Like so many other things in life, organized crime works and adapts to the environment in which it operates: when it encounters resistance it retreats, when the lay of the land is advantageous it moves forward. Wherever there are laws that are enforced, organized crime adheres to them. In the Mexico of today there are no laws and the terrain is more than propitious: the place becomes enticing. This is the only way one can explain the temerity of the assassination attempt against Mexico City’s police chief in June. Where does this leaves the Mexican government?
The most basic definition of a Narco-State applies when a government’s fundamental institutions have been infiltrated by organized crime. A similar but not equivalent term is Failed State, which implies the incapacity of the State to satisfy basic government functions of such as security and the provision of services. Neither of the two definitions, strictly speaking, is applicable to Mexico but one can find elements of both in different parts of the Mexican territory.
There are vast regions of the country that are narco-areas, where the government exercises neither presence nor capacity of action. In the northern state of Tamaulipas, for example, the Mexican Army provides security escorts for vehicles traveling from one city to another. These are convoys formally organized in order not to be intercepted by the overlords of the land. Instead of solving the problem, government creates a form of alternative reality. Similar situations take place in states such as Michoacán and in parts of Northwest Mexico, from the state of Jalisco up to the border with the U.S. There are entire regions in the states of Guerrero, Guanajuato and the State of Mexico that are the territory of organized crime groups. Without resistance, reality becomes institutionalized.
To the latter one must add the impunity with which the mafias operate in the country. The assassination attempt Mexico City’s police chief is revealing: it was not only the size of the operation, but also the audacity of carrying it out along Mexico City’s main thoroughfare: Paseo de la Reforma. This cannot happen without the complicity of some authorities.
Beyond the specific circumstances of this case, the event itself showcases a truism: executing an operation of this nature is feasible in Mexico. It does not matter whether it was an act of revenge, whether the Mexican government had taken sides in the so-called war on drugs or whether the interests of this particular mafia group had been affected. The facts are what count.
The larger allegation is that the Mexican federal government has aligned itself with a drug cartel. This would imply, in the criminals logic, that it has become a legitimate target. There are videos showing President Andrés Manuel López Obrador speaking to the mother of the Sinaloa Cartel’s leader. This does not in itself constitutes evidence of a pact, but in politics appearances are reality. While this is not the first time that the Mexican federal government has allegedly engaged in negotiations with the Sinaloa Cartel, what is new is that it was the President himself publicly talking to a person close to the heart of the cartel leadership in its own territory. There are many ways to fight organized crime, but what the recent assassination attempt reveals is that the strategy that the Mexican government has chosen is not bearing fruit, regardless of whether there is an agreement with drug traffickers or not.
Negotiating in itself does not imply, in technical terms, that Mexico has become a Narco-State but if the alleged negotiations are true it would not be far from being one. And that is the problem. The Mexican government has acted without considering the implications and repercussions of its actions. Nor has there been an improvement in the security of the population, wherein lies the government’s principal responsibility.
What is clear is that there is currently no strategy to fight the mafias or that the one that the Mexican government is implementing (“hugs, not bullets”) is inadequate. The question is whether the weakness that the Mexican government has shown in this matter has rendered it possible for the criminal organizations to gain ground, making it increasingly more difficult to change the status quo. The assassination attempt against Mexico City’s police chief implies that the balance of power is shifting in favor of the mafias, whose goal appears not to govern but to operate their business without governmental interference. Every retreat by the government is being capitalized by some drug cartel but, to guarantee this, the cartel must liquidate its rivals, perpetuating the world of violence in which Mexicans live.
What is important is not the label, Failed State or Narco-State, but rather that the Mexican government continues not to recognize and accept that citizens security is its most basic responsibility. The government has put its sights on the only thing that matters to them: the 2021 midterm election. Meanwhile, government’s personnel -not to mention ordinary Mexicans- lives in fear of an unexpected mortal attack.
When an assassination attempt is targeted against a figure of such relevance as the chief of police of Mexico’s capital city, the magnitude of the affront is evident and the symbolism is impossible to hide. The President’s nonresponse is an obvious response for those involved.
Without taking in account the Covid-19 pandemic and the economic recession, it is possible that the current Mexican government’s security policy would have ended up as no worse than that of its predecessors. But the pandemic changes everything. Highly delicate times are coming for the security of the Mexican people that have nothing to do with drug trafficking groups or organized crime but instead with the urgency of Mexican parents to solve their immediate family needs, beginning with food. While drug trafficking organizations will be ready to capture local support -and they already are-, the Mexican government does not protect the citizenry. Instead of building effective municipal police forces from the bottom up, the Mexican government promotes de facto a policy of nothing more than “every man for himself”. This is not a serious way to govern.
* Luis Rubio is chairman of the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations (COMEXI) and of México Evalúa-CIDAC. A Spanish version of this Op-Ed appeared first in Reforma’s newspaper print edition. Twitter: @lrubiof