Update about Mexico, the failing state on our border

Mexico continues to fall apart in slow-mo.  There seems to be little we can do to help, so our government pretends all is fine — rather than take defensive measures.


  1. Mexico Security Memo, Stratfor, 9 November 2009 — A typical week in Mexico, reported by one of the few agencies covering this important story.
  2. The Fall of Mexcio“, Philip Caputo, The Atlantic, December 2009
  3. FM recommendations about Mexico
  4. Other articles about Mexico
  5. For more information and an Afterword


(1)  Mexico Security Memo, Stratfor, 9 November 2009 — A typical week in Mexico.  Excerpt:

Gunmen posing as police officers entered the Amadeus strip club in Juarez, Chihuahua state and methodically executed six people in the early morning hours of Nov. 4, including U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. David Booher Montanez.

The Secretary of Public Security for the city of Garcia, Nuevo Leon state, retired Brig. Gen. Juan Arturo Esparza, was killed along with four of his bodyguards in a firefight that took place outside of the Garcia mayor’s home in the afternoon of Nov. 4. The mayor of Garcia, Jaime Rodriguez, exited his home to find a group of eight trucks with armed men outside. Rodriguez then issued a call for help; Esparza and his four bodyguards were the only ones to respond. The governor of the state of Nuevo Leon, Rodrigo Medina de la Cruz, promptly relieved the remaining 70 officers of their duties and ordered the Nuevo Leon state Investigative Agency to investigate their inaction. … The inaction by the rest of the Garcia police department underscores the remaining corruption issues that continue to plague the Mexican security apparatus.

(2)  The Fall of Mexcio“, Philip Caputo, The Atlantic, December 2009 — This is very much worth reading in full.  Excerpt:

Poor Mexico. So far from God and so close to the United States.
—Porfirio Díaz, dictator of Mexico from 1876 to 1880 and 1884 to 1911


In the almost three years since President Felipe Calderón launched a war on drug cartels, border towns in Mexico have turned into halls of mirrors where no one knows who is on which side or what chance remark could get you murdered. Some 14,000 people have been killed in that time—the worst carnage since the Mexican Revolution — and part of the country is effectively under martial law. Is this evidence of a creeping coup by the military? A war between drug cartels? Between the president and his opposition? Or just collateral damage from the (U.S.-supported) war on drugs? Nobody knows: Mexico is where facts, like people, simply disappear. The stakes for the U.S. are high, especially as the prospect of a failed state on our southern border begins to seem all too real.


Statements by U.S. and Mexican government officials, repeated by a news media that prefers simple story lines, have fostered the impression in the United States that the conflict in Mexico is between Calderón’s white hats and the crime syndicates’ black hats. The reality is far more complicated, as suggested by this statistic: out of those 14,000 dead, fewer than 100 have been soldiers. Presumably, army casualties would be far higher if the war were as straightforward as it’s often made out to be.

What, then, accounts for the carnage, the worst Mexico has suffered since the revolution, a century ago? To be sure, many of the dead have been cartel criminals. Some were killed in firefights with the army, others in battles between the cartels for control of smuggling routes, and still others in power struggles within the cartels. The toll includes more than 1,000 police officers, some of whom, according to Mexican press reports, were executed by soldiers for suspected links to drug traffickers. Conversely, a number of the fallen soldiers may have been killed by policemen moonlighting as cartel hit men, though that cannot be proved. Meanwhile, human-rights groups have accused the military of unleashing a reign of terror—carrying out forced disappearances, illegal detentions, acts of torture, and assassinations—not only to fight organized crime but also to suppress dissidents and other political troublemakers. What began as a war on drug trafficking has evolved into a low-intensity civil war with more than two sides and no white hats, only shades of black. The ordinary Mexican citizen—never sure who is on what side, or who is fighting whom and for what reason—retreats into a private world where he becomes willfully blind, deaf, and above all, dumb.

… I have come to see him at the suggestion of Emilio Gutiérrez, who fled to the U.S. because army officers threatened him with death. During an interview at his hiding place north of the border, Gutiérrez told me about a mysterious event that occurred on February 12, 2008. Teams of gunmen, riding in SUVs and pickup trucks and described by witnesses as “dressed like soldiers,” swept through Nuevo Casas Grandes and six neighboring communities between midnight and dawn, kidnapping and executing people.

The convoys covered 170 miles altogether, rolling through military checkpoints unimpeded. In Nuevo Casas Grandes, the “armed commandos,” as they were called by the Mexican media, set fire to the house of a police subcommander and shot him to death as he ran outside. Two other people, one of them the uncle of a midlevel narcotics trafficker, were also executed. The press reported that 14 more were abducted, but the actual number was believed to be much higher. All the victims, except two who were apparently snatched by mistake and later released, vanished without a trace.

