The looming challenge of Mexico

Instability south of our border has increased. Is the Biden administration making it enough of a priority?

Soldiers patrol near the hamlet of Plaza Vieja in Michoacan. The Mexican army has largely stopped fighting drug cartels; instead, it hopes to merely stop gangs from invading one another’s turf. EDUARDO VERDUGO/ASSOCIATED PRESS

If China poses the greatest long-term challenge to the United States, which country is number two? Which is likely to have the second-greatest impact on American security over the coming decades? Despite the crises of the moment in faraway places like Taiwan, Ukraine, and Iran, whatever happens there will pale in significance for Americans compared with what happens in Mexico.

Alarming trends there have accelerated. Drug lords finance Mexican political campaigns. In some places they control police forces. They intimidate mayors, legislators, and journalists with relentless violence that has driven the homicide rate to six times that of the United States. Even if the Mexican state were to decide to fight for its life, it might find itself outgunned by the country’s two dozen well-armed cartels. The rule of law is fading.

Last year General Glen VanHerck, commander of the US Northern Command, asserted that criminal gangs control “ungoverned areas that account for about one-third of Mexican territory.” That set off indignation in Mexico, but when newspapers there consulted local security experts, many agreed, at least in part. “Armed groups have supplanted the state in various parts of our territory,” said Alejandro Hope, a former Mexican intelligence officer. “That is an unconcealable fact.”

The United States intensifies this crisis by refusing to confront it. Our refusal is based on political calculation. Tens of thousands of Central American refugees are huddled in wretched camps inside Mexico waiting for a way into the United States. Mexico could close those camps and open its borders at any time. So we avoid doing things that might upset the increasingly crime-riddled Mexican state.

The success that criminals have had in penetrating the Mexican government became stunningly clear in 2020 after US police arrested a former Mexican defense minister in Los Angeles and alleged that he had used his position to help smuggle thousands of pounds of heroin and cocaine into the United States. Mexican leaders were outraged — not at the smuggling but at the arrest. They responded by restricting the work of American security agents in Mexico and warned of escalating retaliation. Washington gave in. The Department of Justice dropped charges against the accused ex-minister, citing “sensitive and important foreign policy considerations,” and allowed him to return home. It was clear then, if it had not been before, that drug cartels have become the corrupt tail wagging the dog that is the weakening Mexican state.

These days Mexican cartels make much of their money by manufacturing fentanyl, a popular opioid, and smuggling it into the United States. It kills tens of thousands of Americans every year. Mexico is careening toward the abyss of instability because the United States offers its criminals a hugely profitable drug market.

We also provide the Mexican cartels with the other foundation of their enterprise: guns. In Mexico, as in most of the world, the sale of guns is tightly restricted. In the United States it isn’t. Almost any weapon a private army could want is available here. Slipping them into Mexico has proved easy.

Many Mexicans share our urgent interest in righting their ship of state before it sinks. They have trouble attracting attention in Washington. A former Mexican ambassador to the United States, Arturo Sarukhan, was right to lament recently that there is “not enough strategic bandwidth dedicated to one relationship which plays a critically important role for the well-being and security of the United States, which is the relationship with Mexico.”

What could these two neighboring countries do to promote their shared security? Designing a joint strategy would be a complex undertaking. It would be charged with history, since the United States seized nearly half of Mexico in the 19th century and intervened there several times in the 20th. Diplomats live for challenges like this. It was encouraging that soon after President Biden took office, he named a career diplomat who had been ambassador to Mexico, Roberta Jacobson, to review our relationship and work with Mexicans to design a way forward. That sounded great — but three months later she quit. It was described as a planned departure, but it sent a clear message: We’re not ready to face the emerging Mexico.

Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.

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