MEXICO CITY — The Mexican establishment shuddered at the dispatches from Washington: the two failing states most worrying to the U.S. defense department, they said, are Pakistan and Mexico.
Since such reports began appearing in January, Mexican officials have sternly denied that the drug cartel armies destabilizing the United States’ southern neighbor can be compared to the terrorist groups threatening to undermine the Islamic republic.
"It’s totally disproportionate and clearly mistaken,” a rattled-looking President Felipe Calderon told reporters in Davos, Switzerland. “To me it seems important that whatever doubts be cleared up, and I will do it personally.”
His position has been supported by many of the nation’s pundits and intellectuals, who have pointed their fingers at the international press for misreporting the problems. While Mexico has some serious issues with organized narco-crime, they say, it is ludicrous to compare it to crumbling states in Africa and Asia.
“The problem of the international media has to do with the interpretation some make of things,” political pundit Gabriel Guerra said on the nightly newscast of No. 1 network Televisa. “The argument of a failed state, which cannot withstand any inspection, and the absurd comparison with Pakistan are wrong and show a worrying simplicity.”
So has the foreign press corps been grossly misreading the scale of the challenges facing Mexico from the Kalashnikov-wielding drug armies? Or is there any truth behind the assertion that Mexico is descending into Somalia-style chaos?
Tracing the news back to the source, we find it was not the international media but the Pentagon that first put forward the argument. However, perhaps the news stories did subtly fudge what the U.S. defense department said.
The question about Mexico as a failing state was raised in a document entitled "Joint Operating Environment 2008" by the Virginia-based United States Joint Forces Command. The report attempts to glimpse at the challenges for the U.S. military over the next 25 years, to a future in which it says it could face terrorist-guided missiles in space and suicide bombers with exploding vests.
The study does not literally compare Mexico to Pakistan, but rather mentions the two countries in the same breath, as worrying flash-points.
“Two large and important states bear consideration for a rapid and sudden collapse: Pakistan and Mexico,” the study says. “The Mexican possibility may seem less likely, but the government, its politicians, police and judicial infrastructure are all under sustained assault and pressure by criminal gangs and drug cartels.”
The study then raises the red flag to the Mexican bull by warning that U.S. troops would have to respond to such a threat.
"Any descent by Mexico into chaos would demand an American response based on the serious implications for homeland security alone," the report says.
Such rhetoric sets off bells south of the Rio Grande, where there are painful historical memories of the U.S.-occupation of Mexico City during the Mexican-American War of 1846-48, and its bombarding of Veracruz port during the Mexican revolution of 1910.
While potentially alarming, the study has to be taken in context. Its scenarios are pure projections and they go through to 2034. In no place does its assert that Mexico’s institutions are already broken.
But many media headlines flashing across the internet missed these nuances, warning that, “Mexico Is On Verge of Collapse.” In turn, Mexican politicians and pundits understood that their nation was being accused of being a failed state now.
Naturally such images butt against the Mexican reality, in which most institutions function to at least some extent and a semblance of fairly normal life carries on despite crime and killing.
Simple anecdotal evidence marks how different Mexico is from a failed state such as Somalia.
In Somalia, many foreign visitors move with 20 or so armed bodyguards. In Mexico, millions of foreign tourists visit each year with no protection.
Notwithstanding these subtle misreadings, the Pentagon report does offer concerning food for thought.
Last year, there were 5,300 killings in Mexico that appeared to be from drug gangs — or police and military fighting these gangs — a level of bloodshed that many on both sides of the border say can be understood as a low-intensity civil war.
It is not outrageous to fear that this violence could combine with political conflict to cause more widespread bloody turmoil and force the government to fully withdraw from parts of the country.
But that has definitely not happened yet.
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