Gutiérrez, a reporter in El Diario’s Ascensión bureau, covered the operation. From what he’d seen with his own eyes and from interviews with eyewitnesses, he concluded that the perpetrators were dressed like soldiers for the simple reason that they were soldiers. An operation on that scale, he reasoned, could not have been conducted by gangs of pistoleros hastily thrown together: it required thorough planning, accurate intelligence, discipline, and coordination. Nor could pistoleros have driven through army roadblocks without being stopped. If the raid wasn’t military, it must have been conducted with the army’s cooperation.

That wasn’t what Gutiérrez reported, however. He told me that his boss, José Martínez Valdéz, the editor of El Diario’s editions in northwest Chihuahua, instructed him to “not cause problems by writing that this was military.” Gutiérrez’s silence did not win him any points with the army. Five months later, he was warned that the military was going to kill him, and he was forced to leave the country.

But why, I asked, would soldiers maraud the countryside on a murder-and-kidnapping spree? He replied that the raid was not part of the Mexican government’s war on the drug cartels but a struggle between two powerful cartels: the Juárez organization, headed by Vicente Carillo, and the Sinaloa federation, whose boss, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, is the most-wanted man in Mexico. Gutiérrez said that in this instance the gunmen, whoever they were, had been after people they thought were working for the Juárez cartel.

“It’s an open secret in Mexico,” he said, “that the army is fighting the [Juárez] cartel to weaken them and pave the way for Guzmán.”

Open secret or no, an allegation that soldiers may have acted on behalf of a drug lord needs to be substantiated. After all, Calderón’s counter-narcotics strategy relies, with U.S. support, almost exclusively on the military.

… I have just been in Juárez and am relieved to not be going back to that industrialized border city—utterly charmless in the best of times, and these are far from the best of times. Juárez’s main product now is the corpse. Last year, drug-related violence there claimed more than 1,600 lives, and the toll for the first nine months of this year soared beyond 1,800, and mounts daily. That makes Juárez, population 1.5 million, the most violent city in the world.

… The question is, can the army be trusted, and if so, can it win this latest—and biggest—battle in the seemingly endless “war on drugs”? Calderón has deployed more than 45,000 troops (out of a total force of 230,000) throughout the country. Of that number, about 7,000, reinforced by 2,300 federal policemen, occupy Juárez as part of Operación Conjunta Chihuahua—the Joint Chihuahuan Operation. The army has taken over all the policing functions. The city is under undeclared martial law.

… As de la Rosa suggested, there is a dismal history of collusion between the armed forces and organized crime. In the late 1980s, the Mexican defense secretary was caught peddling protection to three drug organizations, which paid him a total of $10 million. In 1997, Mexico’s chief anti-narcotics officer was indicted for providing the Juárez cartel with classified drug-enforcement information in exchange for millions of dollars in bribes. In a 2001 essay in the Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, a University of Texas criminologist, Patrick O’Day, cited several instances of Mexican soldiers’ guarding narcotics shipments and transporting them into the United States in military vehicles or by other means. These operations were so extensive and went on for so long that O’Day concluded that the army was a cartel unto itself.

(3)  FM recommendations about Mexico

  • Don’t press and threaten their sovereignty
  • Offer aid as requested:  financial, training, diplomatic
  • Contain the problem by strengthening the border
  • Build deep intelligence in Mexico (this will conflict with the first above)
  • Stay cool; ultimately we can do little

