Bret Stephens: Mexico is on a path to becoming a failed state

(Marco Ugarte | AP) Heavily armed Mexican authorities guard a caravan of friends and relatives of the LeBaron family as they arrive at the site where nine U.S. citizens, three women and six children related to the extended LeBaron family, were slaughtered when cartel gunmen ambushed three SUVs along a dirt road near Bavispe, at the Sonora-Chihuahua border, Mexico, Wednesday, Nov 6, 2019. Three women and six of their children, related to the extended LeBaron family, were gunned down in an attack while traveling along Mexico's Chihuahua and Sonora state border on Monday.

Mexico City • On a working visit here, I have dinner with one of the country’s elder statesmen and listen to him describe its greatest challenges. He names three: “Rule of law. Rule of law. And rule of law.”

The truth of the observation is underscored a few days later, when gunmen kill nine members of the LeBarón family along a back-country road in the northern state of Sonora. The motive for the massacre is unclear, but its barbarity is not: three women and six children, including infant twins, shot at close range and burned alive in their cars.

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, Andrés 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.

Last month, in the northwestern city of Culiacán, Mexican security forces found themselves quickly outnumbered and outgunned when they tried to arrest the son of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the jailed drug lord. The soldiers capitulated and the son was promptly freed.

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.

So what could work? A conversation with a former senior U.S. intelligence official suggests a bracing analogy.

“What has always been required,” the former official says, “is to construct a comprehensive, integrated civil-military campaign, where ‘military’ includes all security services , similar to a counterinsurgency campaign such as the one pursued in the surge in Iraq.”

But hasn’t that been tried before?

Not quite. Under President Felipe Calderón (2006-2012), Mexico pursued a “kingpin” strategy of taking down cartel leaders. But decapitation strikes never work when your enemy is a Hydra. His successor, Enrique Peña Nieto, believed that economic prosperity and political reform would be an antidote to criminality. But that turned out to be another mirage as growth lagged and corruption surged.

“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.

Bret Stephens

Bret Stephens is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.