If Mexico Falls

The consequences of a narco-state on our southern flank.

Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Glynn Custred, Professor Emeritus at California State University East Bay, Hayward and a member of the American Anthropological Association and the Association of Borderland Studies.

FP: Glynn Custred, welcome to Frontpage Interview.

I would like to talk to you today about what is happening in Mexico and the consequences on the United States. There is surely a crisis at hand, seeing how, among other things, the Department of Homeland Security recently issued a statement declaring that the U.S. government does not have “effective control” of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Let’s begin with this question:

Is Mexico a failing state?

Custred: Thanks Jamie.

Mexicans bristle at the mention of Mexico as a failed state. Yet if we look at what is going on down there, this designation seems more and more appropriate. The Global Policy Forum describes a failed state as one that “can no longer perform basic functions such as education, security, or governance,” a situation which comes about for various reasons. One is fractious violence within the country that leads to a breakdown in normal state operations, and in the emergence of informal markets that operate beyond the state’s ability to tax and regulate. Banditry also increases and often powerful non-government forces, such as warlords or drug cartels, dominate certain regions of the country. That is what is happening in Mexico today. You can read about it in open sources. The Los Angeles Times has been particularly good at reporting the story in a series they have titled “Mexico under Siege.”

FP: How did Mexico fall under siege?

Custred: The process began in Mexico when the drug cartels struck back at President Felipe Calderon when he tried to bring them under control. Local officials have been murdered and local police have been corrupted. Many police now serve as armed agents of the cartels, and not as agents of the government and guardians of public order. For example, six municipal officers in the state of Nuevo Leon were recently arrested for complicity in the assassination of a local mayor. State and federal police and the Mexican army have confronted local police at gun point, and further evidence of police collusion is piling up every day.

The failure of local government finally reached the point where President Calderon launched an initiative to amend the constitution so that he can eliminate the country's 2,000 municipal police departments. If the measure passes, the duties of local authorities will be performed by state and federal police.

But state and federal police are also subject to bribery and are under vicious assault by the cartels. Policemen are routinely murdered, brutal scenes of torture have been shown on the internet by the cartels and victims have been decapitated to intimidate the authorities and the local population. By now the situation has gone far beyond that of a police matter. The Mexican army is now engaged in what has become an internal war for control of the Mexican state. President Calderon admitted this when he said that it is clear that the cartels mean to take over.

Journalists are also murdered and terrorized into silence and innocent people have been killed around the country in the cross-fire between rival gangs and government forces. In all, 28,000 people have died in the last four years in the violence, more than in active war zones around the world.

Federal authorities themselves have also been corrupted even at the highest levels, raising the question of how deep the cartels have already penetrated into the most reliable branches of the Mexican government. Corruption on that level affects not just the government's struggle with the cartels, but its ability to perform routine duties in many sectors of the country. The deteriorating situation in Mexico certainly fits the description of a failing state whether those in power on both sides of the border are willing to admit it.

The failure of the Mexican state is not just speculation. In December 2008 the United States Joint Forces Command issued a strategic evaluation of threats facing the United States. The report warned, in a worst case scenario, of the "rapid and sudden" collapse of two major states, Pakistan and Mexico. Former drug czar General Barry McCaffry has also commented on the seriousness of the situation, saying that the Mexican state is fighting for its survival, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently described the violence in Mexico as an insurgency. Presumably the powerful, wealthy and well armed cartels would like to harness the state to its growing criminal enterprises. If they succeed, we will find ourselves dealing with a narco-state on our southern flank. In the process, the United States will have to deal with problems arising from a weakened, perhaps even a failed state right next door.

FP: What are the consequences to the United States?

Custred: Admiral Mike Mullen chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is concerned about security in the United States posed by the situation in Mexico. One threat is that terrorists will take advantage of well established smuggling networks to pass weapons and personnel into the United States. The out-of-control border also encourages the movement back and forth of criminal elements, many organized into vicious transnational gangs that are extending their operations from Central America, through Mexico and throughout the United States even to Canada, a NGO no one in those countries wants to succeed.

The smuggling networks that operate across the border are the results of the intertwining, and in some cases, of the merger of drug the people smuggling enterprises. The United States government, under both Democrat and Republican administrations, is partially to blame through their stubborn refusal to abide by the rule of law on the southern border. One consequence is the threat to American institutions of the same kind of corruption that has neutralized or co-opted their counterparts on the other side of the line. In fact, this has already started to happen. In that respect, and in ceding control of part of our sovereign territory to extra-legal forces, you might say that the U.S. is also a failed state, at least in that part of the country and in that aspect of its operation.

The Mexican government, like the government on this side of the border, also shares responsibility for the growth and the diversification of criminal enterprises centered on smuggling. For the Mexican elite has encouraged its citizens to violate its neighbor's laws by supporting a mass migration northward as a safety-valve to protect their own parochial interests. The result of this dual undermining of the rule of law is a growing threat to American security and a threat to very survival of the Mexican state.