(4)   Other articles about Mexcio

  1. Mexico: On the Road to a Failed State?“, George Friedman, Stratfor, 13 May 2008
  2. Mexico: Examining Cartel War Violence Through a Protective Intelligence Lens“, Stratfor, 14 May 2008
  3. Crime and Punishment in Mexico: The big picture beyond drug cartel violence“, posted at Grits for Breakfast, 18 May 2008
  4. Mexican Cartels and the Fallout From Phoenix“, Stratfor, 2 July 2008
  5. Drug cartels ‘threaten’ Mexican democracy“, Financial Times, 13 July 2008
  6. State of Siege: Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency“, John P. Sullivan and Adam Elkus, Small Wars Journal, 19 August 2008
  7. After Action Report – Visit Mexico“, General Barry R McCaffrey USA (Ret), 29 December 2008
  8. Mexico Security Memo – Year-end Wrap-up“, Stratfor, 5 January 2009
  9. Mexico: The Third War“, Fred Burton and Scott Stewart, Stratfor, 18 February 2009
  10. When the Mexican Drug Trade Hits the Border“, Fred Burton and Ben West, Stratfor, 15 April 2009
  11. The Long Arm of the Lawless“, Fred Burton and Scott Stewart, Stratfor, 25 February 2009
  12. La Rubia y La Droga – Notes From an Unknown Planet“, Fred Reed, Fred on Everything, 30 March 2009
  13. U.S. military outreach to Mexico likely to upset … Mexicans, McClatchy Newspapers, 15 March 2009 – Any situation can be made worse by stupidity; our rulers are on the job. 
  14. A User’s Guide to Thoroughly Stupid Foreign Policy“, Fred on Everything, 19 April 2009
  15. Afghanistan south“, Patrick Buchanan, MSNBC, 6 March 2009 — A solution
  16. Mexico remittances plunge in worst drop on record“, BusinessWeek, 1 July 2009
  17. Analysts More Pessimistic About Mexican Economy“, Latin America Herald Tribune, 2 July 2009
  18. Opposition Wins Majority in Mexican Vote“, New York Times, 5 July 2009
  19. Survey Shows Pull of the U.S. Is Still Strong Inside Mexico“, New York Times, 24 September 2009
  20. Desertion, Low Morale, and Readiness: Assessing the Mexican Army’s Involvement in the War Against the Cartels and its Impact on Capabilities for Traditional Responses“, Alejandro Schtulmann, RGE Monitor, 29 September 2009
  21. Mexico: Emergence of an Unexpected Threat“, Scott Stewart, Stratfor, 30 September 2009

(5a)  For More Information on the FM website

Reference pages about other topics appear on the right side menu bar, including About the FM website page.

Other posts about Mexico:

  1. Is Mexico unraveling?, 28 April 2008 — summary of Stratfor’s warnings about Mexico.
  2. “High Stakes South of the Border”, 13 May 2008
  3. Stratfor: the Mexican cartels stike at Phoenix, AZ, 6 July 2008
  4. “Drug cartels ‘threaten’ Mexican democracy”, 24 July 2008
  5.  “State of Siege: Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency“, John P. Sullivan and Adam Elkus, Small Wars Journal, 19 August 2008
  6. Stratfor reports on Mexico, news ignored by our mainstream media, 19 August 2008
  7. Nonsense from StrategyPage: Iraq is safer than Mexico, 17 December 2008
  8. New reports about Mexico, the failing state on our border, 9 January 2009
  9. Stratfor writes about “the third war” in Mexico, 15 April 2009
  10. Stratfor: “When the Mexican Drug Trade Hits the Border”, 20 April 2009
  11. One of America’s few wise men tells us about Mexico, 6 May 2009
  12. The sky darkens over Mexico, 11 July 2009
  13. Stratfor reports about “The Role of the Mexican Military in the Cartel War”, 1 August 2009


Please share your comments by posting below. Per the FM site’s Comment Policy, please make them brief (250 word max), civil and relevant to this post. Or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

6 thoughts on “Update about Mexico, the failing state on our border”

  1. Mexico do seem to be on the same path as Columbia. The first Death Squard may have been established. “Amid Rising Violence, Mexicans Fight Back“, Wall Street Journal, 6 November 2009 — “Government Efforts to Control Drug Turf Wars Aren’t Enough, Some Say; Mayor Promises to ‘Clean Up’ Organized Crime” Quote:

    “…Mr. Fernández took his oath of office on Saturday, delivering a speech in which he told a crowd of supporters that he had good news: Mr. Saldaña and his accomplices, who had terrorized the town, were dead. The crowd gave him a standing ovation, according to media reports.

    Mexico City police discovered the bodies of the four men several hours after the mayor said they were dead, and the men weren’t identified by police as the alleged kidnappers until two days later.

    Mr. Fernández was asked how he knew about the deaths before the police. He answered that it was thanks to his new group charged with cleaning up the municipality.

    “We’re tired of sitting around on our hands and waiting for daddy or mommy Calderón to come to fix our fights. We in San Pedro took the decision to grab the bull by the horns,” Mr. Fernández said in a radio interview. “Even acting outside the limits of my role as mayor, I will end the kidnappings, extortions and drug trafficking. We are going to do this by whatever means, fair or foul.”

    Asked if his new squad would operate outside the law, Mr. Fernández said: “In some ways, that’s right. What the criminals want is that they can break every law, but that we have to respect every law. Well, I don’t get that.”…”

    FM reply: Is this a bad thing? It’s like your immune system fighting a virus and giving you a fever. The side-effects might be severe, but at least your body is fighting back.

