Bordering on Chaos

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Appeared in The American

To optimists, the arrest in Mexico this week of the world's most wanted drug lord, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, and Mexico’s bloody drug war generally, are proof that the Mexican government is standing up to the cartels. But pessimists look at Mexico and see a failing state on America’s border.

More than 80,000 people have been killed in Mexico’s brutal conflict, with the victims beheaded, shot, tortured and worse. Civil authorities regularly quit or join up with the warlords, and entire towns have been depopulated as government forces and warlords vie for control.

In 2008, the U.S. military issued a report challenging policymakers to prepare for a worst-case scenario involving the “rapid and sudden collapse” of Mexico, adding, “An unstable Mexico could represent a homeland security problem of immense proportions to the United States.”

The situation may have improved slightly since then. But the Failed States Index (FSI), where Mexico ranks 97th, has described Mexico’s narco-insurgency as “extremely serious”—and understandably so. As with several countries at the top of the FSI (which is really the bottom), warlords have taken over significant chunks of the country — perhaps as much as 12 percent of Mexico’s territory — and the central government’s writ is severely circumscribed.

Predictably, vigilante groups — autodefensas — have sprung up in response to the security vacuum. The central government’s reaction to vigilante security forces in the state of Michoacan has served only to underscore its weakness, as it has alternated from promises to help the local militias, to empty threats that they disarm, to open clashes with the militias. In a positive development, federal forces and local militias are partnering on security operations in the Michoacan city of Apatzingan. However, “The government has proposed eventually incorporating some of the vigilantes into a rural police force,” Reuters reports. That’s not a sign of strength or stability.

To put Mexico’s gruesome drug-war death toll in perspective, consider this: The Iraqi government has estimated that 85,694 Iraqi civilians were killed between 2004 and 2008. That’s 17,139 per year. Mexico’s annual total is around 11,000. But some experts place the drug-war death toll closer to 130,000, translating into 18,571 violent deaths per year — considerably higher than the annual toll during Iraq’s insurgency. Whether we accept the official government tally or that of independent researchers, the overall death toll in Mexico is far higher than what prompted NATO intervention in Kosovo in 1999 or in Libya in 2011.

Corruption remains a serious problem in Mexico. According to Transparency International’s measure of corruption, Mexico ranks 106th out of 177 nations. So deep and wide is drug-cartel infiltration at the municipal level that President Enrique Peña Nieto was recently forced to replace hundreds of local police and customs officials with federal troops.

Mexico’s chaos often spills across the border. For instance, in 2011, the Zetas drug gang slaughtered 27 Guatemalan farmers. Mexican cartels are also operating in Honduras and El Salvador — and the United States. U.S. law enforcement agencies report that the tentacles of Mexico’s cartels reach into scores of U.S. cities. Police forces in Phoenix, Tucson, Brownsville, and El Paso link a growing number of violent crimes — shootings, homicides, even bombings — to cartel foot-soldiers.

Mexico’s cartels are well-armed, well-organized, highly motivated military adversaries. They deploy fighting forces nearly as large as the Mexican army, and they use many of the same armaments: mortars, RPGs, bazookas, land mines, and armored assault vehicles. As Guatemalan government officials observed after their troops engaged a Mexican cartel inside Guatemala, “The weapons seized … are more than those of some army brigades.”

Whether this all adds up to yet another reason to call a truce in the drug war is a subject for another essay, as is the demand side of this scourge. Suffice it to say that the drug war may be unpopular in the United States, but Americans remain evenly divided on legalizing marijuana, even with the recent uptick in support. Moreover, few Americans support legalizing cocaine. Ninety-five percent of the cocaine entering the United States comes through Mexico.

As for Mexico, the Mexican government’s decision to challenge the drug cartels and reassert its sovereignty did not create this problem, but rather exposed it. The Mexican people recognize this, which explains why 85 percent of Mexicans support using the army to defeat the cartels and 74 percent approve of U.S. training assistance, according to Pew polling.

Indeed, under the $2-billion Mérida Initiative, the United States has been delivering economic and military aid focused on Mexico’s drug war efforts since 2008. Mérida resources are used to train Mexican officials in law enforcement, the rule of law, counter-narcotics and military-security measures. Some 19,000 police officers have been trained under the Mérida Initiative.

Closer to the frontlines, the United States and Mexico have created joint fusion centers to collect, manage and act on intelligence related to counter-narcotics efforts. Only Afghanistan receives more U.S. intelligence assistance than Mexico, according to The Washington Post. The United States began deploying unmanned aerial vehicles into Mexico in 2011 and has deployed small military training units into that country, USAToday reports. The U.S. Navy and Coast Guard have increased cooperation with their Mexican counterparts in air and maritime counter-narcotics operations, and Mexico has posted military liaison officers at U.S. Northern Command.

If bolstering friendly but fragile governments in the Middle East is in the national interest—as it surely is—then so are these targeted forms of assistance to our next-door neighbor in Mexico. As the president observes, “We share with Mexico responsibility for meeting this challenge.”

Long before anyone ever dreamed of a narco-insurgency, Adam Smith noted that “the first duty of the sovereign” is to protect its citizenry from violence. He recognized that commerce and civil society cannot fully take root — let alone flourish — if government fails to provide some modicum of order and security. Obviously, this should be aimed at promoting individual liberty rather than diminishing it, for both the anarchy of a failed state and the stifling order of an authoritarian state are at odds with liberty.

Mexico is trying to strike that balance. But at just 0.5 percent of GDP, the Mexican government’s investment in defense does not appear to be adequate. Consider the defense-spending levels of countries facing similar insurgency threats: Afghanistan invests nearly 5 percent of its GDP on defense, Colombia 3.8 percent, Iraq 3.3 percent, and Pakistan 3.1 percent. Investing more in defense will not only help equip Mexico’s military with better tools to fight the cartels, it will also help fight corruption by increasing military pay.

Of course, security is only part of the solution. To build a thriving and stable Mexico, the Mexican government also should fully embrace economic freedom. Regrettably, Mexico ranks a disappointing 94th, in the lower half, in the Fraser Institute’s annual report on economic freedom. By comparison, not only do Mexico’s NAFTA partners to the north rank in the top 20, but Mexico trails most of its Latin American neighbors to the south: Chile, El Salvador, Panama, Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala, Uruguay, and Nicaragua rank ahead of Mexico.

Peña Nieto deserves credit for his bold efforts to pry open Mexico’s state-dominated energy sector to private investment. This represents an important step toward greater economic freedom. By providing new opportunities to the Mexican people and wellsprings of growth to the Mexican economy, an unshackled energy sector could serve as a potent antidote to the narco-warlords. As my Fraser Institute colleagues have noted, “growth in economic freedom spurs economic growth,” and this spurs new industries and new opportunities for individuals and nations.

Mexico is not a failed state, but neither is it a healthy or successful one. With concerted effort, targeted resources, and freedom-oriented reforms, things can get better in Mexico.

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