Breaking Mexico's Fall

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armyPhilip Caputo paints a grim picture of Mexico’s current war on drugs in which appears in the December 2009 issue of The Atlantic. His pessimism reflects more than just skyrocketing murders in places such as Ciudad Juarez, or the seeming inability of the local police forces and courts to get to the bottom of these crimes. His chief concern revolves around Mexico’s military.

Caputo suggests that the military is in cahoots with the drug cartels today, much as they were in the past. Laying out what he can piece together from the few wary interviewees willing to speak to him, he depicts an independent military dismissive of human rights in the best case, and a military turned cartel in the worst. With both the Calderon and the U.S. government pinning their hopes in the war on drugs on this military, either scenario is bad news.

However corrupt the military is today, there is a fundamental difference from the earlier parallels he poses, and these differences matter for Mexico’s future. In the 1980s the secretary of defense was found to be working with no less than three drug cartels, and in the 1990s Mexico’s “drug czar” was discovered to be on the payroll of the Juarez cartel. But these incidences were part of a larger systematic relationship between drug traffickers and the long-standing ruling political party, the PRI. The military’s past drug ties can’t be seen in isolation from an organized system of control and enrichment constructed by the PRI that also encompassed the police, courts, and politicians.

Today, it isn’t that corruption has ended. But it is no longer as centralized and coordinated as in the past. Democratization opened up not just the political system to different political parties, but also the illicit economy – effectively ending the unwritten contracts that existed for years between the PRI and particular drug traffickers.

What this means is that corruption in the military today is more autonomous than in the past – not linked to a larger system, not controlled or checked by any political party, and perhaps not coming from the top of the chain of command. For some, this may be even worse news – well armed forces with no master. But, this shift may also mean that it is now much more possible to attack corruption – whether in the military or other parts of the government. With each pocket today no longer part of the larger functioning of an authoritarian system, a focused combination of vetting, training, prosecution, and long-term institution building could yield results. Mexico’s corruption remains a very difficult, but no longer insurmountable problem. And the current democratic political dynamic – forcing politicians to appeal to voters – may increase the chances that the Mexican government goes down a different road.

This better outcome is by no means guaranteed. It will take an incredible amount of work and resources over a long period of time. But the underlying dynamics today are quite different, and they provide Mexico – and the United States –an opportunity so that in ten years another journalist will not be writing a similar “Fall of Mexico” story.