  2. The Dark Knight: A Study of Unconventional Warfare, By AuggieXU, excerpt–

    At the press conference held by Dent, he asks, “Should we give in to this terrorist’s demands?” A female reporter then charges, “You’d rather protect an outlaw vigilante than the lives of citizens?” Dent attempts to refocus the public’s anger on the real problem: not Batman, but the Joker. With resolve he reassures that “Batman will have to answer to us for the laws he’s broken, but not to this madman.” Still refusing to place the blame where it belongs, one policeman yells, “No more dead cops!” while another demands “He should turn himself in!”

    This is precisely the reaction sought by terrorist revolutionaries and it plays right into their hands. What’s interesting is the surrendering of logic to emotion in such situations…
    FM reply: Thank you for posting this!

  3. Mayor Fernandez affiliating himself with the leaders of the Beltran Leyva drug cartel. What good about that? “Whoops! Mexican mayor announces death of his arch nemesis… hours BEFORE his body was found“, Daily Mail, 4 November 2009:

    Notes were also found at the scene. One said ‘for kidnapping’ and was signed ‘The Boss of Bosses’ – a new nickname for alleged drug lord Arturo Beltran Leyva, one of Mexico’s most wanted criminals. Another said ‘Job 38:15’ – a reference to the biblical verse ‘the wicked are denied their light, and their upraised arm is broken’.

    A columnist in Reforma speculated he may have had something to do with the killing with ‘Death squads?’ as the headline.

    During a radio interview yesterday, Mr Fernandez said he was setting up a group to clean up crime in San Pedro Garza Garcia.

    San Pedro Garza Garcia has upscale malls, well-developed parks and is home to some of Mexico’s leading business executives, as well as some of the alleged leaders of the Beltran Leyva drug cartel.

    Not much fighting the virus there. And ending up like Columbia where soldiers murder innocent civilians to gain various perks is not much of a victory. They too suffer from the same joining of interest by politicians and drug lords.
    FM reply: You’re right, that’s how these things work in Latin America (the Atlantic article makes a similar point). I was hoping for something similar to the US experience with citizen law enforcement, with its checkered but largely positive results (except when used to oppress Blacks). But that’s probably unrealistic.

  4. The Dark Knight: A Study of Unconventional Warfare, By AuggieXU, excerpt–

    “The reasoning is that once word gets out that the truth has been altered, for whatever reason, government begins to lose legitimacy in the eyes of the public. This actually does far more damage to the government’s cause than its opponent on the battlefield can ever do.”

    This is the same process that has almost destroyed FOX news. Or, at best, forever consigned it to the tabloid rack, just above the National Enquirer. He he!

  5. The Knights Less Dark

    Call me Ebert, but I want to add one moment of hope to that previous review. While the Batman fights his way through a skyscraper, toward his “High Noon” moment, Gotham citizens flee. One ferry holds the “most-wanted scumbag collection,” the other carries “sweet and innocent civilians,” but both ships are wired to explode. Joker offers them a classic Prisoner’s dilemma, “If however, one of YOU presses the button, I’ll let THAT boat live.” But when the clock strikes midnight, there’s no KABOOM! “This city,” says the Batman, “just showed you, that it’s full of people ready to believe in good.”

  6. Recommended reading: Fred Reed tells us about Mexico: “An Intrusion of Reality – Never a Good Thing“, 5 September 2011 — Excerpt:

    When I came to Mexico some eight years ago, it was a peaceful, moderately successful upper-Third-World country—middle-class, barely, literate, though often barely, and as democratic as the United States, which is to say barely. Things were improving, though often they had a long way to go. The young were visibly healthier than preceding generations. The birth rate was in sharp decline. Women entered the professions in substantial and growing numbers.

    And it was safe. Expats sat over coffee at the plaza laughing at people back in the States, insular, fearful, ignorant of the world outside their borders. (For recent college graduates, Mexico is a country south of the United States. “South” is down on maps.) Mexico, they believed, was most astonishing perilous. Don’t drink the water, avoid ice. Salads were thought especially lethal. The Federales would kill you for sport, like squirrels. On any given day, you would probably be shot several times by bandidos. It was nonsense.

    Then Vicente Fox left office, and Felipe Calderon came in. He declared war on the narcotraficantes. Why he did this, I don’t know, since Mexico didn’t have a drug problem. My guess is that Washington pushed him into it, but I don’t know.

    Unfortunately Mexico, which neither produces nor uses a lot of drugs, lies between Colombia, which produces vast amounts of drugs, and Americans, who want vast amounts of drugs. Washington does not want Americans to have vast amounts of drugs. Neither did it want to lose votes by imprisoning white users of drugs, such as college students, high-school students, professors, Congressmen, lawyers, and blue-collar guys driving bulldozers. The answer was to make Mexico fight Washington’s wars. …

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