Mexico as a Hollow State

(National Journal: Experts Blog, 3/23/2009)


Those who have studied Mexico's history know that our southern neighbor will never reach state failure. There is the possibility, however, that Mexico will become a hollow state.


The so-called "Hollow State Theory" evolved as analysts in South America watched how corruption and organized crime deteriorated the state of Paraguay from within. After years of this evolution, Paraguay became little more than a shell, one that looked like a relatively well functioning democracy from the outside, but was a machine of corruption, organized crime, terrorist financing, and the hub of South America's largest black market on the inside. The hope of taking back the Paraguayan state under the leadership of Fernando Lugo is in part why his election was such a cause for celebration.


In Mexico, Felipe Calderon's election will have the effect of accelerating Mexico's evolution into a hollow state.


For many years, under the leadership of the PRI, Mexico's drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) existed in relative peace with one another and with the federal government. They were left to freely corrupt and compromise state and local governments but were largely satisfied with not confronting the federal government.


The violence we saw in the year before Calderon came into office, security analysts in Mexico have told me, was little more than the cyclic nature of Mexico's black market and the ambition of the DTO leaders, always looking for more power. It was also partially due to the break down of old, uneasy alliances - especially the alliance between the Arellano-Felix organization and Osiel Cardenas' Gulf Cartel.


Once Calderon came into office, his close relationship with the Mexican army facilitated his direct-confrontation approach to ridding Mexico of organized crime - an unprecedented policy.


Calderon has displaced the traditional balance between the federal government and Mexican organized crime. He has disrupted chains of corruption that reached to the top levels of local and state government. He has also uncovered some of the ugly realities of corruption at the federal level in his own government, proven to have been compromised by astronomical payoffs.


Calderon faces a challenge he cannot possibly overcome alone, but the Mexican government is reticent to accept anything more than a cursory offer of help. Enter the Merida Initiative, a policy that shows just how far the Mexican government is willing to accept help from the US. Relative to the need, the answer is not much.


The idea of a hollow state, when I explained it to a number of Mexicans during my recent trip to the border, was not entirely unacceptable. They pointed out the example of Agua Prieta, a small city in Sonora, just across the border from Douglas, Arizona. The most recent violent event in memory occurred before Calderon entered office, largely because the head of the Sinaloa DTO, known simply as "El Chapo" or "Shorty", completely controls the turf.


In Agua Prieta, from the top of local government down to police and border guards, El Chapo controls everything, and there is peace and some prosperity. In a way, it is a "hollow city", but one where the locals rest and relax at night and are not scared.


I was told that it was always like this in Mexico, until Calderon came into office, and many of Mexicans, it seems, would prefer if Calderon left the cartels alone. They've been there for nearly a hundred years, and will be there a hundred more.


I'm convinced that Mexican organized crime will outlast Calderon, and we can see that his fight wears thin an already weak mandate. In the upcoming legislative elections, we will see just how far the voting populace is willing to support him and his PAN allies. With the next presidential election, it is quite possible that Mexico elects someone who will back away from challenging the DTOs and focus on Mexico's economic and social challenges.


With a weaker president at the helm, Mexican organized crime will likely begin anew with its efforts to facilitate business through bribes and corruption of government officials. Only now, it has learned that it needs to buy politicians at the local, state, and federal level to hollow out the state as much as possible - lest another Calderon comes along and makes life difficult again.