The world consumes US $360 billion of illegal drugs every year. Between 2006 and 2016, the demand for marijuana, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines in the US fluctuated between US $120 billion and US $145 billion a year. With nearly 2,000 miles of common border, Mexico’s territory offers ideal routes for illegal drugs to reach the American consumer. Powerful criminal organizations fight to control routes and points of entry along the border. If they achieve this goal, they amass considerable resources to buy weapons, equipment, hitmen, and even political influence.
The most extreme danger for Mexico is that organized crime becomes a determinant factor in deciding the outcome of elections, or that it becomes a parallel power to the state. This already occurs in some regions of the country. Drug traffickers offer protection, collect taxes (via protection rackets), distribute aid to the most vulnerable –buying their loyalty- and even administer justice in cases of domestic violence and rape. Mexico risks becoming a narco-state.
There are factors that can accelerate this outcome. First, the collapse of the Mexican economy that reduces the state’s capacity to provide security, justice, public services and basic infrastructure. In a poorer Mexico, more people will be willing to accept help from whoever offers it. A Mexican government without resources leaves spaces that other interests would fill. A Mexico of weak institutions is fertile ground for criminals. Poorly paid government officials, greater discretion in decision-making, less transparency in government procurement, all are factors contributing to such fallout. The best antidote to this situation comes from setting in place a set of tasks: strengthening state institutions that are less corruptible than individuals, reinforcing state capacities and independent agencies, investing in training and technology to prevent illicit activities, promoting maximum levels of transparency, preventing the use of cash in order to track illicit money flows.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) is a “dream president” for drug traffickers. He has dismantled state capacities and poverty has grown exponentially during his term. AMLO has administered the coup de grace to Mexico’s Supreme Court and the Electoral Tribunal. He has used the country’s financial intelligence unit not against criminal organizations but to extort magistrates, judges, businessmen and political opponents. Also, AMLO himself has been the epitome of opacity. We don’t know what AMLO has been living from during decades, he has never filed a tax return, he pays everything with cash and he has been a politician who has financed decades of campaigning with cash from who knows where. Furthermore, he dismantled Mexico’s National Anti-Corruption System and disbanded the Federal Police -the only “police force” with basic investigative and technological capabilities. AMLO has made it clear that he believes he is the state, a tropical incarnation of Frances’s King Louis XIV. Mexico is currently the country of one man. He is the same man who illegally freed the son of Mexican drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, who goes out of his way to pay his respect to Chapo’s mother, and who apologizes for calling him by his nickname. Could this be why US authorities do not trust AMLO?
The Mexican Army, one of the few structures that transcends the Presidential six-year term, has always enjoyed the impunity that comes from opacity by design. Given this fragility, it is suicidal for AMLO to put it in charge not only of public security but also of Mexican customs and ports. Particularly, when the bulk of the Chinese fentanyl -a big concern of the US government- arrives to Mexico’s Pacific Coast by ship. AMLO has also put the Army in charge of building Santa Lucía’s airport, one of his pet projects. He dangerously risks exposing an institution that has always merited respect to become an ideal target for criminals to corrupt it. This has happened before. However, the recent US arrest and indictment of former Defense Secretary Salvador Cienfuegos reveals the devastating possibility that criminal have compromised Mexico’s highest military commander. Like former Security Minister Genaro García Luna, also arrested and indicted by US authorities, Cienfuegos deserves to be presumed innocent until proven guilty in US courts.
Mexico will only regain credibility if the country makes a U-turn. Among the most urgent tasks are returning to build the National Anti-Corruption System, strengthening checks and balances, empowering and funding a true independent Attorney General’s Office (FGR) and strengthening civilian oversight of the security strategy. Failure to do so would be an irreparable mistake.
* Jorge Suárez-Vélez is an economic and political analyst He is the author of The Coming Downturn of the World Economy (Random House 2011). A Spanish version of this Op-Ed appeared first in Reforma’s newspaper print edition. Twitter: @jorgesuarezv