What Is The U.S. Doing About The Failed State On Its Southern Border?
How would one categorize a nation-state whose army gives a drug baron’s son to cartel members after suffering brutal losses in pitched battles? The country whose firebrand leftist president apologized on television and said the army’s surrender to a drug cartel was the correct thing to do, because “we do not want war”?
If the reports are correct, this is precisely what happened in Mexico, around the same time the Democratic presidential primary field was debating whether there should be more trillion-dollar expenditures in the U.S. budget. Instead, a failed state on the southern border of the United States should ring alarm bells in the Pentagon.
A map in the BBC showed how Mexico is divided into four cartel zones, similar to warlords in Afghanistan or Libya. A few days back, Mexican National Guards surrounded drug lord El Chapo’s son in a house and after a heavy gunfight forced him to surrender and be arrested.
Then all hell broke loose. Cartel members surrounded the house and forced security to retreat. The army was called in after heavy violence, and even they were fought to a standstill. While there were not many reports of this in American mainstream media, social media was lit with videos of the Mexican military being surrounded by the cartel members.
There were also videos of Sinaloa cartel members in armored cars, with anti-tank grenade launchers, and heavy machine guns patrolling the streets of Mexican cities. In short, the balance of power passed to the hands of drug gangs, militias, and cartel members, who rioted, freed prisoners, and humiliated the national government.
Needless to mention, this is not normal. International relations is based on mutual trust between governments, who are expected to keep the authority in a region, especially one as vital as Mexico. Under El Chapo’s cartel, Sinaloa has been the biggest supplier of drugs in the United States. Even with El Chapo jailed, his family runs the business openly without any retribution.
The government is powerless and corrupt and compromised. Mexico’s leftist president and vocal U.S. critic Andrés Manuel López Obrador was elected to deal with the cartels and gangs. After this humiliating surrender, however, he thanked the security forces for releasing El Chapo’s son, saying that it was a prudent thing to do as the Mexican government is not willing to go to war. “The officials who took this decision did well,” he was reported by the BBC saying. “The capture of a criminal is not worth more people’s lives.”
Consider the implications. What does this mean for a country the size and geography of Mexico? A nation state is considered failed when there are parallel administrations and no central authority. For example, consider Antifa controlling Portland, or sanctuary cities where the local police have no power.
Imagine there was news of an Islamist terrorist, and the American National Guard and FBI went to capture him, only to be surrounded and forced to surrender, and the U.S. president then held a press conference explaining why it was a good thing to do to maintain national order. It is absurd to think of, and unlikely to happen. And yet it is happening, right outside the U.S. southern border.
While the U.S. Senate is busy debating whether American troops should be the Kurds’ bodyguards against NATO ally Turkey, which is thousands of miles away in a region with no geostrategic interest to the United States, there is a collapsing country within miles from Texas and California. Its government is incapable of overpowering paramilitary forces and militias, who control the landmass and will help anyone with money.
Policing, counter-espionage, counter-intelligence, counter-human trafficking, counter-migration, and counter-terrorism, all the functions the American government depends on the Mexican government for, are now practically compromised. Tomorrow, if a terror cell starts working in the region, the Mexican government will be hamstrung about doing anything.
Not that there needs to be an Islamist terror cell. Mexican cartels are no less brutal than ISIS and are increasingly bold enough to cross the border, with sleeping cells in cities of United States ready for mayhem when the time comes. Is the U.S. government aware of who and what gangs work where and how much power they have?
The warning signs were there for a long time. In 2010 it was warned that Mexico was risking becoming a failed state. President Obama instead focused on democratizing the Middle East after the Arab Spring. In 2015, academics warned that decapitation strikes in different cartels risked more splintering and anarchy. In 2016, the same argument was repeated, this time with a warning about the rise of militias and parallel administrations in parts of Mexico.
While more and more liberal academics warned about the human rights violations in a drug war (that was never really fought the way it is been fought in the Philippines, for example), conservatives warned about the effects of that in the United States. Just last week, this publication reported about an illegal alien on trial for terrorism in North America, news which was blanked out everywhere else.
One of the strangest concepts in the liberal order is the human rights regime, the post-1945 idea that rehabilitation is better than punitive deterrence, and that negotiation and coexistence with evil is better than imposing righteous authority. Unfortunately, Mexico showed the limits of this. Those same people who breathlessly hyperventilate against Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines for waging a brutal drug war to clean up gangs and terrorists, the people and politicians who essentially call for zero enforcement of border and immigration laws, are somehow completely quiet as the Mexican government falters.
Anarchy is worse than tyranny. The events in Mexico show that it is no longer an independent nation-state. Americans should know that they do not have a functioning nation-state across their southern border. And that should keep every sane person awake at night.
Sumantra Maitra is a doctoral researcher at the University of Nottingham, UK, and a senior contributor to The Federalist. His research is in great power-politics and neorealism. You can find him on Twitter @MrMaitra.
Photo U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Jim Greenhill