What’s Happening In Latin America – Mexico (Part I)

by Dan Miller.

In recent weeks, the world’s attention has been riveted on Eurasia, where crises in Syria and Ukraine, tensions in the Koreas and the South China Sea, not to mention the Winter Olympic games in Sochi, have filled the headlines. Maybe that’s actually good news for Latin America since it suggests a degree of tranquility that the region has not always enjoyed. (Although recent demonstrations in Venezuela, discussed in a post earlier this week, show that things are not entirely peaceful.) I’m going to post several reports on what’s going on in the region, beginning here with Mexico.

I like Mexico and I like Mexicans. Every time I go to Mexico I find new reasons to like the country and its people. So please don’t take anything I write here to be an indictment of Mexicans as a people. In fact, most of what I will say is not much different from what many Mexicans themselves are saying.

Mexico is huge—three times the size of Texas—with a population of 112 million and an economy of more than one trillion dollars (13th in the world). Unfortunately it also has some huge problems.

Problem One: the Drug War

The one you’re probably most aware of right now is the drug-related violence that is ravaging many parts of the country. Since 2006, over 60,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence and there have been horrendous acts of public cruelty designed to demonstrate the impunity of the drug cartels.

The violence is in part a legacy of Mexico’s history as a very poor nation located next to a very rich one. Currently the U.S. supplies more than $25 billion in drug profits to the criminal cartels and also provides them with weapons that give them more fire power than all but the best equipped Mexican security forces.

Another source of the problem is the long history of political corruption. Mexico was ruled for over seventy years by a single party (the PRI, or Institutional Revolutionary Party) that exchanged political favors for bribes and electoral support. Over time, a symbiotic relationship grew up between criminal gangs who wanted to operate without legal interference and public officials who profited by ignoring their activities or even participated in them. It was impossible to tell who was a greater threat to the security of the Mexican people—the criminals or the police. In fact, one of the worst gangs—the Zetas—is comprised of former members of Mexico’s Special Forces who switched sides in the drug wars.

Democratic reforms in the 1990s finally pried the old ruling party from power and allowed a new bunch of politicians to take charge. The last President of Mexico, Felipe Calderón, decided to take a hard line on the corrupt alliance between officials and criminal gangs. Instead of relying on state and local police whom he believed, not unreasonably, were untrustworthy, he sent the Mexican Army into cities and towns where the criminal gangs had become the de facto rulers. The results have been horrific. Of course the drug cartels have fought back and they can count on the support of some local “law enforcement” elements. The Mexican army itself has also been cited for abuses of citizen rights in part because it has been trained to fight wars, not conduct what amount to police operations.

The Mexican government claims that it is winning the war and they cite the capture of more than half of the identified drug cartel kingpins as evidence–witness the recent, widely celebrated capture of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman–but some of the most successful police operations may have been cases where one cartel used its official allies to wipe out another cartel. And when one cartel is weakened by the carnage, others swoop in to take over its territory. And the smaller gangs that emerge when the big cartels are broken up have been getting into new lines of crime such as extortion and kidnapping. All we can say for sure is that the drugs continue to arrive in the United States and the citizens of Mexico have been traumatized by a steady stream of horrific violence that is spilling, sometimes quite literally, into the public square.

Part II of “What’s Happening in Latin America? – Mexico” will post tomorrow, examining Mexico’s economy and recent efforts to address the nation’s political and economic problems.

Professor Daniel Miller has been a member of the Calvin History Department since 1983. He regularly teaches a survey of Latin American history and has taken students there on several January Interim trips. His research interests include the history of Protestantism in Latin America and U.S.-Mexican relations.

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