The episode has gained major attention in the U.S. largely because the LeBaróns are part of a long-standing American Mormon presence in northern Mexico. (George Romney, the late Michigan governor and Mitt’s father, was born in a Mormon colony in Chihuahua in 1907, which he was forced to flee as a child during the Mexican Revolution.) But the reason the killings really matter is that they are yet another reminder that Mexico is on a fast track toward becoming a failed state.
For this, blame a combination of managerial incompetence and ideological inanity from Donald Trump and his Mexican counterpart, Andres Manuel López Obrador. In 2015, I asked then-candidate Trump whether he feared that his protectionist policies would hurt Mexico in ways that ultimately would hurt the United States as well. His reply: “I don’t care about Mexico, honestly. I really don’t care about Mexico.”
Since then, Trump has forced a dubious renegotiation of NAFTA but has yet to get the new trade agreement ratified in Congress, causing business uncertainties that have brought the Mexican economy to the edge of recession. It took the administration more than a year to replace its ambassador in Mexico, after the last one resigned in disgust. And Trump’s insistence that Mexico militarize its southern border with Guatemala has drained its army of the manpower it needs to fight the drug cartels.
If Trump’s actions have been damaging, López Obrador’s have been disastrous.
His slogan in the face of cartel violence is “hugs, not bullets.” His strategy has been to increase spending on social programs while urging gangsters to think of their mothers. He has claimed, preposterously, that crime is under control and still insists he has no intention of rethinking his approach. In the Culiacán fiasco, he praised the decision to release El Chapo’s son while ordering the disclosure of the officer’s name who had ordered the operation, endangering the man’s life. Much of the army officer corps now openly reviles their commander in chief. A parody of a policy has produced a predictable result: 2019 is on course to become Mexico’s most violent year in decades, with about 17,000 killings between January and June. In sheer numbers, that’s a figure that exceeds the civilian death toll in Iraq at the height of war in 2006.
“When Mexican presidents have looked at this, it’s such a daunting task,” the former official notes. “It’s very manpower intensive, and it’s not just security forces to clear, hold, and build. They have to be supported by strong judicial authorities, which in turn have to be supported by strong prison authorities. Those are the three legs of the rule-of-law stool, and if any of them are weak, it can cause the whole enterprise to topple.” In Mexico, all the legs of the stool are cracked. Prisons are out of control. Municipal authorities cower before the cartels. The “impunity rate” — that is, the likelihood that crimes will not be punished — is just shy of 99%.
This is not business as usual for Mexico. Either the country is going to get a grip on its crisis of institutions and its deficits in leadership or it is going to increasingly resemble Iraq before the surge, albeit with drug money taking the place of religious fanaticism. Donald Trump might not care about Mexico, but you should. Even if we build a wall, no crisis will ever respect a border.
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