- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 3, 2010


When the publisher slapped “Mexico: Chaos on Our Doorstep” on the book I wrote back in 1986, I was slightly embarrassed. I thought the title went too far. I had used my experience in Asia with pre-modernized societies to examine a neighbor. But my emphasis was on the world’s most prominent land border — a long one — between what then was called “the First World” and “the Third World.”

The U.S. had, after all, lived for 200 years in splendid isolation, with two non-threatening neighbors in Mexico and Canada. In the post-World War II cleanup, Washington’s energies were concentrated on Europe, and then Asia, with geopolitics thought of as being “over there.” Then the outbreak of the Cold War monopolized Americans’ attention. But increasingly, I prophesied, a crisis would come if Mexico’s deep social, political and economic problems went unresolved.

A generation later, we are at that marker.

While it may be true, as Obama administration spokesmen claim, that the southern U.S. border has been receiving an unprecedented level of resources and that statistics — on illegal crossings, expulsions of criminal illegals, apprehension of drug traffickers — suggest things are improving, it’s nonetheless true that Mexico’s domestic crisis is deepening.

It starts with the economy. As one of the biggest victims of the worldwide recession, Mexico’s gross domestic product skidded to -6.5 percent in 2009 alone. But even during earlier boom years, Mexico grew at under 2 percent annually — trailing other Latin American economies after long setting the pace in the region. Although Mexico’s population of 112 million is growing at a rate of only 1 percent a year, half of its people are under 25. Creating jobs will challenge all Mexico’s material and intellectual resources.

Economic development is not the only and may not be the main factor in Mexico’s problems. Note that Ciudad Juarez, El Paso’s twin city just across the Rio Grande, has experienced remarkable growth. Yet today it is at the center of a deadly three-cornered war pitting the government against competing drug gangs.

It’s not that there hasn’t been any progress.

In 2000, Mexico broke from almost a century of authoritarian rule by the leftist Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). But after ending decades of corrupt if populist governance, the Catholic-oriented, opposition National Action Party produced two less-than-stellar presidents — limited by law to a single six-year term — and a paralyzed legislature. Not only is politics dysfunctional, but a crippled judiciary has not been able to disentangle Marxist-style land laws dating back to the 1930s, property statutes that inhibit agricultural development and, once again, leave Mexico trailing behind other Latin American states despite the enormous potential of the U.S. market next door.

Ironically, one factor contributing to policy immobility was the 1970s discovery of more oil fields, providing the government a windfall revenue base. Crushing consumption taxes and stultifying indecision stymie domestic and foreign investment. And, just as anachronistically, a corrupt union uses nationalism to block international investment to maximize Mexican gas and oil potential.

The 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, unifying U.S., Canadian and Mexican markets, has benefited Mexico as it has the other partners. But it also made Mexico more vulnerable to shifts in the U.S. market — not least from the flood of competing Chinese imports.

Illegal border crossings are down, but that’s primarily because of diminished U.S. labor demand for unskilled workers. That in turn means essential remittances to families back home in Mexico will fall by another $4 billion this year, down from about $25.1 billion in 2008 and $21 billion last year.

What has this thumbnail sketch got to do with the U.S.?

Failure to provide economic opportunity in Mexico has unleashed gang warfare competing for as much as $23 billion generated by sales to the U.S. illicit drug market. Mexican President Felipe Calderon has been blamed for the growing violence after he launched an all-out attempt against the drug cartels. But it is hard to see how he had any alternative, with the federal police and other government organs being infiltrated and Mexico in danger of becoming a narcostate.

Mr. Calderon is the first Mexican president to collaborate enthusiastically with Washington in suppressing drug and arms traffickers, after Congress in 2008 gave Mexico $400 million to fight the traffickers. But U.S. support since then has been largely rhetorical, and the spiraling violence — 28,000 casualties since 2006 — is threatening the state itself.

Viewed from Washington, there is evidence that the tentacles of the drug lords are expanding their reach. Some analysts say the cartels are functioning in more than 200 U.S. cities. They even have had the chutzpah to grow marijuana on U.S. soil.

Mexico’s drug violence increasingly slops over the border — something Arizona lawmakers have tried forcibly to bring to Washington’s attention. Mr. Calderon, like most other Mexican leaders, refuses to consider the links between his domestic woes and the illegal immigration problem. In U.S. forums, he vehemently opposes “the fence” and a crackdown on illegals. In fact, emigration is seen by many in Mexico’s leadership as an “escape valve” for the pressure resulting from their failures.

All this represents growing signs of trouble from the volcano erupting on the southern U.S. border. As with domestic breakdowns in other countries, it is difficult to see what the U.S. can and should do. But it is certain Mexico now warrants a higher priority on Washington’s agenda.

Sol Sanders, a veteran foreign correspondent and analyst, writes weekly on the convergence of international politics, business and economics. He can be reached at [email protected]

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