ASCF Report | 1.8.14
By Alan W. Dowd

Let’s play a game of guess-who. Name the country where at least 70,000 people have been killed in the past seven years, in a brutal conflict pitting a weak central government against a powerful network of warlords. The victims are beheaded, tortured and worse. Civil authorities regularly quit or join up with the warlords. And entire towns have been depopulated as government forces and insurgents vie for control. It may sound like Yemen, Somalia, Iraq or Afghanistan, but the country we’re talking about shares a border with the United States.

The optimists look at Mexico’s bloody drug war, and see it as proof that the Mexican government is standing up to the cartels, which is true. But the pessimists look at Mexico and see a failed state on America’s border, which is a frightening prospect.

Symptoms of a Failed State

To put Mexico’s gruesome drug-war death toll in perspective, the Iraqi government reports that 85,694 Iraqi civilians were killed between 2004 and 2008 in Iraq’s brutal postwar war. That’s 17,139 per year. On an annual basis, Mexico’s annual total is in the 10,000 range. But it was 15,000 in 2010, and some experts argue, persuasively, that the Mexican government’s estimate of 70,000 dead purposely undercounts drug-war killings. Citing homicide rates, disappearances, pre- and post-drug war numbers, and statistics maintained by state and local agencies, researchers based at New Mexico State University place the drug-war death toll closer to 130,000. That would translate into 18,571 violent deaths per year—considerably higher than the annual death toll during Iraq’s insurgency.

Interestingly, whether we accept the official government tally or that of independent researchers, the overall death toll in Mexico is far higher than what prompted NATO intervention in Kosovo in 1999 or in Libya in 2011.

Before scoffing at the notion that Mexico is on the precipice of failed-state status, consider that in 2008 the U.S. military issued a reportchallenging policymakers to prepare for a worst-case scenario involving the “rapid and sudden collapse” of Mexico.

Or consider what experts in Mexico have to say about their chaotic country. Edgardo Buscaglia, a law professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico, notes that there are “pockets” in Mexico where “the authorities and organized crime are one force…that’s the essence of a failed state. Mexico is facing limited symptoms of a failed state—and it’s expanding.”

Or consider what the Failed States Index(FSI) concludes about Mexico: The FSI, where the likes of Somalia and Sudan rank at the top by being the worst, describes Mexico’s narco-insurgency as “extremely serious”—and understandably so. Mexico has slid eight spots closer to failed-state status since 2008, and finds itself in the FSI’s “warning” category.

As in Somalia (1st on the FSI), Yemen (6th) and Pakistan (13th), warlords have taken over vast swaths of the country—perhaps as much as 12 percent of Mexican territory—and the central government’s writ is severely circumscribed. State Department and Defense Department guidelines list 12 of Mexico’s 31 states as no-go zonesfor U.S. travelers and troops. While many observers expected the killings to wane with the arrival of a new administration in Mexico City, the New Mexico State University researchers report that an average of 1,572 people per month have been killed since President Enrique Peña Nieto took office in December 2012. That’s 52 per day—only slightly less than the grisly average during the administration of Felipe Calderón (56 killings per day). So deep and wide is the drug-cartel infiltration of the municipal level of government that Peña Nieto was recently forced to replace hundreds of police and customs officials manning ports and highway checkpoints with federal troops. In June, a Mexican admiral was shot to death during an ambush west of Mexico City.

As in Iraq (11thon the FSI), sectarian-style violence has claimed tens of thousands, maimed the political process and depopulated towns. Ahead of the 2013 elections, several candidates were killed, wounded or assaulted in a concerted effort to intimidate voters and undermine representative government. “We are in the midst of the most violent elections in our history,” said José María Martínez, president of a special electoral commission, in a New York Times interviewlast July. Some 25,000 people have simply disappeared in Mexico. In one town in Chihuahua, almost half the population has fled. In fact, 441,000 homes have been abandoned in the states of Chihuahua and Tamaulipas due to drug-war violence, according to one study.

As in Afghanistan (7th on the FSI), corruption is the norm in Mexico. According to Transparency International’s measure of official corruption, Mexico is one of the most corrupt countries in the world, ranking 105th out of 174 nations. Mexico has dismissed more than 3,500 police officers due to corruption, according to the State Department. An estimated 1,700 Mexican army commandos have deserted since 2002.

