When Mexico is in the news something bad has happened. A city is under siege, dozens of teenagers attending a party have been shot and killed; a man has been decapitated. American officials have called it a failed state; Arizona just sued the federal government for its failures to secure the border with a nation that spews bad news and migrant workers, while the Mexican state seemingly succumbs to the pressure of corruption and violence. So long promises! A nation that was on its way to defeating centuries of poverty and inequality catched a serious case of narco-flue on the finishing line and ended up without a future.
That the republic is in trouble is beyond doubt, but contrary to many reports this doesn’t mean that the Mexican state has failed, grinded to a halt and, hands in the air, ceased to work. Observers have long pointed out that people are in fact dying by the thousands and that the Mexican government is in great need of US support to fight off the cartels, but also that these violent areas make up a small part of the country and that the threat to Mexican society even in these murderous enclaves isn’t military. As The Economist reports, in 2007 over 70 % of all homicides that were attributed to organized crime took place in no more than 4 % of Mexico’s municipalities, in 2010 figures showed an even greater concentration where 70 % of the killings now took place in 3 % of the country’s municipalities. And even in places where violence has peaked, like Ciudad Juárez, narco-traffickers offered limited resistance when facing overwhelming government forces such as the 7,000 soldiers that were deployed to the city two years ago.
Where Colombia, a nation similarly ravaged by organized drug crime, had to start by actually regaining territory before it could focus on civilian and judicial challenges, the situation in Mexico is more in line with that in Sicily during the 1970s and 1980s. The main task is to establish rule of law. Sicily was a deeply corrupt part of a corrupt Italy that had been used as a fiefdom for a string of Christian Democrat party lords who thrived during decades by doling out government largesse. Throughout this time, they joined forces with local Mafioso who delivered votes in exchange for a fair share of government contracts, as long as they kept a low, moderately violent profile and didn’t meddle with the political status quo.
This changed when the Christian Democrats’ grip on Italian politics loosened in the late 1970s and the national government as well as zealous Palermo based anti-mafia officials like Judge Giovanni Falcone and Paulo Borsellino broke up the coalition of corrupt politicians and organized crime by establishing rule of law. It led to the deaths of many brave officials and unfortunate bystanders, including Falcone and Borsellino who were both murdered by the mafia, as well as a chaotic decade and a half in Sicily when businesses, citizens, politicians, policemen, lawyers and judges all had to change their behavior and the ways they interacted with each other in order to respect the law, rather than find ways around it. As for the Cosa Nostra, they fought the government with all available means to prevent a strong, independent judicial system from emerging, and then each other, when hundreds of Mafioso were arrested, leaving power vacuums that had to be filled.
The same happened in Mexico during the democratic transition of the 1990s and especially after the 2000 presidential election when the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) lost power after seventy years of absolute dominance. In the words of Shannon O’Neil, of the Council on Foreign Relations, “Under the PRI, the purpose of government policy was to assert power rather than govern by law. The opacity of court proceedings, the notorious graft of the police forces, and the menacing presence of special law enforcement agencies were essential elements of an overall system of political, economic, and social control.” Everyone in Mexico, including the narco-traffickers, had to respect and finance the absolute authority of the PRI if they wanted to stay in business. But when PRI no longer was there to set the rules of the game, and the democratic forces lacked the means to establish a new set of behavioral guidelines in accordance with the law, a great reshuffling took place where the cartels no longer could rely on graft to stay in business as long as they respected the authority of the leaders.
Just like in Italy, their response is to attack a state that is trying to wane itself off corruption in order to prevent the forces that want to establish accountable governance, rule of law and the efficient enforcement of it from succeeding. Drug cartels are responding to a rain of fire in the form of record numbers of interdictions, arrests and extraditions to the US by reverting to violence because they don’t wish to live in fear of uncooperative police officers, stern judges and secure prisons that disrupt business as usual. But with a strong Mexican commitment to reforming an inept judicial system and corrupt local police forces, as well as American knowhow and monetary support in doing so, Mexico will be able to rein in the drug lords and establish a more accountable government that kingpins will dread and people can rely on.