Mexico – A Failed State?


This post is prompted by an English friend asking me in a recent email:

“I read an article in The Independent about the fact that Mexico was a failing state because all the drugs cartels have taken over the country.  Is it that bad? Are you safe? Should we legalise drugs?”

The short answer to these three questions is 1) no  2) yes and 3) yes. The long answer now follows.

This reference to Mexico as a “failed state” arises, I think, principally because there was an article in the magazine Forbes entitled “Mexico Meltdown” in December 2008 which debated and generally supported the proposition that Mexico was indeed a failing, if not quite yet, a failed state. A further report by the US Joint Forces Command, that was widely publicised in January this year, added fuel to the flames by equating Mexico with Pakistan in terms of their potential for threatening the security of the US and stating that:

“In terms of worst-case scenarios for the Joint Force and indeed the world, two large and important states bear consideration for a rapid and sudden collapse: Pakistan and Mexico”

These reports have been used in a flurry of articles appearing in the US and the UK about the dangers of life in Mexico. One of the blogging journalists I read about Mexico, Jeremy Schwartz, said that when he went back to the US for Xmas, everyone was asking him how he could possibly live in such a dangerous country.

The first thing to be said about this is that Mexico is a very large and complex country. I like to tell people it is larger than England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain combined. In contrast to Europe, there is a broadly common culture and language,  but there is also enormous cultural and geographical diversity. From what I read and hear, certain areas in Mexico are very dangerous, and best avoided, especially some of the cities on the frontier with the US – notably Tijuana, Ciudad Juarez, Nuevo Laredo, Reynoso – and other cities which have become significant points of dispute between the different drug cartels (Chichuahua and Culiacan). Other areas, however, are very safe.

map showing territories of main drug cartels

map showing territories of main drug cartels

Thankfully, Ciudad Guzmán, where I live in the south of the state of Jalisco, is known for its safety. Whenever I have been in a taxi, throughout Mexico, and I mention that I live in Ciudad Guzmán, the response from the driver is almost inevitably and approvingly that  Ciudad Guzmán “es una ciudad muy tranquila”.

The word “tranquilo” is significant in Mexico and is used in many contexts. If someone is getting upset or angry people commonly say “tranquilo” to them to calm them down. Cities, like Ciudad Guzmán, are described as “tranquilo”. I don’t think  “peaceful”  would normally be used as an adjective to describe a city in England. I think the general assumption is that a city will be peaceful, so there is no need to refer explicitly to this, unless it is somewhere unusual with high levels of conflict and violence. In Mexico, however, the assumption of peacefulness and public security cannot be taken for granted, so whether somewhere is “tranquilo” or not is important to know.

A figure often quoted is the 5000 or so drug-related deaths in 2008, which was double the figure in 2007. Most commentators agree that the recent waves of violence, including beheadings, mutiliations, torture and executions,  have been due to Felipe Calderon’s government deciding to launch a so-called “war on drugs”, after they came into power in the disputed July 2006 elections. Calderon took the controversial decision of ordering the military to fight  the drug cartels and 20,000 soldiers have been deployed throughout the country.


The violence has arisen both because of the battles between the forces of the state and the drug cartels – it has become common to read that soldiers and policeman are being shot at and executed – as well as between the drug cartels, as their already existing disputes and competition over territory are intensified by army and police action. The critical areas of contention for the cartels are the key smuggling routes into the US, which is why some of the border cities have become bloody battlegrounds.  Ed Vulliamy has written an excellent and informative article about this in early December 2008 in the English newspaper the Observer.

The whole question of the so-called “war on drugs” is highly controversial. The Government, of course, wants to claim that it is winning the war, and likes to demonstrate its success with high profile captures of known leaders of the cartels, and parade them in front of TV cameras, along with any arms, drugs and money that have been seized. Other people say the strategy is failing, that, like the “war on terrorism”, it is a war that can never be won, especially whilst there exists such high demand in the US, and that it is a grave mistake to conceive of it as a war anyway. Very recently, the Latin-American Commission on Drugs and Democracy founded by three ex-Presidents of Brazil, Columbia and Mexico, concluded that the whole US strategy of combatting drugs by supporting and funding military action was not working.

Furthermore, in relation to the question of legalization of drugs posed by my friend, this commission recommends the decriminalization of marijuana. On my favourite Mexican TV programme last night, ‘Primer Plano‘, two analysts were saying that if marijuana were to be decriminalised in Mexico, the profits of the drug cartels would be halved. That would mean halving the money available to the cartels – I saw one estimate that the Mexican drug trade is estimated to be worth around 30-40 billion USD –  for buying arms, bribes and corruption. The whole question of corruption in Mexico is so pervasive, complex, and in many ways subtle, that I will write about it in another post.


In addition to whether the army can actually win the war with the cartels, there are huge risks involved in using the military in this way. Up until recently, the armed forces in Mexico has been an institution, unlike the different state and federal police forces, that was viewed positively by the public. The danger is that, because of the huge sums of money available in the drug business, the military will be infiltrated and corrupted. Already, the Zetas, one of the most feared armed wings of the Gulf cartel, are largely composed of ex-Mexican special forces soldiers. There was a recent report that an army major in the President’s bodyguard who had access to all his movements was reportedly being paid around 45,000 dollars a month to supply information to one of the cartels. Additionally, there are increasing reports of human rights violations by the army which threaten to lose their popularity and increase support for the drug traffickers in areas where they are already strong.

The situation is undoubtedly complex. It has been claimed that the actions against the drug cartels of the previous government, that of Vicente Fox between 2000-2006, heavily favoured, whether by intention or design, one particular cartel, that of the Federation of Sinaloa. An article in Proceso, the leading magazine in Mexico for investigative journalism, claimed that the fight against the cartels is itself being directed by people paid by one of the more powerful cartels to destroy the influence of their rivals. As often, in Mexico, nothing is quite what it seems.

