Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Thursday, November 02, 2017

Is Mexico still a nation state?

What are the characteristics of a nation state? How many of them does Mexico still have? What things are identified as obstacles to change?

Mexico’s Record Violence Is a Crisis 20 Years in the Making
The forces driving violence in Mexico, which is now on track for its worst year in decades, were first set in motion 20 years ago…

First, Colombia defeated its major drug cartels in the 1990s, driving the center of the drug trade from the country into Mexico.

Then, in 2000, Mexico transitioned to a multiparty democracy.

This meant that the drug trade moved to Mexico just as its politics and institutions were in flux, leaving them unable to address a problem they have often made worse.

Since then, a series of bad breaks, missteps and self-imposed crises have led to an explosion of violence…

In 2006, a new president and a new drug cartel both took extreme actions, the consequences of which are still unfolding.

The implosion of Colombian cartels set off a fierce competition in Mexico for control of the drug trade. A new cartel, La Familia Michoacána, broke off from a larger group, then cemented its power by deploying extreme, theatrical violence…

That same year, Felipe Calderón won the presidency by a hair... the narrow victory for Mr. Calderón left him without a strong mandate.
Mexican army on anti-cartel patrol

Shortly after taking office, the new president declared war on the cartels and sent in the military…

Defenders say he had little alternative. Mexico had been a single-party state and, like most such states, had controlled local officials through patronage and corruption. When that system disappeared, drug cartels filled the vacuum, buying off mayors and judges. Only the military had the firepower and autonomy to take them on.

This began the drug war that has killed tens of thousands of people. But it also created a subtler set of problems now driving more and broader violence.

Mr. Calderón adopted the so-called kingpin strategy, in which troops captured or killed cartel leaders. This generated headlines, pleased the United States and could be accomplished top-down, with little input from corrupt or weak local law enforcement…

In bypassing mayors and governors because Mexico’s pre-democratic practices had left them systemically corrupt and unaccountable, the government further reduced their accountability…

“In the process of that fragmentation, we didn’t do the job of structuring the institutions of the police forces,” said Mr. Valdés, who ran the civil national security intelligence service as this was unfolding. “So we have the worst of the worst.”

Joy Langston, a political scientist at the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics in Mexico City, traces many of the country’s woes to a seemingly minor quirk in its political system.

All candidates are selected by the party, and officials serve one term before being shuffled off to another post.

During the one-party era, this was meant to impose accountability, which flowed from party leadership. Oversight institutions, seen as superfluous, never fully developed…

For example, voters have little opportunity to kick out bad leaders or reward good ones, giving officials little incentive to push through difficult reforms. And criminal groups are able to fill the pockets of notoriously underpaid policemen and other civil servants — often providing the wrong kind of incentives.

“At the end of the day, this is all an issue of accountability,” Alejandro Hope, a security analyst, said. “That is the key point of failure in Mexico.”

“Nothing happens if a police officer does not do their work,” he added. “Nothing happens if a mayor fails to transform local law enforcement. Nothing happens if a governor fails to invest in prosecutorial services. Nothing happens.”…

This is leading communities to do, at the grass-roots level, what Mr. Calderón did a decade earlier: bypass distrusted institutions, worsening the underlying problem.

Businesses and middle-class Mexicans are hiring private security in record numbers…

Rural communities, which are more vulnerable, have formed “self-defense” militias to run off gangs and mayors alike…

Mexicans seem keenly aware that their government is growing less responsive just as streets are becoming more dangerous. Polls show growing dissatisfaction, particularly over corruption.

“We have this political class that totally forgets why they are there,” said Armando Torjes, a community activist in Guadalupe, a working-class city in the northeast.

Each election, he said, brings a new official with a new three-year plan. Most, he added, leave office conspicuously wealthier…

“We wanted to improve the institutions, the judges, the jails, the police,” Mr. Valdés, the former head of the intelligence service, said. “We spent years trying to convince the political class.”

But he found those institutions — dominated by parties rather than technocrats and subject to the whims of officials who are required by law to cycle out every term — unresponsive…

“What’s happening in Guadalupe is what’s happening in all of Mexico,” Mr. Torjes said. “There was a political demand for change, but nothing really changed for us.”

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