It is fashionable in the United States these days to assert that Mexico has arrived on the world stage economically and politically. Certainly, Mexico’s political, business and union elites have acquired great wealth — explained and unexplained — since the signing of the North American Free Trade Association with the United States and Canada in the 1990s.
Yet the vast majority of Mexicans face a daily struggle to survive under a government that is often either absent or corrupt, high levels of common and organized crime, a chronic lack of formal employment opportunities, and the highest levels of insecurity since the Mexican Revolution.
Though it is now caught in a painful political transition, Mexico has the potential to become a world-class economic and political powerhouse. But it’s not there yet. Several necessary ingredients are missing.
All countries, of course, are afflicted to some degree with internal organized crime. Russia and China generate criminal groups even more powerful than those in Mexico; West European nations face the lawless cross-border activities of many well-financed criminal groups. But none of these countries experience such extreme forms of organized violence as do Mexico and some of its Central American neighbors, all of which face unprecedented rates of homicide, human trafficking, kidnapping and extortion.
Illegal drugs and the access to weapons do not in themselves cause such extremes. Studies show that organized crime syndicates usually try to avoid confrontation with strong central governments, preferring to operate in local and regional markets that augment the lucrative trade in illicit narcotics.
Mexico’s extreme violence is caused rather by the power vacuums and failures created by the country’s chronically corrupt governments. The corruption creates huge incentives for criminal groups to consolidate their markets through savage competition for voids in “authority.”
Under the previous conservative federal administration, states like Michoacan appeared to have been infiltrated by sophisticated criminal enterprises, such as La Familia Michoacana. In 2010, the half-brother of the Michoacan governor was forced out of his seat in Congress after he was accused of being a top-ranking member of La Familia, and he remains on the run. In 2009, three dozen mayors in the state were arrested and accused of working for organized crime, though later the charges were dropped.
Prosecution of political figures in Michoacan was made difficult because prosecutors were under the complete political control of the party running the federal government. Moreover, the rights of the accused, all of whom belonged to opposition parties, were often violated, making any indictments legally unsustainable.
More recently, the current federal administration arrested the leader of the national teachers’ union on charges of embezzling 2 billion pesos in union funds. Before her indictment, she had voiced objections to the education reforms of President Enrique Peña Nieto, which only strengthened the perception that criminal indictments are used for political purposes.
In the 12 years that the Institutional Revolutionary Party (P.R.I.) was out of power, until it retook the presidency in 2012, many but not all of the authoritarian institutions that developed during more than 70 years of P.R.I. rule were dismantled. Yet it has been far more difficult to fill the resulting power vacuums with legitimate and stable democratic institutions.
Every country should achieve its political transition in its own way. But the latest political agreement among the elites, called “Pacto por México” — in which party leaders from the left and the right aim at social, economic and political reforms — is opaque and fails to meet the test of democracy. The pact bypassed deliberation in Congress; was done without consulting civil society; and fails to specify measures for improving security.
For all practical purposes, Mexico’s judicial system has collapsed. State governors, some of them under the voluntary or involuntary control of criminal groups, have full power over the appointment of judges and prosecutors and the launching of police investigations, thus ensuring impunity for their political and business supporters.
Mexico’s unsuccessful attempts to enforce statutes on money laundering and asset forfeitures also demonstrate the weaknesses of the state. Political foot-dragging impedes international efforts to work with Mexican authorities on investigations into money laundering schemes that might link organized crime to Mexican and international political and business figures.
Moreover, the lack of government programs, in coordination with civil society networks, to help prevent criminal association is another area where state power falls far short. Not having such a social system says a lot about why Mexican and Central American youth are drawn in soaring numbers into urban gangs that morph into transnational criminal groups, such as MS-13, which originated in the United States and spread across Mexico and Central America.
The Mexican private sector today is submerged in the largest informal economy of all O.E.C.D. countries. Its potential entrepreneurs, visible for example among the hundreds of thousands of “changarros” (street vendors), are all seeking the chance to access legal credit, to invest and to secure formal jobs. Once a high-growth Mexican private-sector revolution takes off, the nation’s youth will see no need to supply their labor to organized crime or to migrate to the United States.
Transnational criminal organizations are present in all countries. Drastic U.S.-European reductions in drug consumption and arms sales or drives to decriminalize drug markets will not help Mexico to enhance its human security unless the country first completes its transition to democracy through the elimination of state power vacuums and the establishment of the rule of law.
About the author: Edgardo Buscaglia is senior scholar in Law and Economics at Columbia University, and president of the Instituto de Acción Ciudadana in Mexico.