Mexico, the Un-Failed State: A Geography Lesson

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The current surge of drug violence does not make Mexico a failed state, but the country has a long history of pockets of outlaw territory, and these are now bigger than at any time since the revolution.

* The Mexican government “has lost territorial control, and, in sum, governability … in more than 50? percent of Mexico’s land area.
– Jorge Carrillo Olea, the founder of Mexico’s lead civilian intelligence agency, to EFE news service on August 28, 2011

* “Let’s talk about 40 percent of the national territory where the State no longer governs, a 40 percent that is slowly spreading.”
– retired Mexican Major General Luis Garfias Magaña, in the newsmagazine Proceso, May 5, 2011

* “Mexican authorities are in control throughout Mexico, in all its states.”
– U.S. State Department, official release, quoted in the Mexican news medium Milenio, September 17, 2011

How are the above statements to be reconciled? Under the stresses of the drug war and organized-crime violence, how much of Mexico has become a no-go zone? How wide is the danger?

The statements are all serious assessments of an elusive reality. The violence in today’s Mexico forms a twilight zone. It is not an all-consuming apocalypse, but it is also not the relative peace of Mexico a generation ago.

taskforcebefore4For example, take the third statement, from the State Department. When translated into Spanish in the Mexican media it sounded absolute, but the original form in English was: “Mexican authorities assert control throughout Mexico, in all Mexican states.” This is less absolute, and is true. Everywhere the Mexican government has sent massive troop surges, criminal resistance has tended to melt before them. But then the problem simply moves, and sets up shop around the corner.

It was December 11, 2006, when a new Mexican president, Felipe Calderon, officially declared war against his nation’s organized crime cartels. Cartel activity was expanding from drug smuggling into pitched battles, and preyed on the Mexican public through extortion, protection rackets, armed robbery and local drug pushing. This had ballooned over time. The previous president, Vicente Fox (from the same reformist political party as Calderon), had declared long ago — in 2003 — that one of the mightiest cartels had been successfully destroyed. That was the Gulf Cartel — which then regrouped, split into factions and came roaring back, with its heirs now blasting through 2011. The premature declaration of the death of the Gulf Cartel (and its soon-multiplying branch called the Zetas) was made on April Fool’s Day, 2003. It was a time for boastful bubbles. A month later President Bush declared “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq, on May 1, 2003.

Mexico has always had isolated “outlaws’ roost” areas, where even locals warned travelers not to go. Through the mid-20th century these were small and often exaggerated by legend. A main one was in the impoverished and politicized highlands of Guerrero state, flanking Acapulco. Other storied mountain hideout zones dotted Mexico’s high sierra both east and west, from Durango to Veracruz. Some involved drug farming; some had seen guerrilla warfare; some were merely remote and attractive to fugitives.

In the 1970s it was natural to assume that these throwback “bandido” areas were shrinking and would soon disappear, as the march of development brought education, opportunity and civilization.

The harsh news from the drug war is that the reverse has occurred. The landscape of no-go zones has swelled across Mexico, as at no time since the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920.


“Millions of U.S. citizens safely visit Mexico each year, including more than 150,000 who cross the border every day for study, tourism or business and at least one million U.S. citizens who live in Mexico.”
– U.S. State Department, April 22, 2011 (statement made in the context of a travel warning)

“I feel as safe here as I do at home, possibly safer. I walk the streets of my Vallarta neighborhood alone day or night … Do bad things happen here? Of course they do. Bad things happen everywhere, but the murder rate here is much lower than, say, New Orleans … There are good reasons thousands of people from the United States are moving to Mexico every month, and it’s not just the lower cost of living, a hefty tax break and less snow to shovel. Mexico is a beautiful country, a special place.”
– Linda Ellerbee, journalist and frequent resident of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, May 15, 2009

“Drug-related violence does not encompass all of Mexico and much of the country remains safe for visitors and residents alike … According to the British Embassy, the majority of homicides in Mexico have occurred in … less than 3.5% of the country’s 2,438 municipalities. And of these homicides, 9 out of 10 are suspected narco-traffickers killed in fighting over control of drug trafficking organizations and routes … While the issue of narcotics-related crime in Mexico is a serious concern and there are definitely areas of the country one should avoid, it is helpful to keep a reasonable and rational perspective…”
– ”Living and Loving Mexico,” website by expatriate residents, 2011

“Wages have risen in Mexico, according to World Bank figures … educational and employment opportunities have greatly expanded … Per capita gross domestic product and family income have each jumped more than 45 percent since 2000 … Over the past 15 years, this country … has progressed politically and economically in ways rarely acknowledged by Americans debating immigration … Democracy is better established, incomes have generally risen and poverty has declined … Birth control efforts have pushed down the fertility rate to about 2 children per woman from 6.8 in 1970, according to government figures … Quality of life has improved in other ways, too.”
– New York Times, July 6, 2011 (In 2009, though previously unthinkable, a $250-million rescue loan to the New York Times Company from controversial Mexican investment helped place near-controlling interest in the company in Mexico.)

“The Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (affiliated with the Norwegian Refugee Council) warned that because of the violence unleashed by the drug war, some 230,000 persons in Mexico have been forced to leave their places of origin.”
– La Jornada, March 26, 2011

Mexico’s underworld has undergone “radical transformation from drug smugglers into paramilitary death squads … a criminal insurgency that poses the biggest armed threat to Mexico since its 1910 revolution.”
– Ioan Grillo, correpondent for Time magazine, in his book “El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency,” quoted in Time, Oct. 23, 2011

(Image above shows Pancho Villa, center left – an icon of the outlaws’ roost, and of the Mexican Revolution 1910-1920)

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