Violence and the social disintegration of Mexico

For over a decade now, Mexico has been falling apart as a political community and disintegrating as a territorial sovereign state in many parts of the land. Español

Eldad Levy
18 July 2017

Over 400 people participated in a "cacerolazo" in the Angel of Independence, as a form of solidarity with the victims in the bombing of the Casino Royale in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon. Aug. 27, 2011. Creative Commons.

May 2017. A family of four is driving a Ford Ranger truck on the Mexico City-Puebla highway. They make a casual stop by the side of the road, which turns out to be a terrible mistake. Two vehicles stop behind them. A gang of eight robbers challenge the truck at gunpoint. The father hesitates and a shot is fired, killing the family’s two-year-old son. The bandits then proceed to rape the mother and the teenage daughter and take the truck. The family is forced to march along the road for miles, at night, carrying the body of their dead son, until they find help.

It takes quite a bit to shock the Mexican media when it comes to violent crime. While the foreign media is mainly concerned with relations between Trump and Mexico, local newspapers are full of these kinds of stories of senseless violence. This story, however, hit a nerve: police forces and intelligence services were deployed to find the gang. In less than a month, their leader was arrested –a huge success in a country where over 98% of homicides remain unsolved.

Faced with a myriad of stories of forced disappearances and murders in the context of the drug wars, people felt a deep sympathy with the victims of a crime that could have hit anyone. The barbaric and senseless violence brought about a wave of anxiety: while it was easy to understand why people would rob trucks, the brutal violence following the robbery could not be as easily explained.

This story, in a nutshell, encapsulates May 2017 in Mexico, the most violent month in recorded history, according to accessible data: 2,186 people were murdered – many of them, as part of the cartel wars; many others, victims of this almost routine violence. After Syria, Mexico is today the most violent country in the world.

While President Trump is fond of focusing his rhetoric against trade with Mexico, the Free Trade Agreement has been a disaster for the Mexican working class and the farmers. 

What is worse: Mexico is falling apart as a political community. For over a decade now, as a result of the drug wars, Mexico has been systematically disintegrating as a territorial sovereign state in many parts of the country. Poverty, impunity and the ensuing violence are tearing apart any remnants of a sense of social solidarity.

The long rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in Mexico has traditionally been based on a corporatist and, at times, repressive mechanism. Nonetheless, for most of the twentieth century, PRI also successfully provided a notion of national solidarity and civic belonging. It defined a concept of "Mexicanism" and unity. With the transition to the neoliberal era, however, the old civic norms no longer provide a source of civic solidarity. The old mechanism of loyalty and corruption based on patronage that was the backbone of PRI rule in its corporatist era has not vanished, it has turned into the local version of crony capitalism.

The rise of poverty and impunity are key to this process. While other Latin American countries have managed to reduce poverty to some extent, a report by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) shows that poverty in Mexico increased by almost 3% from 2008 to 2014. In the northern state of Sinaloa, 30,000 people fall below the poverty line every year. Almost 30% of the population in this state suffers from food insecurity. Ironically, Sinaloa is one of the largest Mexican agricultural producers for both local and foreign markets. Sinaloa is also the home state of one of the most powerful drug cartels in Mexico. For organized crime, the figures above come in handy to recruit impoverished Mexican youths.

The entry of Mexico into the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994 brought promises of economic growth, eradication of poverty and even political democratization. Hundreds of companies and public assets moved into private hands, mainly those of a thin layer of ultra-wealthy Mexicans and foreign companies. Local industries, which used to be the backbone of the Mexican economy, faced the overwhelming competition of the massive and well-organized US economy.

Violence is the result of a political culture which produces poverty and impunity, and which is swallowing up all spheres of Mexican society.

Thirty years later, the neoliberalization of the Mexican economy has not only failed miserably in bringing prosperity to the population, it has also failed in terms of much simpler standards such as economic growth: since 2000, Mexico has grown on average at a yearly rate of 2%. While President Trump is fond of focusing his rhetoric against trade with Mexico, the Free Trade Agreement has been a disaster for the Mexican working class and the farmers. It has produced a few oligarchs like Carlos Slim, but mainly millions of new poor, who have been left without the old defense mechanisms provided by the corporatist state.

Since the 1990s, substituting its public investment and development policies, the state has tried to reduce poverty through a number of welfare programs. One of the first and most famous of these was ironically called "Solidarity”. But in a country whose political nature is based on loyalty to political machines and corruption, these programs have become just another control tool for local parties to ensure votes. As they watch local political leaders use public funds for their political benefit, every year an increasing number of Mexicans face the menace of inequality and poverty – the gateway to a widespread sense of social anomie, a collapse in social solidarity, and lawlessness.

It is worth pointing out that the perpetrators of the hideous crime mentioned above come from a town called San Martín Texmelucan, in the state of Puebla. In this municipality, almost 60% of the population lives below the poverty line, and 10% are considered to be in extreme poverty. The rates of access to food and medical services are lower than both the state and the Republic's average. This is in no way to diminish or justify the crime, but it helps to understand where such ruthless violence is coming from.  

Poverty, however, is not the only factor boosting violence in Mexico. The fact that members of this gang were actually apprehended is clearly an exception to the Mexican rule of getting away with bloody murder – which only adds to a state of lawlessness and violence. In 2015 Mexico ranked second on the Global Impunity Index. In 2016, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights determined that impunity is one of the key factors contributing to violence in Mexico. As part of a legacy of corruption and mistrust, the police in Mexico are perceived by the population as incompetent at best or, at worst, as corrupted and colluding with organized crime.

Violence is the result of a political culture which produces poverty and impunity, and which is swallowing up all spheres of Mexican society. Today, crime is well embedded in the government and the security forces. The prevalent feeling of despair and social disintegration is not only rooted in the existence of terrible violence itself, but in a sense of complete mistrust of the state and its agents. Reducing violence and preventing crimes like the one described here, however, will only happen when systematic solutions to impunity and poverty are found.

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