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Mexico: The Crisis Next Door

A year ago this past July, in their first free and fair elections, Mexicans ended the 70-year rule of the Institutional Revolutionary party (PRI). The party lost control of the lower house of the national congress, the massive municipality of Mexico City, and a number of key state and local governments. Capping two decades of slow but steady political reforms that encouraged electoral competition and reduced balloting fraud, the vote ended one-party rule in Mexico for the foreseeable future. Right under our noses, Mexico has become an electoral if not yet a liberal democracy.

Progress toward a free economy has been equally dramatic, though also equally incomplete. In the decade before it signed the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Mexico substantially unshackled its state-led economy, privatizing most state companies and lowering barriers to foreign trade and investment. One result is that the country has joined the ranks of the world’s leading economies. It currently exports world-class textiles, automobiles, electronic equipment, and petrochemicals. And its recovery from the 1994 peso crisis, though mortally threatened by today’s global economic tremors, has been hailed as an example for Asia’s supine “tigers.”

What, then, to make of the headlines in American newspapers suggesting that the real story on our southern border is not one of progress but of disintegration—of corruption and scandal, drug-running and guerrilla war, and hair-raising criminality? M. Delal Baer of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., believes that American news coverage of Mexico has been skewed by “hotshot journalists” intent on “winning a Pulitzer.” And indeed, the New York Times did win a Pulitzer last spring for a series profiling the “corrosive” effects of Mexican drug-trafficking and rampant graft.

Are reporters demonizing an ally? Or are we Americans, as the title of a recent book has it, “bordering on chaos”?

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Perhaps the most visible piece of evidence for “chaos” is the surfacing or resurfacing in Mexico of various revolutionary and/or terrorist groups. The former include the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), the most prominent guerrilla organization to emerge since the Revolution of 1910-17. Among the latter is a group that kidnapped the man who for two decades was the country’s top security and counter-insurgency official. Then there is political violence of a more “routine” nature. Mexicans have waited in vain for authorities to solve a whole series of assassinations, murders, and abductions whose victims have included a Roman Catholic cardinal, the PRI’s presidential nominee, its party leader, several Congressmen, and a number of prominent businessmen and journalists. As recently as last February, a well-organized, rock-throwing mob (whose leaders have yet to be identified) attacked the President and his cabinet on Mexico’s Constitution Day.

Most Mexicans, however, worry less about political violence than about the upsurge in ordinary—often, now, extraordinary—crime. Any visitor can easily see what there is to worry about. On my first evening in Mexico City this past winter, my attention was riveted by a telecast from the city of Cuernavaca. It showed photographs of three men disposing of a mutilated corpse. The body-ditchers were identified as the local commander and top deputies of the police “anti-kidnapping squad.”

When I lived in Cuernavaca in the 1970′s, this “city of eternal spring,” which lies an hour and a half down the highway from Mexico City toward Acapulco, lured American students and socialites with its arcadian language schools and the world’s highest per-capita incidence of swimming pools. Nowadays, its narrow cobblestone streets are grid-locked and polluted by automobiles inching toward garish shopping malls; local cab drivers offer drivebys past the mansions of renowned drug lords. But the city is known best for the kidnapping ring I saw on television—a ring that turns out to have been a private-public partnership presided over by the governor of the state of Morelos, where Cuernavaca is located.

Over the previous four years, some 400 abductions were reported in Morelos. The kidnappings were highly professional, conducted with fleets of modern vehicles and the latest in high-powered weaponry. Hostages ranged from relatives of former government ministers and prominent foreigners—including, reportedly, the sister of America’s UN ambassador, Bill Richardson—to the children of peasants and storekeepers, for whom the going rate for release was as little as $40. Targets and their assets were studied beforehand; qualified applicants were allowed to pay ransom on an installment plan.

But kidnappings are only one aspect of the Mexican crime wave. In most cities, homicides, armed robberies, rapes, muggings, and car-jackings have reached record levels. Last year, Mexico City alone was the scene of a million muggings and nearly 100,000 thefts of vehicles.

As this record suggests, violent crime in Mexico, unlike in the U.S., is not confined to indigent neighborhoods or drug markets. Nor is it confined to Mexicans. This spring, the State Department issued a rare travel alert, warning that Mexico City taxi passengers were being “subjected to beatings and sexual assault.” If you hail a green Volkswagen taxi without a license plate, you had better prepare yourself to be stripped of cash and held face-down at gunpoint while the PIN numbers of your bank card are verified.