As in both Afghanistan and Syria (21st on the FSI), Mexico’s chaos often spills across the border. For instance, Mexican drug cartels have used Guatemala as a base of operations. In 2010, an army of 200 gunmen from the Zetas drug gang slaughtered 27 Guatemalan farmers. The spillover violence is so bad that Guatemala has allowed U.S. Marines—as many as 200 at a time—into the country to patrol Guatemala’s western coast, which is used by the Mexican cartels as a transshipment point. Mexican cartels are also operating in Honduras and El Salvador. Law enforcement agencies in the U.S. report that the Zetas have made inroads in Texas, California, New York and Maryland.

Worryingly, then-Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano raised concerns in 2011 of collaborationbetween the cartels and jihadist terrorists. “We have, for some time, been thinking about what would happen if, say, al Qaeda were to unite with the Zetas,” she said.

Whether this all adds up to yet another reason to call a truce in the drug war is a subject for another essay, as is the demand side of this scourge. Suffice it say that the drug war may be unpopular in the United States, but there is no groundswell for legalization. 

As for Mexico, the Mexican government’s decision to target the drug lords and reassert its sovereignty did not create this problem, but rather exposed it.


“An unstable Mexico could represent a homeland security problem of immense proportions to the United States,” the U.S. military has warned.

That explains why small contingents of U.S. forces—and large amounts of U.S. aid—are pouring into Mexico. Under the $1.9-billion Mérida Initiative, the U.S. has been delivering economic and military aid focused on Mexico’s drug war efforts since 2008. Mérida resources are used to train Mexican government agencies and officials in law enforcement, the rule of law, counter-narcotics and military-security measures. Some 20,000 Mexican prosecutors, police officers and judicial officials have been trained under the Mérida Initiative.

Closer to the frontlines, the U.S. and Mexico have created joint fusion centers to collect, manage and act on intelligence related to counter-narcotics efforts. The U.S. began deploying UAVs into Mexican airspace in early 2011, and the U.S. military deploys about 20 training teams into Mexico each year, USAToday reports. With Mexico’s blessing, the U.S. is steadily expanding military-related activity south of the border: The New York Times revealed that CIA operatives and retired military personnel have been dispatched to Mexico, and that Washington has authorized Mexican security forces to use U.S. territory as a staging area for operations into Mexico. 

It’s worth noting that only Afghanistan receives more intelligence assistance than Mexico, according to The Washington Post. Also noteworthy is the fact that Washington has enlisted Colombia to play a major role in training Mexican forces.

Indeed, U.S.-Colombia collaboration in dismantling the FARC insurgency is the template for defeating Mexico’s narco-insurgency. In Colombia, as The Washington Post recently detailed, CIA covert action, NSA assets and DoD munitions kits that turn dumb bombs into smart bombs helped Colombian forces target and kill dozens of rebel leaders over the past 13 years, crippling the FARC narco-insurgency. With U.S. assistance, Colombian forces even targeted rebels outside Colombia.

Is militarization of the Mexico’s problem necessary? If the capabilities and actions of the cartels are any indication, the answer is yes. The State Department reports that Mexico’s cartels “increasingly employ military tactics.” The cartels, it pays to recall, are effectively mini-armies, using mortars, snipers, RPGs, bazookas, land mines, and even armored assault vehicles and submarines. As the Guatemalan government observed after its troops engaged a Mexican-based cartel inside Guatemala, “The weapons seized…are more than those of some army brigades.”

Defeating the insurgency and pulling Mexico out if its slide toward failed-state status must start with security and stability, which means the Mexican government must invest more in defense. Mexico spends just 0.5 percent of GDP on defense. This is not nearly enough given Mexico’s internal security challenges. Consider the defense-spending levels of countries facing similar insurgency threats: Afghanistan invests nearly 10 percent of its GDP on defense, Iraq 8.6 percent, Colombia 3.8 percent, Pakistan 3.1 percent. If bolstering the defense and security assets of those four countries—none of them sharing a border with the United States—is in the national interest (and it is), then helping Mexico defeat its narco-insurgency is as well.

“Mexico has what we had some years ago,” says Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos. “What we can provide is the experience that we have had dismantling those cartels.” The good news, as Colombia reminds us, is that with concerted effort, targeted resources and U.S. support, things can get better in Mexico. The bad news is that if Mexico is being compared to the Colombia of the 1990s, it’s a mess.

*Dowd is a senior fellow with the American Security Council Foundation, where he writes The Dowd Report, a monthly review of international events and their impact on U.S. national security.