America Quibbles as Mexico Crumbles

America is aflutter with talk of General Stanley McChrystal. The story is now old news and hardly needs to be repeated; the possible consequences and causes of General McChrystal’s intemperate remarks have been discussed by every person capable of articulating an opinion on the matter. Tonight I had planned on adding my voice to this clamorous chorus.
Then I read this.

MONTERREY, Mexico – A group of around 20 men armed with assault rifles attacked city hall and the police headquarters in Los Herreras, a city in the northern Mexican state of Nuevo Leon, city officials said Tuesday.

The attack occurred Monday night just after 11:30 p.m. in the rural city, located more than 110 kilometers (68 miles) northeast of Monterrey, the capital of Nuevo Leon.

Initial reports are that the gunmen, who were wearing uniforms and arrived in several SUVs, opened fire with AR-15s on city hall, where police headquarters is also located.

The gunmen then went inside and killed the three officers on duty.

The assault at Nuevo Leon comes midway through a month that has already been declared the bloodiest since Mexico’s fight against the cartels began. Though the rising number of bodies are frightening in and of themselves, it is the pattern this month’s attacks have taken that gives me the greatest cause for alarm. Concurrent with the growing number of assaults has been an increase in their complexity and scope:
Chris Hawley. Arizona Republic. 15 June 2010.

The attacks have driven the death toll of police and soldiers to record levels this year and fueled fears that government forces, often outgunned by the cartels, are now being out-strategized as well.

“These are war-fighting tactics they’re using,” said Javier Cruz Angulo, an expert on crime at the Center for Economic Investigation and Education, a graduate school in Mexico City. “It’s gone way beyond the normal strategies of organized crime.”

On Monday, gunmen sealed off a highway with buses that they set ablaze, boxing in a convoy of federal police trucks in Michoacan. They launched a gunbattle from high ground on both sides of the highway, killing 12 of the officers. Then they whisked away their own dead and wounded.

The wave of ambushes began on June 11, when the Familia Michoacana drug gang launched 15 coordinated attacks over two days on police stations and patrols in eight cities across three states. In one attack, gunmen surrounded a police bus and killed all 12 officers on board.

The sophistication of the ambush described rivals that of the world’s most successful insurgents. That La Familia’s members had access to the buses, knew the route the convoy would take, and were able to melt away after the attack without fear of pursuit or discovery is a testament to the cartel’s hold on southern Mexico. These are not petty drug dealers. La Familia not only runs the full gamut of illegal criminal operations across North America, but operates a complete parallel state in its home territory of Michoacan. Self styled champion of the poor and pious, La Familia is famous for exacting taxes from local businesses and using the funds to hand out Bibles and staff health clinics. The problem is exacerbated by the close connections between the cartel and local politicians. In many communities it is difficult to tell where the Michoacan state government ends and La Familia begins.  If there is any cartel capable of usurping the role of the Mexican state, it is this one.
One can thus understand my sense of alarm upon learning that the cartel has launched a region-wide assault on the federal government.
While the inner workings of La Familia’s decision making process can only be guessed at, the rationale behind the timing and target of this offensive can be sketched out. The popularity of the federal government’s war against the cartels has waned as the causality count have risen. If elections were held today, polls predict that the party holding both the Presidency and the Congress, the National Action Party (PAN), would lose both. In an effort to save the electoral fortunes of his party President Felipe Calderon began a desperate PR blitz this month. The central claim of this blitz is that the violence tearing Mexico apart is not the result of the Calderon administration’s policies, but rather the visible and inevitable outcome of inter-cartel violence.
La Familia’s string of violent, high profile attacks on federal officers destroyed the President’s claim before he had the chance to rise to the bully pulpit. It was a public relations disaster, and one that could not have come at a worse time for a government facing a crisis in credibility. The wire accounts tell the story of this crisis better than I:
Nicolas Casey. Wall Street Journal. 17 June 2010.

MEXICO CITY—Last month, Mexicans were stunned when Diego Fernández de Cevallos, a former presidential candidate, was abducted from his ranch.

But then came a second surprise: Within weeks, despite no discovery of the 69-year-old, cigar-smoking politician, the Mexican Attorney General’s office said it was suspending its investigation of the case at the request of Mr. Fernández’s family. The state investigator for Querétaro, the state where the crime occurred, said it has done the same.

The decision to halt the search—unprecedented in such a high-stakes kidnapping—has sparked a controversy in Mexico. Although the family wouldn’t explain why it intervened, it is widely thought thatauthorities pulled out so that the family could negotiate a ransom directly with Mr. Fernández’s captors.

The event shows that in Mexico, elite families now may not feel that even the most powerful institutions are up for the task of solving an abduction. Mr. Fernández’s own ruling party was seeking to outlaw ransom payments to discourage criminals—a measure that seems to have been ignored in this family’s case.

Associated Press Wire. New York Times. 19 June 2010.

MEXICO CITY (AP) — The leader of President Felipe Calderon’s conservative party said Saturday he wants federal police to patrol 14 Mexican states that are holding local elections this year.

National Action Party leader Cesar Nava charged that state governors from the old ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party are planning to use local police in favor of their candidates.

”Recent history shows us that some PRI governors are preparing to use police to make it easier to round up voters for their party and impede the free movement of our supporters,” Nava said at a gathering of his party’s leadership in Mexico City.

He said such acts suggest ”the lack of conditions for free and genuinely democratic elections.”
Nava said he will ask the federal Interior Department — which oversees domestic security — to consider the dispatch of federal forces to the states with elections scheduled. Local police usually provide security for local elections.

The people no longer trust the Mexican government to protect them while the elite unabashedly use the government as tool for factional power plays. In Michoacan the state has been consumed by the cartels. In Juarez and Neuvo Leon it slowly erodes, caught in the crossfire of a war it is powerless to stop. Mexico’s federal government is compromised by rights abuses, corruption, and collusion with the country’s largest cartel.
This war is no longer a matter of drugs. This is fight over the integrity of the Mexican state itself.
And it is a fight the cartels are winning.
As the lede to this post may suggest, I began writing this the day General McChrystal’s Rolling Stones profile hit the press. Life intervened and I was not able to finish until well after the General had been fired and replaced. I have decided to keep the original opening, however, as I believe there is an important point to be made. Our priorities cannot be more messed up. More ink was spilled on useless speculation in the hour following the profile’s publication than has been used over the last two months on the subject of Mexico’s cartel war. The amount of attention each issue has been given by analysts, newsmen, and bloggers does not reflect the threat each poses to the United States. Let us be frank: the dangers of a Mexican implosion make our travails in Kandahar look like a game of patty cake. 
This is not a threat we can afford to ignore.

Leave a Comment

No Comments Yet