Terrorist threats, the growth of criminal enterprises and corruption of our own institutions are all clear and present dangers that no one can deny. Another problem that the United States would face, if a worst case scenario were to unfold is the influx of thousands of Mexicans seeking refuge in the United States. That is what happened after 1910 during the Mexican Revolution. Such a situation would create a humanitarian problem on our side of the border that would divert American attention and resources from pressing problems at home.

FP: Tell us a bit about the bravest woman in Mexico, Marisol Valles Garcia.

Custred: The case of Marisol Valles Garcia is both an inspiration and an indication of how bad things are in Mexico, especially in that part of the country on our southern border. Marisol Valles has just become the police chief of a small town in the state of Chihuahua, one of the most violent states in the country. She is not a seasoned police officer. She is student of criminology who took the job when everyone else turned down it down out of fear of the cartels; and with good reason. For example, a local mayor from a town near hers was murdered last June. And just last week-end another local mayor, 59-year old Rito Grado Serrano and his 37-year old son Rogoberto, were murdered in a house in Ciudad Juarez where they were hiding. Juarez lies just across the border from El Paso, Texas and is known as the Murder Capital of the World. Marisol Valles told CNN-Español, “It’s like all human beings. There will always be fear, but what we want to achieve in our municipality is tranquility and security.” If a worst case scenario were to develop in Mexico, perhaps their northern neighbor would, for its own self-defense, be the only power able to achieve that goal.

FP: What has Obama not done to face this crisis and what recommendations do you have for the U.S. government to face it?

Custred: Incursions into the United States by armed Mexican police and military units are well known all along the border. They have been reported by local news outlets and have been the subject of congressional testimony by border authorities. The Department of Homeland Security is also well aware of the problem. Sarah Carter of the Inland Daily Bulletin revealed a DHS report, accompanied by a map, reporting 216 incursions by Mexican military units from 1997-2006. Also, the Tucson sector of the United States Border Patrol issued plastic wallet cards to their agents warning of such incursions and informing the agents that the Mexican troops are well armed and well trained; advice to the agents was essentially to keep out of their way.

A document from United States Border Protection, titled “BorderStat Violence FY (fiscal year) 2008 Year in Review”, reports that violence along the border, including assaults on customs and Border Patrol personnel, went from 37 in 2007 to 147 in 2008, an increase of 359%. This pattern reflects the escalating violence just south of the line. The report was made public only when the watch dog group Judicial Watch sued the government under the Freedom of Information Act to obtain its release. Judicial Watch subsequently posted the document on its website. We have no published up-dates (as far as I known) but the situation is unlikely to have gotten any better. Given the escalating pattern of violence south of the border, it has most certainly gotten worse.

A recent case indicates that it has. David Hartley was jet-skiing with his wife Tiffany on Lake Falcon between Zapata County Texas and Mexico when gunmen approached them from the Mexican side and shot Harley who slipped into the lake and was lost. He is presumed dead, killed by members of a drug cartel presumably because he got too close to an area the cartel had staked out for its operations. At first, Mexican authorities would have nothing to do with the case. Not only did they not search for the victim's body, they even suggested that his wife may have made up the story or was perhaps somehow implicated in his disappearance. After interviewing her for eight hours they finally began an investigation. Shortly afterwards the head of the Mexican investigator, Commander Rolando Flores, was delivered to the authorities in a suitcase, a sign that the border was the cartel's jurisdiction, not that of the Mexican state, and a warning to American authorities to get out of the way.

All of this is known to the public and to federal authorities, yet President Obama's attention is directed not towards defending American sovereignty and safe-guarding American citizens, but rather in trying to overturn a perfectly legal Arizona law that would enlist local and state law enforcement in helping federal authorities to curb illegal immigration, a massive influx which provides cover for possible terrorist infiltration and the safe passage of criminal elements that are spreading out across the entire country.

Obama's only interest in the border is narrowly and cynically political; a means of mobilizing his Latino base in the face of mounting national opposition to his policies. All this is played out against an ideological backdrop in which sovereignty and citizenship are either of low priority or even denigrated in the thinking and in the actions of those now in control of the federal government.

The Defense Department and the Department of Homeland Security, however, are aware of the deteriorating situation in Mexico and of the threat to the United States. According to a source in the military, those agencies are also aware of what the military might be called upon to do both here and in Mexico if a worst case scenario should unfold. This, however, is still low on their list of priorities, compounded by the kind of confusion and rivalry among the services that we saw before Nine Eleven.  We can only hope that a worst case scenario, which looks more likely every day, does not in fact materialize.

FP: Glynn Custred, thank you for joining Frontpage Interview.