With the rise of the Mexican drug cartels, the Mexican government is now under a serious threat of being rendered irrelevant. As the cartels have consolidated power and militarized, the Mexican government has had difficulty in establishing their authority over many parts of Mexico. Much of the country remains in poverty, and the cartels have set themselves up as quasi-feudal states, controlling vast swaths of territory. In 2009, it was estimated that the cartels had 980 ‘zones of impunity,’ areas they operated unimpeded bys the Mexican authorities.
The cartels have presented an unprecedented challenge to the Mexican state. These gangs have overwhelmed the local authorities’ ability to police them, and have come to dominate the informal aspects of the Mexican economy. These areas are not lawless, but rather they are governed by the cartels.
The Audacity of Dope
According to 19th century German philosopher Max Weber, in any given territory the state has a monopoly on the use of force. Therefore only agents of the state, such as police or the military, are authorized to use force legitimately to ensure order is maintained. Drug cartels, though, are using deadly force to conduct their business unimpeded. The conflict has turned into a military arms race as both factions battle for control. The Mexican government has dispersed several cartels, and like the mythical Hydra, more have arisen to take their place.
The violence has become so severe that refugees are fleeing afflicted regions in droves. Over 50% of all Mexican territory has been affected by drug violence. As of 2011, it is estimated that over 115,000 people have been forced to flee because of the violence. Some populated areas in Mexico have become ghost towns. With so little control over its own territory, the Mexican government has proven it is incapable of containing the threat the cartels possess.
These criminal insurgencies have progressed through three distinct phases in Mexico. In the beginning, they fight over control of a small area, where they take over the area and life therein. Next, the criminals begin to fight the state for control of these areas and the violence spills over into civilian life. Mexico is currently in the third phase. In this phase the government has decided to eradicate the cartels because they have grown too powerful. The cartels have responded with violence to defend their enterprises. If they are not defeated, then there is the possibility the situation will worsen to the final stage, to the point where criminal operations are left unfettered and the state has become totally co-opted by the cartels.
Drug Politics as a Vocation
Mexico has not yet reached this point, but it is in danger of doing so. The cartels buy influence from all members of the Mexican state apparatus, from police officers to judges, in order to co-opt the state. In 2005, the entire police force of the city of Nuevo Laredo was suspended for corruption. Eventually 305 of the 765 officers on staff were fired. Furthermore, due to the autocratic nature of the Mexican judiciary, judges make particularly good investments to keep cartel leaders out of trouble. By co-opting these officials, the Mexican drug cartels have shown latent political aims. Even though they do not participate directly in the political process, the cartels have influenced the Mexican state through alternative means, such as determining which candidates will run for election in a given race.
The cartels are able to influence the electoral process because of the main resource they have at their disposal: money. Police officers can triple their salaries by taking bribes. The Zetas, one of the most violent drug cartels, was originally comprised of ex-special forces and army personnel who deserted for the higher salaries in drug smuggling. With so much at stake from drug smuggling, estimates range from $30 to 64 billion in revenue, the cartels have plenty of money to spend on corruption.
With wealth estimated at around $1 billion Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, is the most prominent of all the cartel leaders. Guzman has funded a variety of public works projects, normally under the purview of the state, in order to ingratiate himself with the local populace of Sinaloa. Due to the lack of investment by the Mexican government, and the money being donated by Guzman, many civilians have come to view Guzman as a hero rather than a drug baron. The Mexican government is believed to be indifferent to the people of Sinaloa, and Guzman has stepped in to fill the gap. Local civilians and officials support Guzman, and therefore he remains at large.
Such endemic corruption makes it difficult for the Mexican government to tackle the cartels in a meaningful way. At this point the Mexican state and the drug cartels have become inexorably intertwined. Anti-corruption policies must be a priority for the Mexican government if it wishes make inroads against the cartels. Improvements in the pay and working conditions of officials would produce tangible benefits, such as reducing the temptation to take bribes. The Mexican government should also work towards increasing government accountability. By making the government more accountable it will enable Mexican civilians to feel valued and engaged by their government. Public infrastructure building, such as schools, roads and hospitals, should also be a priority.
Mexico is fighting for its very survival. Unfortunately, with all of the problems facing Mexico, the short-term future is not bright. Mexico is losing the ability to govern itself, and only a concerted push will right the ship. The outcome of this conflict will impact the region for many years. Only time will tell if the Mexican state has the wherewithal to conquer its predicament.