Last week, the streets of Mexico’s state of Sinaloa’s capital, Culiacan, became a warzone rivaling Syria and Somalia. Videos have circulated of cartel gunmen using armed technicals, .50-caliber sniper rifles, and belt-fed machine guns attacking hapless soldiers and police.
The situation began as cartel retaliation for the arrest of El Chapo’s son, Ovidio Guzmán López. The authorities soon released him in order to stop the violence. Such weakness and surrender in the face of criminal violence is the latest oscillation between crackdowns and appeasement in Mexico’s ambivalent drug war.
Cartel violence in Mexico is not exactly news. Before 2000 or so, Mexico was a sleepy, fairly corrupt, one-party authoritarian country. But it was mostly safe, for visitors and citizens alike. Americans went there on vacation and even went on day trips to shop at border towns like Juarez and Nuevo Laredo. Now it’s a not-so-quiet, still-corrupt, and increasingly dangerous and lawless place. The government is simply the largest gang in town, but not necessarily the most powerful one.
There is not merely high crime and violence in Mexico; rather, the state itself is losing its authority and prestige relative to the cartels, which are becoming, in effect, a parallel state.
Mexico’s Drug War
The rise of Mexican cartels and the increasing violence associated with their rivalry is a complicated story. Briefly, in the 1980s and 1990s Columbian cocaine cartels began to employ Mexican cartels as middlemen, after American efforts blocked their Caribbean smuggling routes into the United States. The middleman soon became the boss, and the Mexican cartels began to overtake the Columbian producers and consolidated the drug trade.
Regional cartels within Mexico battled with one another for market share, each being thwarted by enemies or helped by friends within the Mexican government. While the old Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) tolerated the much smaller legacy trade in marijuana, rising violence and the demands of Mexico’s growing middle class led the first non-PRI president, Vicente Fox, to get serious about cracking down on the cartels after his election in 2000. His successor Felipe Calderon was even more aggressive, particularly in employing parts of the military.
The latest president—the left-wing Andres Obrador—sounds an uncertain trumpet, making amnesties and the demilitarization of the drug war central to his campaign. He famously ran for president on the childish motto of “hugs, not drugs.” Rather prematurely, he declared the war on drugs over in 2019, even as cartel violence increased.
While amnesties for low level drug mules and farmers perhaps perhaps make sense, he has extended this to high-level prisoners as well, including El Chapo’s son. As long as the state does not become an official narcostate and its laws are meant to be enforced, the drug war will go on in spite of Obrador—although it likely will be conducted in a half-hearted way, as it was in Culiacan last week.
The Drug War Is a Fourth-Generation Warfare Problem
As I’ve written before, many of these developments are examples of Fourth Generation Warfare. Fourth Generation Warfare is as much a theory of state authority, as it is a concept of war, because changes to warfare’s combatants and tactics come from changes to where, how, and among whom power is located. The theory accounts for the rise of the modern state’s competitors, including non-state groups like businesses, religious institutions, and, in this case, cartels.
In a Fourth Generation environment, the consolidated modern state doesn’t cease to exist, but it loses its most salient feature: the monopoly on force. Instead, competing groups both above and below the level of the nation-state rise in power relative to the state, and the state may tolerate, cooperate with, compete with, or in some cases be overwhelmed by them.
These rival institutions also affect the state, as such. Through bribes, threats, and the power of competing loyalties, these non-state actors may hijack the normal chain of command among police, military, and intelligence services. Alternately, the state’s rivals may have the cooperation of one part of government, while facing another part as a rival. Both the government and the broader society are fragmented in a Fourth Generation world. In Mexico, this has been going on for a while, with judges being assassinated, one group of police favoring a cartel while its opponents favor another, and, most infamously, former special forces becoming mercenaries for cartels such as the infamous Los Zetas.
Our elites’ failure to pay particular attention to Mexico stems from their failure to grapple with the decline of the state more generally. They’re the leadership class of a declining, unresponsive system that increasingly fails to deliver on its promises of prosperity and security. While we certainly have a powerful state and comparatively low levels of corruption at home, the American state’s reach is limited and uneven, manifesting in what Sam Francis called “anarcho-tyranny.”
