Mexico Isn’t a Failed State — Yet: But we need to protect ourselves now

By Mark Krikorian on March 25, 2009

National Review Online, March 24, 2009

Mexico is in trouble. The drug wars there have claimed more than 7,000 lives since President Calderón took office in late 2007. Police are being beheaded, politicians are being assassinated, and pundits are talking of Mexico’s becoming a “failed state.”

The potential consequences for the United States are very serious, much more serious than anything likely to happen in Afghanistan or Iraq. The violence has already started to spill over the border, and it is only a matter of time before an American police officer or Border Patrol agent or judge is beheaded. The even greater danger is massive refugee flows, inundating the Southwest with unprecedented numbers of Mexicans fleeing violence, few of whom would likely return, regardless of changed conditions at home.

But first, the good news: Mexico is not a failed state, and won’t be any time soon. In fact, the reason for the explosion of violence is precisely that the state is asserting itself, trying to end the cozy and corrupt arrangements that allowed drug cartels to buy all the pols and cops they needed to conduct their business unmolested. What’s more, the bulk of the violence is taking place in only three states (though two of them are on our border), while much of the country is relatively calm.

And there is as yet no mass emigration of the kind we saw from El Salvador, 25 percent of whose population fled during the civil war there in the 1980s. In fact, illegal immigration from Mexico has fallen significantly, initially because of tighter enforcement and now also because of the economic downturn here. In El Paso, for instance, the Border Patrol in 1993 apprehended an average of more than 1,000 illegal aliens a day; now it’s down to 38 a day.

But that’s pretty much it for good news, and the bad news is daunting. Retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, in a December analysis, issued a dire warning:

The incoming Obama Administration must immediately focus on the dangerous and worsening problems in Mexico, which fundamentally threaten U.S. national security. Before the next eight years are past, the violent, warring collection of criminal drug cartels could overwhelm the institutions of the state and establish de facto control over broad regions of northern Mexico.

A failure by the Mexican political system to curtail lawlessness and violence could result [in] a surge of millions of refugees crossing the U.S. border to escape the domestic misery of violence, failed economic policy, poverty, hunger, joblessness, and the mindless cruelty and injustice of a criminal state.

What’s more, our military’s Joint Forces Command reported last fall:

In terms of worst-case scenarios for the Joint Force and indeed the world, two large and important states bear consideration for a rapid and sudden collapse: Pakistan and Mexico.

Any country whose name follows the words “Pakistan and” is probably frakked. The report continues:

The Mexican possibility may seem less likely, but the government, its politicians, police, and judicial infrastructure are all under sustained assault and pressure by criminal gangs and drug cartels. How that internal conflict turns out over the next several years will have a major impact on the stability of the Mexican state. Any descent by Mexico into chaos would demand an American response based on the serious implications for homeland security alone.

So, what do we do? Because the drug trade is driven by demand in the United States, drug legalization in the U.S. is often presented as the solution to the troubles in Mexico. While I’m sympathetic to looser rules for marijuana, that is not the answer. First, it would take years to change public consensus about drug laws, and more years for such a change to work its way through our federal system. And even if marijuana is decriminalized or even legalized, that’s just not going to happen with heroin or meth.

What’s more, drug use in Mexico itself is widespread and growing; McCaffrey’s report says that chronic drug consumption there has doubled since 2002. An estimated 20 percent of the cocaine that enters Mexico is consumed locally, and Tijuana’s 1.4 million people are estimated to include 100,000 meth addicts. There’s nothing reform of American drug laws can do to affect this.

But if not drug legalization, then what? Law-enforcement cooperation is appropriate, of course, and is ongoing; Congress last year authorized $1.6 billion over three years for the Mérida Initiative to provide anti-drug training and equipment to Mexican military and law-enforcement forces. Earlier this month, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of our Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited Mexico and conferred with the heads of the army and navy there, who have lead roles in combating the cartels. Perhaps most popular with this administration is an effort to limit the southbound smuggling of guns and money; there have been calls for ratification of CIFTA, a treaty that, among other things, would limit gun smuggling in the Western Hemisphere.

Another factor that is not widely mentioned is that Mexico is one of the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists. Several dozen reporters and editors covering the cartels have been murdered in recent years. Even if the government gave up trying to assert its authority against the cartels, the drug lords won’t rest until the media are also silenced.