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Conventional wisdom attributes the Mexican crime wave either to poverty and unemployment or to drug-dealing. It is true that in the 1994-95 peso crisis, Mexico’s gross national product plummeted 7 percent and tens of thousands of businesses and farms were forced either to close or to cut back their operations, generating massive unemployment and plunging large numbers of people into destitution; even today, although Mexico’s economy is performing well in the aggregate, some 26.3 million people, more than one quarter of the population, live in poverty, sharply up from seventeen million in 1994. It is also true that cocaine and heroin consumption has risen sharply in major Mexican cities since 1993.

An increase in the number of desperate or drug-hungry people has certainly made a contribution to the wave of violent crime: shootouts among drug bands, or police organizations allied with them, as well as reprisals against uncooperative policemen, prosecutors, judges, and journalists and their families, are common not only in towns and cities on the U.S. border but also in Guadalajara, the country’s second-largest city. But crime started its sharp climb seven months before the outbreak of the economic crisis. And the most serious crimes have been committed not by unemployed workers or violent drug addicts but, as in the case of the Cuernavaca kidnappings, by current and former law-enforcement officials. In 1995, according to an internal report of the Interior Ministry, more than half of Mexico’s estimated 900 armed criminal rings were composed primarily of former or current law-enforcement officers.

This simple fact helps explain why only one of ten crimes in Mexico is reported, and why, of those reported, only one in twenty is investigated and one in 40 solved. Victims decline to report incidents not merely because of the fecklessness of the police, but because they fear the cops as much as the robbers.

With good reason. The leader of the Morelos kidnapping ring, Daniel Arizmendi, though topping Mexico’s most-wanted list, was repeatedly tipped off to impending arrests. Former federal attorneys, as well as several state police chiefs and police inspectors, were questioned for their alleged links to Arizmendi, who was also reported to have received assistance from Justice and Treasury department officials. While on the lam, Arizmendi conducted a bizarre telephone press conference in which he acknowledged that he himself was a former Morelos police officer, and a photograph appearing in the media showed him brandishing guns with a former police commander. He was captured this past August only after a national manhunt was ordered by President Ernesto Zedillo.

The link between crime and police corruption is, in itself, nothing new in Mexico. To get a police job in the first place, one usually has to bribe one’s way in, thereby also learning a valuable lesson for the future. Once on the job, though salaries are abysmally low, an officer can usually obtain not only a steady income from graft but also immunity for past and future crimes. Officers typically pay their superiors a fixed weekly rate that varies with anticipated proceeds. The more lucrative assignments, such as patrolling corners where drugs are sold or houses of prostitution or automobile speed traps, fetch the highest prices.

Officers do occasionally get discharged for malfeasance, often as part of highly-publicized “anti-corruption” campaigns. But such misfortune need not jeopardize one’s future. Work can usually be found in another jurisdiction or another of the innumerable separate Mexican police forces. If not, private security firms are booming, for obvious reasons, and if nothing works out there, one can always turn to the criminal domain. Ties already forged with the underworld and with other working officers, plus knowledge of criminal procedures, make fine felons of cashiered police officers.

If police corruption has been a working part of Mexico’s machinery for decades, however, it has never reached the point where it has threatened to render the machinery itself dysfunctional. But that is exactly where things stand today. Even such a root-and-branch measure as dismissing officers en masse is out of the question; as one official has explained, that would only “put an uncontrolled army of criminals on the street.”

The source of this crisis must be sought not in police corruption per se, still less in the present state of the economy or the burgeoning drug trade. It must be sought in the collapse of the entire political system dominated and run by the PRI.

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That system was established during the 1920′s to tame the Hobbesian state of nature that prevailed in the wake of the Mexican Revolution. The feuding revolutionary warlords (caudillos), armed bands, and local bosses (caciques) exchanged their arms for a power-sharing arrangement within a hegemonic party later to be dubbed the PRI. To ensure collaboration, the anti-autocratic slogan that had launched the democratic phase of the Revolution—“no reelection”—was translated: no reelection of the President, but reelection of the party.

Under this system, the President was an absolute ruler, but only temporarily: a “king in republican robes” whose tenure was limited to a single six-year term. To bridge the gap between the formal and the real, he was also the de-facto godfather of a political mafia, secretly conjoined with it in illegal and unconstitutional acts (stealing votes or public funds, bumping off dissidents) that bound the “revolutionary family” together. In this sense, the nexus between crook and cop, between lawman and lawbreaker, between governor and grafter was built into the very foundation of the regime.