Santa Muerte, the patron saint of the narcos

Santa Muerte, the patron saint of the narcos

For me, as a foreigner living in Mexico, one of the strange and fascinating aspects of the culture is the way that organised crime co-exists, often peacefully, with other social groups. The narcotraficantes have their own particular culture, which often identifies them clearly, and is also a measure of the immunity they feel they have in certain regions. Normally, too, apart from the outbreaks of violence, which are focussed in particular areas, their business runs alongside normal life here. The general advice is that if you do not get mixed up with them, then you will be left in peace.

So far, I have been writing in general terms in answer to my friend’s questions. The interesting question is how the phenomenon of the narcotraficantes is interwoven in, and impacts different individual lives. I will conclude this post with four personal examples from friends I have talked to, and from my own experience, which give some illustration of how these matters can effect daily life.

1. Uruapan

In another post, I wrote about my visit to this city in the state of Michoacan, which is known for its strong presence of narcotraficantes. Talking to the owners of the hotel where I was staying, who are from this area, I realised that, because families in Mexico are large – at least they were in earlier generations – and family connections are very important, most people have acquaintances and/or relatives involved in the drugs business.

The two stories that struck me the most, apart from the first grisly beheading incident in Mexico when five heads were dropped on a night club floor in the town, were both stories where different young men,  sons of powerful narcotraficantes, had taken a shine to girls as young as 15 in upper middle class families. In one case, the girl freely went off with the young man and had not been heard of since. In another case, the whole family had to move abroad for a year, to protect themselves and their daughter, and give time for the young man involved to get over his crush.

2. Life in Matamoros

One of my ex-students went to continue her education in Matamoros, on the other side of the border from Brownesville, Texas, as it is the only city that offered the kind of course she wanted to do. In a letter she wrote to me, she said she did not go out at night with her husband, as they did not know people there, and did not know who to trust or not. What struck me here was the level of fear and distrust that has become endemic in some of these border cities.

3. A bar in Ciudad Juarez

On the same theme of the difficulty of life in some of the border cities, a friend here told me his brother was now leaving Ciudad Juarez where he ran a bar, because the demands for protection, which had gone up to five times the cost of his rent, no longer made his business viable. Not paying this protection was not seen as an option.

4. A hitchhiker

In the midst of writing this post, I stopped one late afternoon to pick up a hitchhiker. He was a man in his late thirties, I would guess, from Honduras, who had spent the last 16 years in Mexico. As we talked, he told me that he had been involved in the drug business for all this time, but had recently left because he had experienced a kind of epiphany about what he was doing. He was sad for having left his family behind in Honduras, and never sent them any of the money he had made over the years. Now he was working selling cleaning products door-to-door for five pesos. One of the many interesting things about his story was that his ‘patron’ had been prepared to let him leave, which is not normally that easy to do, and even allowed him to travel from the North to this region in one of the aircraft used to transport drugs.

6 comments so far

  1. Luke on

    Very interesting…it makes me miss Mexico and think of coming to join you in ‘tranquilidad’ amongst the narcos and many other fascinating aspects of the country. It’s a joy to have this window on your world.

  2. a mexican on

    ill write this down on spanish la culpa de el colapso en mexico es el gobierno del presidente felipe calderon quien aplico una mala estrategia de combate al narco , el efecto de el panal que consiste en destruir los centros del narco sin llegar ala investigacion de sus estructuras, que pasa cuando esto sucede sucede las narco guerras se vuelven necesarias por la falta de estructura interna .



    durante los ultimos meses se desato un a guerra por la conocida plaza ( derecho a piso ) gracias a la captura de miembros esenciales del cartel de esa zona quienes formaban parte de los pilares de orden que existian,

    el combate y la prevencion de este tipo de hechos se deben de dar de forma analitica utilizar extrategia , y una recomendacion esencial seria combatir al narco desde abajo e ir subiendo en el escalafon de las organizaciones .

    por que seamos realistas un gobierno que no protege a sus policias es un gobierno al que sus policias no cuidan .

  3. paulrobertsmexico on

    I’ll translate the above comment.

    “The government of Felipe Calderon is to blame for the collapse in Mexico, for applying a bad strategy in the fight against the narcos. They have gone for the individual bees without investigating and destroying the hive, which has led to the war between the narcos.

    Case in point: the state of Baja California.

    During the last few months a war has been unleashed between the narcos for the control of this state (especially Tijuana) due to the capture of some key members of the cartel in this zone who actually formed part of the structure of the order that existed.

    The fight against and prevention of this type of happening should be done by using a more analytical strategy, and a key recommendation would be to fight against the narcos from below and then move up their organizations.

    Because Mexicans are realists, a government that does not protect its police force is a government which the police are not going to look after.”

  4. Kevin on

    This makes for very interesting reading. While you don´t pretend to have all the facts or indeed all the answers, and clearly nobody does, I like the thoughtful and detailed way you explore this issue. You give a good insight into this aspect of life in Mexico.

  5. Michael Roberts on

    I have been a little concerned by your disappearance since writing this post on the narcos and heading off to Michoacan. A combination of not having seen you in the house since February, this post and some shady comments regarding your whereabouts by the Presidente Municipal has led me to believe you have been kidnapped by the narcos

  6. […] So this was clearly going to be a significant event. On the Saturday morning, I cycled the two or so kilometers to the outskirts of the city where the new roundabout has been built, and upon which the statue has been erected. For a month or so beforehand, the statue of the goddess had been enclosed from head to toe in what looked like a huge blanket, prompting one of my Mexican friends to comment that she looked like a victim in the narco-traficante wars. […]

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