Mexico Needs Our Help

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Appeared in the National Post

Let's play a game of guess-who. Name the country where 80,000 people have been killed in a brutal conflict pitting a weak central government against powerful warlords; civil authorities regularly quit or join up with the warlords; and entire towns have been depopulated as the sides vie for control. It may sound like Yemen, Iraq or Afghanistan, but this country is a NAFTA neighbour.

The optimists look at Mexico's drug war especially its recent arrest of the world's most wanted drug lord, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman as proof that the Mexican government is standing up to the cartels. But the pessimists look at Mexico, and see the telltale signs of a failing state.

Before scoffing at this, consider that in 2008 the U.S. military issued a report warning of a worst-case scenario involving Mexico's rapid and sudden collapse.

The situation may have improved a bit since then. But the Failed States Index (FSI), which Mexico ranks 97th, has described Mexico's narco-insurgency as extremely serious and understandably so. As in Somalia (1st on the FSI), Yemen (6th) and Pakistan (13th), warlords have taken over significant chunks of the country as much as 12 percent of Mexico's territory. Predictably, vigilante groups have sprung up to fill the security vacuum. Federal forces and vigilante militias are partnering in some regions, and the government wants to fold the vigilantes into a rural police force. This if-you-can't-beat-them-join-them approach is something Iraq (11th) has tried not exactly a sign of strength.

Speaking of Iraq, Baghdad estimates 85,694 Iraqis were killed in the 2004-08 insurgency 17,139 per year. Mexico's annual total is around 11,000. But some outside experts, arguing the government is under-reporting drug-war statistics, place the death toll closer to 130,000 translating into 18,571 violent deaths annually. Whether we accept the government's tally or that of independent researchers, the number killed is higher than what prompted NATO intervention in Kosovo or Libya.

As in Afghanistan (7th on the FSI), corruption is a problem in Mexico. Transparency International ranks Mexico 106th out of 177 nations. President Enrique Peña Nieto recently replaced hundreds of local customs officials with army troops due to corruption.

As in Syria (21st on the FSI), Mexico's chaos is breaching its borders. In 2011, the Zetas cartel slaughtered 27 Guatemalan farmers. Police in Arizona and Texas link shootings, homicides, even bombings to cartel foot-soldiers. RCMP has discovered connective tissue between Canadian organized-crime elements and Mexican cartels.

These cartels deploy fighting forces nearly as large as the Mexican army, and they use many of the same armaments: mortars, RPGs, bazookas, land mines, armoured vehicles.

Whether this all adds up to another reason to call a truce in the drug war is a subject for another essay, as is the demand side of this scourge. The drug war may be unpopular in the United States, but even with certain states softening drug laws, Americans remain divided on legalizing marijuana. Moreover, few Americans support legalizing cocaine and 95 percent of cocaine entering the U.S. comes through Mexico.

The Mexican government's decision to challenge the cartels didn't create this problem, but rather exposed it. The Mexican people recognize this, which explains why 85 percent of Mexicans support using the army against the cartels and 74 percent approve of U.S. training assistance.

Under the Mérida Initiative, the U.S. has helped Mexico with law enforcement, rule of law, counter-narcotics and military-security measures. The U.S. and Mexico have created joint fusion centres to gather intelligence. The U.S. has deployed training teams to Mexico. The U.S. Navy and Coast Guard have increased cooperation with their Mexican counterparts. And Mexico has posted liaison officers at U.S. Northern Command.

Likewise, Canada has provided non-lethal aid and training to Belize, as the Mexican government pincers the cartels.

These cooperative security measures make sense. It was Adam Smith who noted the first duty of the sovereign is to protect its citizenry. Smith recognized that commerce cannot flourish if government fails to provide some modicum of security. That's what Mexico is trying to do. Yet Mexico's investment in defense (0.5 percent of GDP) is a fraction of defense-spending levels in countries facing comparable insurgency threats: Afghanistan invests nearly 4 percent of GDP on defense, Colombia 3.3 percent, Pakistan 3.1 percent, Iraq 3 percent.

Of course, security measures should be aimed at promoting liberty rather than diminishing it, for both the anarchy of a failed state and the stifling order of an authoritarian state are at odds with liberty.

Moreover, security is only part of the equation. To build a stable Mexico, the Mexican government should embrace economic freedom. Mexico ranks 94th on the Fraser Institute's economic freedom survey. By comparison, Canada and the U.S. rank in the top 20, while Mexico trails Chile, El Salvador, Panama, Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala, Uruguay and Nicaragua. That may change, as Peña Nieto opens Mexico's energy sector to private investment an important step toward greater economic freedom. By providing new opportunities to the Mexican people, an unshackled energy sector could serve as a potent antidote to the cartels.

If bolstering friendly governments in the Middle East is in U.S. and Canadian interests, as it surely is, then so is a stable Mexico a next-door neighbour in need of help.

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