Thus, we have voluminous rules and regulations, the government forcing Priests for Life to fund abortions for employees, and an expensive military, complete with nuclear weapons. At the same time, we have large “no go” zones in our urban areas, more than 20 million violating our immigration laws, and rogue intelligence agencies plotting a coup against an elected president before he was even sworn in. There are other dimensions of fragmented authority, including businesses that are “too big to fail” and social media companies that have a greater surveillance capacity than the FBI or CIA of 30 years ago could dream of having. Of course, the border crisis is the greatest metaphor for the state’s devolution. For a nation with the “world’s most powerful military,” one of the most basic incidents of sovereignty is neglected.
Traditional American foreign policy was concerned with the Western Hemisphere because the exclusion of European rivals was central to preserving American sovereignty, and, for obvious reasons, whatever happens next door matters more than what happens in Afghanistan or Moldova. Instead of recognizing their fragmented authority at home and decreasing dominance over the Western Hemisphere, our elites prefer to play the great power game overseas, negotiating with other states and deploying the military against them, even as the greatest threats today are more frequently non-state actors, particularly those closer to home.
The Elites Are Ignorant of and Indifferent to Mexico
Why are our elites more interested in Syria than Sinaloa? I suspect one reason is that they have little exposure to Mexicans. Mexican immigration is very uneven, and is particularly high in places like California, Texas, and Arizona, as compared to Washington D.C., New York, and Virginia. Thus, the elite doesn’t know many people of Mexican descent. They don’t listen to their music, don’t watch their movies, could not easily name their leaders, nor do they know much about its history.
The other reason is that Mexicans in America, by and large, are poor. Thus, their children and grandchildren have not made significant inroads to the corridors of power, nor are they particularly politically active as a group, even in places where many of them live, like California in Texas.
While the elite seem little interested in Mexico, Mexico is still influential in the lives of Americans. Many Americans have traveled there, have family there, and our businesses depend on labor-intensive activities there. A great many Mexicans have moved here—some legally, some illegally—and are omnipresent in rural America and the service industries. We share the longest frontier between a First World and Third World nation with Mexico. For obvious reasons, it is in our national interest that Mexico is orderly, peaceful, and prosperous.
As Mexico has become an increasingly chaotic place, its problems have spilled across the border, chiefly in the form of deadly drugs and surplus labor. Most illegal immigrants are just poor people looking for a job; they’re not monsters, but neither are they all angels, and many are not particularly interested in following our laws. But some are very bad, manifesting the hyperviolence of Mexico’s drug war. Among illegal aliens, we don’t know who is coming, and thus we can’t be assured of our safety.
The large influx of Mexicans to the United States also has had an obvious impact on our expectations and customs. It has fueled the Democratic takeover of California and threatens to turn Texas into a blue state. More dramatically, it has much to do with the rise of criminal gangs and the appearance of Latin-style corruption among our law enforcement and our military. Consider the recent case of 16 Marines at Camp Pendleton acting as coyotes for illegal immigrants. In ways good and bad, America is becoming Latinized, so the fortunes of our largest Latin neighbor matter quite a bit.
We face a serious question. What happens if the Mexican state fully fails? Something like a collapse is already happening in the further-gone and more chaotic states to Mexico’s south, like Honduras and Guatemala, leading to the immigration “caravans” of recent memory. While the cultural imports of interesting cuisine and a higher appreciation for extended family are good things, surely the kidnappings and political murders that also go along with that culture are not. But there is little reason to think these consequences are separable in light of the scale and unregulated nature of Latin immigration, coupled with the fact that Mexico itself is simply becoming worse than it once was.
As the cartels’ power grows under Mexico’s current left-wing leadership, it will increase the supply of drugs and violence here at home. This is unacceptable. The wall is a good and necessary thing, but we may be forced to take more active measures, such as sending drones and troops into Mexico to root out direct threats to our homeland. There is some precedent for such measures in Blackjack Pershing’s raids on Pancho Villa. We cannot have chaos on our borders, and we should not tolerate the use of Mexico as a sanctuary for paramilitary drug cartels that would harm our citizens.
We should continue to respect Mexico’s sovereignty, but first they must respect their own sovereignty. So long as Mexico allows a militarized cartel representing a parallel authority to exist alongside the legitimate one—even going so far as to release one of its captured leaders in a pathetic demonstration of appeasement—we have a moral and strategic right to take matters into our own hands.