The southwest U.S. border might be quieter now than it was this spring at the height of the migrant crisis, but south of the Rio Grande the Mexican state is disintegrating.
Last Thursday in the city of Culiacan, the capital of Sinaloa state, a battle erupted between government forces and drug cartel gunmen after the Mexican military captured two sons of jailed drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. The elder son, Ivan, was quickly freed by his men, who overpowered government forces and secured his release. Ivan then launched an all-out siege of the entire city in an effort to free his younger brother, Ovidio.
The ensuing scene could have been mistaken for Syria or Yemen. Footage posted on social media Thursday showed burning vehicles spewing black smoke, heavily armed gunmen blocking roads, dead bodies strewn in the streets, and residents fleeing for cover amid high-caliber gunfire.
Armed with military-grade weapons and driving custom-built armored vehicles, cartel henchmen targeted security forces throughout Culiacan, launching more than one dozen separate attacks on Mexican security forces. They captured and held hostage eight soldiers, then kidnapped their families. Amid the fighting, an unknown number of inmates escaped from a nearby prison. At least eight people were killed and more than a dozen were injured.
The eight-hour battle ended when government forces, outgunned and surrounded, without reinforcements or a way to retreat, received an order directly from Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to release their prisoner and surrender. Lopez Obrador later defended this decision, insisting that his security strategy is working and saying, “Many people were at risk and it was decided to protect people’s lives. I agreed with that, because we don’t do massacres, that’s over.”
Mexican president says they had to release the son of drug kingpin Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman after an intense battle between security forces and cartel gunmen as 'the situation became very difficult' and 'many people were at risk' https://t.co/guzODO7t8i pic.twitter.com/uFAU0pDCfD
— Reuters (@Reuters) October 18, 2019
The Mexican State Is Collapsing
The battle of Culiacan marks a turning point in the collapse of the Mexican state. There is now no doubt about who is in control of Sinaloa, let alone the rest of the country. Cartel forces seized a major regional capital city in broad daylight and defeated the national armed forces in open battle.
Violence is rampant across Mexico. Earlier in the week, more than one dozen police officers were massacred in a cartel ambush in western Mexico. A day later, 14 suspected gang members were killed by the Mexican Army. Homicides in Mexico this year are on track to surpass last year’s record total of more than 29,000.
Understand that the fighting in Culiacan is not just another episode in the “drug war,” nor is it merely an incident of organized crime. What’s happening Mexico right now is more like an insurgency. Yes, drug-trafficking is one of the things the cartels do, but it doesn’t nearly describe what they are or what role they’re playing in the disintegration of civil society in Mexico. Indeed, over the past decade cartels have diversified their economic activities to include everything from oil and gas production to industrial agriculture to offshore commercial fishing.
In other words, it’s fair to say that Mexico is now on a trajectory to become a vast gangland governed more by warlordism than by the state. The last time this happened was a century ago, during the decade-long Mexican Revolution, which eventually triggered the invasion and occupation of northern Mexico in 1916 by the U.S. Army, including the mobilization of the entire National Guard and a call for volunteers. Before it was over, U.S. forces attacked and occupied Nogales, Sonora, in 1918 and Ciudad Juarez in 1919.
Historically, insurgent and secessionist movements have bedeviled Mexico from its very beginnings. Civil wars and rebellions were endemic in Mexico throughout much of the 19th century, ceasing only with the Porfiriato and resuming with its collapse in 1910.
What’s different today is that Mexico, despite its corrupt and incompetent government, has a rising middle class and a growing economy. Unlike the Mexican state, the Mexican people have shown themselves to be more than capable of industrious and liberal self-government, not just in the success millions of them have achieved in the United States but also in the success of local governments throughout the country.
Set against the Mexican people is a Mexican state incapable of governing and a cartel insurgency that now controls vast swaths of both territory and industry. President Lopez Obrador will not push back on the cartels. He has never said a bad word about El Chapo or the Sinaloa Cartel, and even campaigned for cartel amnesty in 2017, but he does have a long history of associating his political rivals with organized crime.
He has said he wants to tackle the “root causes” of crime and violence, which he has said are poverty and lack of opportunity, and campaigned for president on slogans such as “hugs, not gunshots,” and “you can’t fight fire with fire.” In short, Lopez Obrador is not the man to rescue Mexico from the unfolding crisis.
The idea that a nation of 120 million people with whom the United States shares a 2,000-mile border and ever-increasing economic ties might spiral into collapse has not seriously occurred to the American people. We’ve had a century of relative peace on our southwest border, and aside from dealing with an occasional surge of illegal immigration, we have assumed that it will continue. It will not.
Culiacan should be a wake-up call that the war now underway in Mexico will not stay there, and that we’d better start thinking about what that will mean for America.