For much of this century, for better and for worse, Mexico’s judicious blend of fraud and force served as a sturdy substitute for the more overt repression that characterized dictatorships to the south. Election season after election season, the PRI racked up Communist-style victories at the polls, leaving a few crumbs for the mainly decorative opposition parties. Cops, clerks, customs inspectors, tax collectors, procurement officers, judges, union leaders, managers of state companies formed the blocks of a pyramid that ascended through governors and cabinet secretaries to the President. Meanwhile, thugs did some of the indispensable dirty work through an informal but precise system of extortion, kickbacks, and selective repression. “Understandings” between the police and the criminals kept common crime in check. Political crime continued, but disarmed. These methods procured a united political elite, lengthy (if uneven) economic growth, agrarian peace, docile labor unions, and a compliant intelligentsia.

The end has been a while in coming. Already in the late 1960′s, the PRI was feeling the strains of both the progress and the inequity it had created. The middle and working classes were becoming impatient not only with corruption but with a patronage system designed for an illiterate peasantry. Many stopped voting. In 1968 their sons and daughters led a student rebellion whose repression generated the modern Mexican Left. The response of the PRI was to finance populist programs that were aimed at shoring up support but that eventually bankrupted the state.

In the meantime, the six-year political rhythm was coining a sui generis economic cycle, epitomized by the great peso crisis of 1994. Each new administration came into office promising to end the waste and corruption of its predecessor. About two years into its term, graft and extortion would gradually resume their momentum, building up to hand-over-fist corruption by the final year. One could then count on an artificial election-year boom—whose costs would be obscured until the new President had been elected—and large transfers of embezzled funds to foreign banks. As the bills fell due, the outgoing President, as a token of loyalty to his successor and to the system, would shoulder blame for the ensuing devaluation or emergency loan before leaving the country in forced or voluntary exile.

Since 1976, with one exception, no presidential transition in Mexico has been without a financial crisis. The exception, in 1988, proved the rule. Partly because of unrelieved economic doldrums, the PRI nearly lost power in that year to a leftist coalition led by a former PRI governor, Cuahuatémoc Cárdenas, the son of the legendary populist President Lázaro Cárdenas (1934-40). In the minds of most Mexicans, only blatant fraud kept the PRI from losing the election that instead ended up giving the country Carlos Salinas de Gortari. Upon his departure, Salinas restored the old policy in spades, confecting the worst of all the PRI economic disasters, the peso crisis of 1994.

Nor was Cárdenas’s revolt the only sign of looming and perhaps terminal political trouble. Over the years, a conservative opposition movement, the National Action party (PAN), had been evolving from an assemblage of “notables” into something like a pro-business Christian Democratic party. In the late 1980′s, the government was forced to recognize several PAN electoral victories in the entrepreneurial north. What with Cárdenas’s newly formed party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) on one side, PAN on the other, and dissatisfaction all around, the PRI was facing challenges from the Left, the Right, and within.

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From the moment the PRI began conceding the possibility of electoral defeat, its system was doomed: it could no longer guarantee its nomenklatura “a life within the budget.” For the first time since the PRI’s inception, open, public factions have surfaced. Party militants now regularly defy or ignore the leadership—including the President, to whom unquestioned obeisance used to be paid. Those who feel stymied in their ascent simply defect to the highest opposition bidder.

As the PRI has lost control of elections, the President, no longer a true godfather, has lost control of the PRI’s vast system of corruption. The crime captains who once worked for him are now, in the words of the Mexican political analyst Gabriel Zaid, “on the loose.” Whereas, under the old rules, agreements between the underworld and police chiefs worked to modulate the incidence, intensity, and geography of crime, now crime surges unchecked, police-criminal bands vie violently for territory, and—the blocks of the PRI “pyramid” falling with ever louder reverberations—armed clashes occur among police departments or between police departments and army units. The multiple high-level assassinations of recent years, which the PRI is powerless to control, similarly reflect the new alliance of crime captains with various political factions.

