Mexico: a state of failure

About the author
Sergio Aguayo Quezada is professor at Mexico's Colegio de Mexico. Among his books is 1968: Los archivos de la violencia (Grijalbo/ Reforma, 1998).

Mexico is increasingly being characterised as a "failed state" on account of its inability to counter the country's burgeoning problems of drug-trafficking violence and gangsterism. Felipe Calderón's government denies this charge with indignation. Who is right?

Sergio Aguayo Quezada is professor in the Centre of International Studies at El Colegio de México. Among his books is 1968: Los archivos de la violencia (Grijalbo/ Reforma, 1998). His website is here

Among Sergio Aguayo Quezada's articles in openDemocracy:

"America's protean left: José Miguel Insulza and the OAS" (24 July 2005)

"Washington vs Latin American democracy" (29 November 2005)

"Fraud in Mexico?" (7 July 2006)

"Mexico's democratic lifeline" (12 September 2006)

"Mexico: on the volcano" (24 November 2006)

"Mexico: living with drugs" (16 March 2007)

"The new Latin America: from Soweto to the Amazon" (17 December 2007)

"The next American revolution" (2 April 2008)

The notion of a "failed state" is one of those concepts that arise now and again to try to capture new realities. In this case the term - popularised by Foreign Policy's annual index - defines states that have lost control over parts of their territory, seen their monopoly over the use of force diminished, and are incapable of providing adequate public services.

Mexico has been placed in this category in successive months: by a strategic-analysis report from the United States Joint Forces Command (see Joint Operating Environment 2008, 4 December 2008), by a leading US business magazine (see Jesse Bogan et al, "The Next Disaster", Forbes, 22 December 2008), and by a succession of journalists (see Joel Kurtzman, "Mexico's Instability is a Real Problem", Wall Street Journal, 16 January 2009).

The Mexican government has reacted swiftly on each occasion to rebut the accusation. The foreign minister Patricia Espinosa, for example, spent over an hour trying to demonstrate with "hard data in hand" that, in spite of its bloody daily toll of victims and incidents, Mexico is not a failed state (see Adam Thomson, "Mexico rebuffs ‘failed state' claims", Financial Times, 18 January 2009). The attorney-general, Eduardo Medina Mora, likewise responded by reiterating the official version: that the surge of narco (drug) traffickers is owed to the failures of Mexico's previous rulers.

A desperate bargain

This construction of an alternative future is the beginning of hope for its architects: its foundation the claim that Felipe Calderón's government is different, and that - despite all appearances - it is winning a bitter struggle. In order to make good its claim, however, the government requires two things: the support of the international community (especially that of the United States), and internal, national unity in its campaign (something it demands and even implores from the Mexican people).

The first requirement was evident at a somewhat discreet meeting between Felipe Calderón and Barack Obama on 12 January 2009 in Washington. On leaving, Calderón let slip that he had suggested to the then president-elect that the two government should "establish a strategic alliance" in order to face mutual security problems. In other circumstances, Calderón might here be suspected of seeking Washington's recognition of Mexico as the equivalent of a major non-Nato ally (such as Japan, Israel and the Philippines). But this kind of partnership has not been discussed in Mexico, nor is it on offer. Rather, what is being proposed is a shared acknowledgment of the urgency of Washington's backing and collaboration in the war against drugs.

The second part of the bargain is equally hard to deliver. Those of us who live in Mexico suffer the everyday insecurity of this agonising condition; and, in my case, start each day hoping the government can give good news on the battlefront. But it is hard, and not only because of the drug-gangs whose violence took 5,400 lives in 2008: the governors and big businessmen who bend and break rules, and even the street-vendors who steal electricity, also diminish the capacity to govern. This government indeed is living with the consequences of a difficult inheritance, but its own incoherence, misjudgment and inability to tell a convincing story to the people worsen the situation. When Mexican citizens observe the state rocking like a boat in choppy waters, even the most hopeful begin to lose heart.

A realistic answer

There are differences within any government, but it is the leader who must control them. Since the domestic "war on drugs" began, two of the main departmental heads (Genaro García Luna, minister of public security and Eduardo Medina Mora, attorney-general) have been locked in a dialogue of the deaf; while Mexico's head of national security is pursuing his own course, contradicting the aforementioned official version in the process.

Also in openDemocracy on Mexico's politics:

Donald Nicholson-Smith, "Black glove/white glove: revisiting Mexico's 1968" (25 August 2004)

Isabel Hilton, "Imagining power: Carlos Fuentes interviewed" (10 February 2006)

Yadira Hidalgo, "Atenco's agony: Mexico's other campaign" (12 June 2006)

Bernardine Coverley, "Meeting Marcos at Huixquilucan" (12 June 2006)

Kathleen Blake Bohne, "Drug decriminalisation in Mexico" (10 December 2008)

An important moment in this respect was the breakfast meeting convened on 27 November 2008 by the defence secretary, Guillermo Galván Galván, with a group of communications specialists. The analyst Leonardo Curzio, who was present, summarised for me the essence of Galván's comments: that Mexico's internal security is at grave risk because the army is being worn down by the omnipresent drug-cartels, because the much-sought cooperation with regional governors and municipal presidents (especially some affiliated to the Partido Revolucionario Institucional [PRI]) is not being achieved, and because Felipe Calderón does not pursue those politicians alleged to protect or tolerate drug-lords.

The message is credible; there is more than enough evidence to support the case that the executive is submissive before the authorities that wield de facto power in Mexico (see Sam Quinones, "State of War", Foreign Policy, March-April 2009).

An especially surreal example is that of Elba Esther Gordillo who at the same time is at the helm of three powerful ships: the teachers' union (with one million members), a political party (Nueva Alianza) which has shown sustained growth, and a growing number of public offices to which she appoints and removes people at will. La Maestra (as Gordillo is known colloquially) was a key figure in the contested electoral victory of Calderón in July 2006, and it seems that the favour she delivered then is still being rewarded: for example, the president changed the head of the national lottery - a government agency with a multi-million peso budget - simply because La Maestra wished it so.

Is Mexico, then, a "failed" state? In general terms, the answer must be no - if only because the state still controls most of its territory. However, the situation becomes less clear if the actual, close working of cities and institutions are examined: here, the state's presence is often notional, as those who control the power-strings are the narcos. The government of Felipe Calderón is disoriented and passive in face of the corruption, inequality and impunity that bleed and debilitate society and the state. The feeling that we are marching towards a precipice is accentuated.

This article was translated by Alfonsina Peñaloza