of all. Thoroughly infiltrated by the drug gangs, and very often on the cartels’ payroll, the armed might of the Mexican state is impotent before the often superior firepower of the cartels – who have reportedly been aided by none other the US government in their quest to acquire firearms.
Having surrendered de facto authority over large swathes of Mexico to the cartels and their allies, the central government in Mexico City has been remarkably indifferent to the fate of millions of Mexicans left to chafe under the heel of criminal gangs – until now.
What woke them up to the burgeoning crisis was the rise of the so-called vigilantes: groups of ordinary Mexicans, from wealthy ranchers to poor field hands, who have organized to take back their land – and their lives – from gangs of murderous thugs (whether they be the cartels’ hooligans, or those who commit the same crimes under color of State authority). I reported on this movement last year, when the citizens’ self-defense forces took over the town of Tierra Colorado, arrested the chief of "police," and set up roadblocks, clearing the town of the local cartel’s henchmen.
Now the "vigilantes" have upped the ante, moving in what appears to be a coordinated strike at the heart of the cartels’ power. The town of Nueva Italia is the latest battlefield, where the self-defense forces have taken over City Hall – under a rain of gunfire from the government-aligned Templarios – and surrounded the neighboring city of Apatzingan, widely known as the Templar’s chief headquarters.
The epicenter of the vigilante movement is in the states of Guererro and Michoacan, in southwest Mexico, a region with a long history of resistance to the central government. In the 1920s, after the "revolutionary" government of President Plutarco Calles practically banned Catholicism, started murdering priests and nuns, and seized Church property, the "Cristero" rebellion took root in the largely agricultural southwestern provinces, where guerrilla bands battled government troops in defense of the faith. This is the poorest region of Mexico, where government "land reform" – inspired by the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 – deprived peasants of Indian extraction of most of their land, turning the indigenous people into trespassers on their own historic holdings. In response to efforts to "modernize" farming along collectivist lines, the small farmers rose up against the central government – and the same hostility to Mexican centralism permeates the current "vigilante" upsurge.
The central government has reacted the same way they have in the past: with relentless hostility and demands to disarm. After decades of indifference to what is happening in the southwest part of the country, the lords of Mexico City are sending thousands of federal troops into the region as a complement to their demands that the peoples’ militias disarm. As the Guardian reports, the locals treat this demand with the disdain it deserves:
"’Disarm?’ a middle-aged masked Nueva Italia vigilante commander said with obvious incredulity. ‘If we did that, the Caballeros would seek us out and kill us.’"
Well, yes – and that may very well be the idea, given the close links between the notoriously corrupt Mexican authorities and the drug cartels. This may account, in part, for the government’s de facto laissez-faire policy, as the Guardian report continues:
"Though government officials have continued to insist disarmament is non-negotiable in faraway press conferences, on the ground soldiers and federal police now ignore the sandbag checkpoints manned by vigilantes."
Of course they do: why bother fighting the vigilantes if the cartels are doing the government’s dirty work for them?
What is happening in Mexico is the slow-motion collapse of governmental authority under the relentless onslaught of the cartels. It isn’t just the fact that the cartels often have superior firepower: it’s the all-pervasive nature of their corrupting influence, made possible by the huge profits they make from the drug trade.
The cartels are a grotesque and deadly byproduct of the "war on drugs" conducted jointly by the United States and its allies internationally: without the ban on "illicit" drugs, the cartels would not and could not exist. In this sense, the cartels and the governments that supposedly pursue them are colluding – and that collusion often takes the form of an explicit alliance, as "Fast and Furious" and the well-known collaboration between the Mexican police and the drug gangs make all too plain.
Every act of coercion by the State produces distortions in the economic, political, and social life of a people: in this case, it is the irrational ban on certain drugs that has birthed competing gangs of criminals who ape all the familiar depredations of government oppression – extortion, murder, and mass thievery – times ten.
No one should underestimate the seriousness of what is happening down Mexico way: the country is unraveling much faster than even I predicted last year. As the world economic crisis impacts the already impoverished Mexican masses, and their clueless government continues to dawdle while the country burns, the crisis of authority is bound to culminate in a rather spectacular explosion – one sure to take our own equally clueless (and corrupt) political class completely by surprise.
An all out civil war in Mexico would have to mean millions of refugees crossing the border into the US in a veritable floodtide – one that could not be stopped by our Border Patrol, or, indeed, anything short of a massive military mobilization. The military conflict would inevitably spill over the border: for the first time since the Mexican-American war, the American southwest could conceivably become a battle zone.
Furthermore, Mexican-Americans, both citizens and undocumented, will invariably be drawn into the conflict: indeed, many of the activists involved in the self-defense groups were born in the US and have lived here for years. On the other hand, the cartels also have numerous operatives north of the Rio Grande, where they are a huge presence in the American crime scene.
Will Mexico’s civil strife be played out on the streets of American cities? This is a question our political class ought to be asking about now, but they’re too fixated on the wars in far-off Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq to fully appreciate (or even notice) the fire burning right on their doorstep.
Naturally, when they do recognize the threat they’ll respond as they’ve always responded: with brute force. Our efforts to prop up the Mexican government will no doubt result in the usual catastrophe, with the Mexican version of Hamid Karzai reveling in corruption while the rest of the country outside Mexico City falls apart. In effect, such a conflict would entail pitting the central government and the cartels against the "vigilantes." The United States, as usual, would be on the side of Evil.
There’s just one way to break the power of the cartels and wipe out the corrupto-crats who have seized control of Mexico, and that is by legalizing "illicit" drugs – not just in Mexico and the United States, but throughout the Americas (to start with). Limited legalization won’t stanch cartel profits: indeed, this partial "legalization" – which drives up demand, while heavily taxing and regulating weed – may succeed in achieving the exact opposite, driving up the cartel’s profit margins rather than putting them out of business. That’s why permitting recreational use of cannabis in states like Colorado isn’t going to put a dent in the problem; what’s needed is nothing less than complete legalization in this hemisphere. Otherwise the criminal cartels are here to stay.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
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You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.