And much of the lawlessness isn’t related to drugs at all. Mexico has now surpassed Iraq and Colombia as the world’s kidnapping capital, and this is mostly unrelated to the cartels. Kidnapping has been called a “national plague” and is a much more immediate concern to most ordinary Mexicans than the drug war. There are now “express kidnappings,” where passengers in unregistered cabs are grabbed and forced to use their ATM cards to withdraw money, and “virtual kidnappings,” where families are tricked into believing someone has been kidnapped. It has gotten so bad that a U.S. expert involved in negotiating the release of kidnapped people was himself kidnapped in December. There have even been calls for reinstating the death penalty to address the scourge.

Perhaps the deepest problem for the stability of the Mexican state, a problem untouchable by any kind of law enforcement, is widespread public disenchantment with the nation’s institutions. William & Mary professor George Grayson points to polling data showing “the public’s plummeting confidence in major judicial and political organizations” and “the citizenry’s ever greater sense of impotence to influence policy and policy makers.”


Basically, there’s not much we can do to “fix” Mexico, as our unsuccessful attempts at nation-building elsewhere should have taught us by now. Mexico is a proud, unique country, with its own strengths and customs, phobias and quirks; the challenge of this drug war is one that the Mexican state and society will have to meet largely on their own.

But while Mexico is undergoing this travail, we must protect ourselves, preventing the violence and disorder from crossing the border. And we must start preparing now for the mass refugee flows that are inevitable if the Mexican state ultimately fails the challenge and either cedes political control of much of the country to the cartels or disintegrates entirely in a replay of the multi-sided civil war called the Mexican Revolution.

How big could such a refugee crisis be? Estimates of the number of people who fled to the United States during the chaos of 1910–1920 range as high as 10 percent of the population; the equivalent today would be more than 10 million people. And that was at a time when the population of the six Mexican states that border on the U.S. accounted for only about 10 percent of Mexico’s total population, compared to nearly 20 percent today. Even if only 5 percent of Mexico’s people fled northward, that would amount to 5 million refugees, more than all Mexican immigrants, legal and illegal, who have come over the past decade, and they would arrive all at once and mostly concentrate in the immediate vicinity of the border.

And even though illegal crossings are way down for now, we are increasingly seeing residents of border cities use their Border Crossing Cards (short-term, multiple-reentry visas used for shopping and the like) to get into the United States and then claim political asylum.

Job One in responding to the tumult in Mexico is real enforcement of the immigration laws — now. The immediate imperative is to keep the drug gangs from expanding their reach here and making a spillover of the violence more likely. As this map shows, the drug cartels already have a presence in nearly 200 American cities, from the West Coast to the East Coast, and all the way up to the Canadian border. For the somewhat longer term, it is essential to interrupt the migration streams as much as possible, and not create any new expectations of settlement in the U.S., to prevent the conditions for a future uncontrollable refugee surge from developing.

Some of the specific steps we need to take:

Finish the fence. It is astonishing that this shovel-ready project that would employ legions of idle construction workers from Michigan, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere isn’t being completed, or even expanded. Instead, the permanent assignment of troops to patrol the border would seem to be unavoidable at this point; the public is way ahead of the elites on this, with a recent poll finding 79 percent of voters in favor of placing the military on the border.

Of course, policing the stretches between legal border-crossing points is only one part of border security. Trucks and trains legally crossing into the U.S. transport a large proportion of the narcotics and the illegal aliens, and we have been unwilling to exercise the necessary scrutiny, so as not to inconvenience business and frequent border-crossers.

Expand state and local cooperation with the feds. As with the fence, the modest progress made toward the end of the Bush administration in building cooperation between local jurisdictions and immigration authorities may be rolled back. The Obama Justice Department has started an investigation of colorful Maricopa County (Phoenix) Sheriff Joe Arpaio for “racial profiling,” a move clearly designed to have a chilling effect on local immigration-control efforts. What’s more, the Justice Department is reported to be considering removing civil immigration arrest warrants from the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database (used by local police to check a motorist during a traffic stop, for instance). This would limit the ability of police to partner with the feds in identifying and removing illegal aliens, which is the Obama administration’s point; unfortunately, it’s precisely the wrong move.

Keep expanding E-Verify. This online tool enables employers to determine the legal status of new hires, and it has proven effective in denying jobs to illegal aliens. This is essential in the context of an unstable Mexico as a tool in persuading those considering flight that the U.S. is no longer an easy place to get into. Even in the short term, it is an important way of keeping gang members off balance and off the streets; research has shown that most gangsters can’t earn a living just off their criminal activities and thus have day jobs in landscaping, construction, and so on. The expansion of E-Verify would make it harder for them to remain here and easier for them to be detected and removed.