Perhaps most dramatically, the weakening of the PRI system has reduced the party’s leverage over both national and international drug cartels. When Colombian drug lords began to operate in Mexico in the 1980′s, they were forced to play by Mexican rules. Traffickers who stepped over the line, or failed to pay tribute, were usually punished, sometimes in spectacular busts designed to impress the U.S. Congress. In the 1990′s, however, domestic and international crime organizations, including the Italian mafia and the Russian mafiya, have been able to associate independently with pendulous blocks of the crumbling PRI pyramid via presidential relatives, police chiefs, generals, governors, or judges.

A vivid illustration is afforded by the case of Mexico’s former “drug czar,” General Jesús Gutiérrez Rebollo. In December 1997, this man of “absolute, unquestioned integrity”—in the words of his U.S. counterpart, the director of White House drug policy—was promoted (or, as it turns out, kicked upstairs) from his command of a vast military zone encompassing much of central Mexico to head the federal anti-narcotics office. Two months later, he was arrested, then put on trial and convicted, for having employed his 38,000 troops in the service of one of the country’s two warring drug cartels.

Actually, however, convictions are rare. After seven years and two trials, a drug lord named Rafael Muñoz Talavera roamed free in Ciudad Juárez, across the border from El Paso, until his murder last month. Ledgers found in a Los Angeles warehouse support testimony by underlings that Muñoz masterminded the smuggling of hundreds of tons and billions of dollars’ worth of cocaine. An officer who worked for the Mexican federal police attested in Houston last year that both his old boss and Muñoz’s chief prosecutor, a deputy federal attorney general, were on the drug lord’s payroll. The same officer later testified that he had delivered cash to the prosecutor from the Muñoz cartel. To which the prosecutor responded: “Who says only prosecutors are corrupt? Don’t you think some judges are corrupt, too?”

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Can Mexico’s fledging democracy cope with the collapse of its authoritarian system of public order?

After the upset elections of July 1997, many hopes were vested in the now opposition-dominated Chamber of Deputies. Although these hopes have not been entirely disappointed, they have also not been fulfilled. Congress has failed to modernize its own procedures or to establish oversight over the executive branch. A vital crime bill has languished in legislative limbo while deputies crusaded against smoking in the Chamber. On more than one occasion, debates have turned into exchanges of expletives and “mother mentions” (as the Mexicans put it), then challenges, then blows and broken noses.

On the other hand, after much posturing and wrangling, the PRI and PAN did manage to push through a budget for 1998, over loud complaints from the left-wing PRD. But a weightier test is a controversial government plan to pay for the bailout of Mexico’s failing banks, the crux of President Zedillo’s 1995 economic-recovery package. The government wants to place the burden—about $60 billion at current exchange rates, a sum that amounts to 15 percent of GDP—on the taxpayer. Though each has a different proposal, the congressional delegations of both the PRD and PAN have balked, terming the plan a typical example of collusion between the PRI and its clients. Along with “public insecurity,” the bank bailout is shaping up to be the major issue in the upcoming contest for the presidency, which could finally see the displacement of the PRI from the apex of power.

Yet this may not happen so quickly. Neither of the two major opposition parties is exactly brimming with confidence as it approaches the year 2000. In July 1997, the PRD’s Cuahuatémoc Cárdenas got himself elected to the impossible mission of running Mexico City without antagonizing his party’s ideologues. From the very start, things have gone awry for Cárdenas. His newly chosen police chief was forced to step down following allegations linking him to drug traffickers, and a number of other ranking municipal officials have also left in disgrace; some, it turns out, had faced criminal charges in previous posts and one had even been employed as a kidnapper. Disgruntled former supporters charge that the Cárdenas administration has been pursuing the venerable PRI strategy of regulating crime by making pacts with the criminals.

Incumbency, then, has yet to enhance the reputation either of Cárdenas or of the PRD. And the same, with some caveats, might be said of the conservative PAN. This past July, the party lost its electoral jewel—control of the Chihuahua state house—when voters held it responsible for a surge in lawlessness. PAN’s candidate for the presidency is likely to be Vicente Fox, the charismatic conservative Roman Catholic governor of the small north-central state of Guanajuato. But Fox seems to be running against his own party’s leadership. Indeed, PAN is torn by internal strife: free-marketeers fight with protectionists, communitarians are at odds with libertarians, nationalists contend with globalists.

All in all, public-opinion polls suggest that neither the PRD nor PAN has convinced a majority of voters it is capable of governing on a national scale. That leaves the PRI, which has fared well in this year’s gubernatorial races due to tough and sometimes nasty campaigning, but also by its decision to hold primaries to select candidates. Looking forward to the year 2000, Zedillo, who cannot run himself, has declared he will abandon the longstanding tradition by which the President hand-picks his successor. Despite fierce rifts, these displays of internal democracy could, in the end, help the PRI retain the presidency.

