Mexico: To Be, Or Not to Be?
For President Lopez Obrador, it's time to get on the high wire
On a dirt road in the Sierra Madre, the LeBaron family met its terrible end.
Nine women and children in a convoy, riddled with machine gun fire, then burned, victims of Mexico’s ruthless drug cartels. But, unlike so many tens of thousands of other innocent victims of these bestial organizations, there was something about them that caused people to take notice.
They were American citizens. What’s more, they were members of the Mormon religion, a politically influential group in US Republican politics.
Their deaths caught the always shifting eye of the 45th President of the United States. Their deaths may be a real game changer in what has so far been a largely ineffectual war on the cartels.
For more than two decades now, the multiplicity of violent armed groups in Mexico, all competing over the control of lucrative smuggling routes from South America to the United States and Canada, has caused Mexico an existential problem as real as that faced by Hamlet. Ever since the concerted assault on the Medellin and Cali cartels in the 1990s reduced the importance of the Caribbean smuggling routes, Mexico and the Pacific coast have been the real narco superhighway. At the end of the road: the ravenous American and Canadian demand for cocaine.
We’re so bad at interdicting the stuff that Canada has become a net exporter of it, 5000 kilometres from the nearest coca plant. Trust me, it used to be my job to stop it. Most of the time, I felt like a blind man playing the Harlem Globetrotters.
While it’s chic now to throw up one’s hands as a result and declare the “War on Drugs” a failure, the fact remains that cocaine is a problem that won’t go away. The money it supplies has built empires, empires founded on values quite the contrary of what we prefer. There is still no consensus on legalizing hard drugs, nor is there likely to be one any time soon.
Meanwhile, in Mexico, the cartels are now perhaps more powerful and relevant than the state, which appears to have ceded control of much of the country to them. While the last two Presidents of Mexico committed themselves to a warlike approach, the current President, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a leftist, has publicly argued that “hugs” are the solution.
I suspect the LeBarons, were they able, would beg to differ. And so, does Donald Trump. Apparently, he’s pursuing the process of having the Mexican cartels designated terrorist groups under US law. That would allow a wide range of travel and economic sanctions to be pursued against cartel members. Most important, it might mean cross-border military raids on their bases, without Mexican government approval.
Of course, Lopez Obrador is not happy about this. But since his own people are becoming quite restless with the “hugs, not bullets” approach, he’s in a tough spot. A recent failed attempt to arrest the son of captured narco Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman has left Lopez Obrador looking impotent, and Trump is unlikely to sympathize.
Making matters worse? There’s long-standing evidence that the Mexican government has been playing favourites in the cartel wars, and has been favouring the Sinaloa Cartel of El Chapo all along. So perhaps the release of his son wasn’t a humiliation as such, more a quid pro quo. Since witnesses at El Chapo’s trial testified he’d paid previous President Enrique Pena Nieto a 100-million-dollar bribe to call off the dogs, it’s a safe bet that many upper-crust Mexicans are less than keen to keep pounding at Sinaloa.
Where did all that money go? Talk to a Mexican reporter with guts, and they’ll tell you: There’s one hell of a lot of blame to go around. Bankers and industrialists are in bed with the cartels, too.
And of course, there’s us. The inhabitants of the Gringosphere whose demand for nose candy has caused this problem in the first place. If only we’d listened to Nancy Reagan.
But there’s two things I am sure of: One, the demand for cocaine is not going away. Two, the money involved will continue to be worth killing tens of thousands of people over it. Which brings us back to the existential question facing Mexico.
Stand on sovereignty and tell the US to go to hell? You could do that, but if you do, you’ll be jeopardizing a trade deal you need very much, and a pressure valve you’ve come to rely on for your excess population. It would be a popular stance in some circles, but only if you show you can handle the cartels on your own. And that’s doubtful.
Let Trump have his way? One misplaced drone strike might be all it takes for the narcos’ appeal to widen as Zapata-like resistance fighters against the Yanquis. And you’ll be left holding Trump’s mop and bucket.
What I suspect will happen will be this: both sides will accommodate to save face, the Mexicans giving some ground to US covert operations, the Americans not pushing too far in areas that will embarrass the ruling elite.
But this time, there’s Trump. He’s never entirely predictable. So far, he hasn’t shown great enthusiasm for using military force. But he also hasn’t shown much love for Mexico. So, to add to the difficulties of being President of Mexico, add one more: the precarious high wire act of staying on 45’s good side. Wherever that is.
Maybe Mexico will catch a break someday. But don’t hold your breath.