No amnesty. This is important again for two reasons. First, amnesty would give gangsters who are currently illegal immigrants much more freedom of action, comparable to the way the 1986 amnesty gave legal status to Egyptian illegal alien Mahmoud “The Red” Abouhalima, enabling him to freely travel to Afghanistan and receive his terrorist training, then re-enter the country and help lead the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. During the 2007 amnesty debate, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff estimated that 15 to 20 percent of the illegal population would be ineligible because of criminal records among other reasons, a large share of them undoubtedly gang members. While some of these undesirables would surely be screened out, there’s little doubt that the overwhelmed immigration bureaucracy would be pressured into rubber-stamping amnesty applications, granting legal status to many of the 15 to 20 percent identified by Chertoff.

It’s even more important to avoid amnesty under current conditions so as not to spark a refugee surge. During the congressional debates over amnesty in 2006 and 2007, there was evidence that merely debating the topic caused increased illegal immigration flows. In today’s situation, an amnesty for illegals already here could spark an unprecedented tide of people. We saw something like this happen in the Mariel Boatlift saga, albeit with what were tiny numbers compared to the potential rush of Mexicans. It began with five Cubans successfully breaking into the Peruvian embassy compound; when Peru refused to return them, Castro pulled out his guards, and in short order 10,000 people swarmed into the compound. Then, as Castro announced that the port of Mariel was open as an embarkation point for anyone who wanted to leave, word spread quickly, and more than 120,000 poured into the United States over a few months.

We might see a similar immigration surge in the coming months if the Obama administration caves in to the open-borders advocates and extends Temporary Protected Status (a kind of time-limited amnesty) to Haitian illegal aliens in south Florida. So far, the administration has resisted, understanding the risks; as a spokesman for DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano said this week, “There is no change in our policy on temporary protected status, and deportations to Haiti are continuing. And let me be clear: No one living in Haiti right now should be attempting to come to the United States in hopes that they will be granted TPS.”

Disengage border towns. As the example of border residents already starting to seek asylum suggests, the easy access to the United States that many millions of Mexicans already have is a huge vulnerability. The problems with the unique phenomenon of integrated border metropolises straddling the divide between the First and Third Worlds warrant separate treatment, but one change that is imperative to limit the fallout from Mexico’s Time of Troubles is to abolish the Border Crossing Card. These documents account for half of all entries into the U.S. by foreigners, and their reach was actually expanded by the Bush administration; where once they were valid in the immediate vicinity of the border for visits of no more than 72 hours, they now permit their users to remain for up to 30 days at a time, effectively allowing permanent residence. Abolishing this document would close an easy escape hatch for the 20 million people who live in Mexico’s northern border states.

Such a disengagement is not inconsistent with continued vigorous trade with Mexico. Last year we exported more than $150 billion worth of goods to Mexico and imported more than $200 billion. The United States is the main source of Mexico’s imports and the main destination of its exports, and there is no reason for this to change, especially considering that the chief entry points for such truck- and rail-borne trade are not the big, entangled border cities but smaller places like Laredo, because of its proximity to Monterrey, Mexico’s manufacturing hub. If anything, cutting back on the foot and auto traffic in El Paso and San Diego would free up resources to expedite (but also make more secure) U.S.-Mexico trade.

Send in the Marines? In the extreme, and unlikely, case of genuine state collapse and anarchy or civil war in Mexico, we’ll need to consider military action to prevent mass refugee surges. Caspar Weinberger imagined something like this in his 1993 book The Next War, which included a scenario of an invasion of Mexico to overthrow a Hugo Chávez–style dictator whose mismanagement and repression was driving huge numbers of people to flee.

But anarchy or civil war wouldn’t be amenable to such a solution. Instead, the military’s mission in the event of state failure would be to secure safe zones in northern Mexico (or possibly the Yucatán peninsula) where refugees would be housed, rather than allowing them into the United States, where the Obama administration, not to mention the ACLU, would ensure that they never had to leave. This would be the same approach used in the mid-’90s for Cubans and Haitians attempting to cross over on rafts, who were taken to Guantanamo, and by Australia in its “Pacific Solution.

Mexico’s not done for yet, and the state may emerge stronger and more legitimate if it succeeds in establishing its dominance over the drug cartels. But while hoping for the best, we must prepare for the worst. If we don’t, President Obama could find that his first major foreign test won’t come from Iran, Russia, China, or North Korea but from our neighbor to the south.