In short, while the political system built by the ruling PRI is in its death throes, the PRI itself may well continue to fill, as it were, its own vacuum.

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What follows next is anyone’s guess. In the face of congressional inaction, presidential enervation, judicial corruption, and police complicity, an assortment of business and citizens’ groups has been demanding that the armed forces be thrust into the fight against crime. There have even been suggestions that a military coup d’état may be necessary to reimpose order. But those calls have been muted in the wake of scandals implicating not only officers but elite military units in narcotics and kidnapping rings as well as human-rights abuses.

Although some Mexicans still pin their hopes on a beneficial outcome of the presidential elections, others have begun to withdraw their confidence from the central government altogether. This centrifugal tendency is reflected in the inability of national political parties to rein in municipal and state leaders. Morelos aside, state governors have been among Mexico’s boldest and most popular politicians, and programs for decentralizing government functions and devolving revenues have sometimes been accompanied by demands for autonomy.

This same demand, of course, has issued from the EZLN in the name of the “indigenous” population in the impoverished and oppressed southern state of Chiapas. But now the fear exists that it may be taken up, much more disastrously, in the wealthy north. An obvious starting place would be Baja California, where U.S. residents and investors chafe under corrupt Mexican law. If the 2000 elections do not provide some answers, a resurgence of the kind of regionalism that the PRI was long ago formed to tame might not be far in the future.

In many ways, Mexico’s situation today is reminiscent of Russia’s, another country of vital interest to the United States whose complex situation does not preclude collapse. In the early decades of this century, autocracies in both countries were brought down by violent revolution almost simultaneously. Over the ensuing years, each country, mutatis mutandis, was ruled by highly centralized one-party regimes. Both have subsequently traveled, via different routes, to a form of electoral democracy, and both are enduring fearful strains: recurring financial crises, massive corruption, political gridlock, centrifugal tensions, and the depredations of a criminal underworld drawn in part from the old ruling apparatus.

Like Russia, today’s Mexico is that odd hybrid of our post-cold-war age: a formal democracy without the rule of law. To evolve in the direction of true liberal democracy, it will have to establish such basic institutional safeguards as the protection of personal and property rights (“public security”) and the impartial enforcement of contracts. And it will have to do so in the context not of a well-established civil society but of an authoritarian and patrimonial political culture accustomed to bribing, bullying, and secret arrangements, a culture in which “the law” has been applied mainly for purposes of extortion or securing immunity from criminal prosecution.

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Whether Mexico’s fragile electoral democracy evolves in the hopeful direction of, say, Chile or spirals down in the direction of Haiti is a question that must interest anyone concerned not only with the future of our nearly 100 million southern neighbors but with our own. At a half-billion legal crossings per year, the 2,000-mile border between the two countries is the world’s most heavily trafficked. Some 300,000 Mexicans settle in the United States annually, in a migration that is leading to the Mexicanization of much of the American Southwest and Far West. As early as next year, Mexico will become our second-leading trading partner, trailing only Canada. Within seven years, Hispanic-Americans, among whom Mexican-Americans are by far the most numerous component, will be the country’s largest minority.

It is not hard to imagine how political instability in Mexico could aggravate our trade, immigration, and drug problems, swamp our labor market, force increased public spending, harm regional environments, and further weaken our national cohesion. In this crucial sense, public insecurity in Mexico is becoming a national-security issue for the United States. Although we should hardly lament the downfall of the PRI system, neither should we deceive ourselves about the gravity of the country’s predicament.

Until about a decade ago, the starting point of all serious discussions of Mexico in Washington was the country’s unique political system, a system that had fostered sustained economic growth and internal stability and afforded the United States the geopolitical luxury of a secure buffer from the turbulent third-world zone to the south. With the end of the cold war and the onset of Mexico’s economic and political reforms, American thinking shifted to the inevitable “transition” to democracy and market capitalism. Yet it is clear that neither Mexico’s basic political stability nor even its national integrity can any longer be taken for granted. In Mexico, the good news and the bad news are fate-fully intertwined, and the task of policy is to strengthen and solidify the former without simultaneously aggravating the latter. So far, this is a task at which the Mexicans seem to be failing, and on which we have yet even to focus.

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