The state of unbecoming.
Notes on the disintegration of Mexico.
Yesterday’s notes on Ciudad México have attracted a deal of comment and attention, and if nothing else, I hope it spurs more people to visit it — and to learn more about Mexico in general. The country at large is a curious blind spot, for the most part, in American minds. There are only two nations with the capacity to cause serious harm to the United States in this century. One is the People’s Republic of China, and it poses its threat through plain malice. The other is the United Mexican States, and it poses its threat through no directed malice, but though the organic consequences of its own political disintegration.
We assume Mexico, as a polity, is a friend, or at least a neighbor with whom there are no outstanding points of contention. This is a deeply ahistorical view: the US-Mexico frontier (and before it, the Anglo-Spanish frontier) has been contested ground for nearly its entire existence, with only an interregnum from about 1920 (immediately after the last major American invasion of Mexico in the 1919 Third Battle of Juarez, which I’m willing to bet you are now learning of for the first time) to 2006, with the kickoff of the current Mexican-cartel war. That 86-year period is just a moment between the 1750s settlement of modern Texas, and the Year of Our Lord 2022, in which the border is effectively uncrossable — that is, if you want to have an ironclad assurance of surviving the experience.
Take the Laredo-Nuevo Laredo conurbation. I remember quite well that the cities used to be effectively interchangeable in terms of governance, law, and culture. Although I never did it, being too young for the experience, persons whom I know of the preceding generation used to cross from one to the other fairly often, for shopping, to eat, to visit family. That regime of exchange and comity lasted — despite the contested nature of the greater border — from the very establishment of Nuevo Laredo (as a colony of erstwhile Laredo residents who rejected American rule) in the mid-nineteenth century clear through to the past decade.
Now, what do you get when you drive into Nuevo Laredo from Laredo? Well, you are apt to get an experience like this:
This driver is extremely fortunate: the criminals at the roadblock neither gave chase nor opened fire. This kind of evasion is not necessarily the recommended course of action. But then, there is no recommended course of action. Once you are in the hands of these men, your fate is wholly theirs and God’s. The rule of thumb seems to be that if you’re an Anglo-appearing American citizen, you will be extorted or robbed, but likely not killed. (Do not make plans based upon the preceding sentence. The rule of thumb is quite loose.) If you are a Mexican citizen or a visible Mexican-American, you will still probably be extorted or robbed, but the chance you will be kidnapped for ransom or simply executed as a precautionary measure is much higher. So we get this vastly more common sort of experience, again in Nuevo Laredo:
There are many interesting things about this video, starting with the fact that the driver actually had over one thousand US dollars in cash in the vehicle, which strongly suggests he expected and budgeted for this. (What happens when cash usage slips below a critical threshold in Mexico? Will the cartel bloqueros switch to accepting cards or electronic payment? How will they handle the processing?) Note moreover the relative sophistication of the cartel personnel. There is an established scale of fees, and a code given to avoid double-payment by victims. A verifiable code means a centralized and remote-accessible database. There is obviously direct communication between the cartel personnel on the spot and higher headquarters. It is a reasonably complicated and well-running mechanism — which means it is also a system with multiple vulnerabilities to disruption, if there were another sovereign power with an interest in that. But there isn’t. Where this type of roadblock and taxation exists, it means the formal apparatus of law enforcement has already succumbed to its operators.
A new state emerges from the ruins of the old. Or, in the case of much of Mexico now, a new state emerges hand in hand with the corruption of the old.
One might think this is a budget-able expense, if one runs a business or simply commutes through cartel territory with any regularity. You pay your tax — in this case to the Cartel del Noreste — get your code, and go on your way. But this is illusory. A state is synonymous with power, not law, and there is no law binding this new state. Your prior-payment code will be respected as long as it is convenient to do so. Moreover it is only one of a number of competing sovereignties emerging in the same space. The code given you by a criminal organization of mostly Tamaulipans will not be respected by the operators of the next roadblock, should they be of a criminal organization of mostly Sinaloans. In fact, they may be in the habit of killing people proven to have paid their rivals.
It’s just business.
Mexicans who live under this regime of terrorization organize, where they can, against it. But it is exceptionally difficult to do so. The social and community ties necessary to push back against a cartel must be resilient in the extreme: so resilient that the whole community goes in on the project, lest participants in the autodefensa — the self-defense group — find their homes burned and their loved ones killed one by one. Where the autodefensas exist, they tend to be reasonably effective. But they are few. They are few because they often enough get co-opted into larger cartel structures — a rational move in many cases — or because the formal state, often enough in the form of the Mexican army, intervenes to suppress them.
Why, one might ask, would the armed forces of the formal Mexican state intercede to suppress citizens banding together in self-defense against the putative enemies of that state? Well, the answer is obvious. Let the reader understand.
Here is some footage of two American tourists running straight into a local autodefensa in, I believe, the Yucatan:
Resist the temptation to regard the man in the passenger seat as a comedic figure. Unless you’ve lived the experience, you have no idea what you’d do, or how you would react. His fear is not dignified but it is entirely rational. Now see what he saw:
The autodefensa men are actually relatively compassionate in this encounter. They are defending their community and checking out an outsider who is, for some reason, proceeding down a dirt back road. Unlike many of the cartel sicarios in a comparable situation, they do not simply open fire on the strange vehicle and its occupants. These Americans are frightened, but to their great fortune they encountered a rare assembly of armed good guys. No extortion. No payment code. No threats.
If any element of modern-Mexican political society enjoys my unreserved respect, it is these men. They are too few. But they are the hope. I continually invoke Womack’s 1968 Zapata and the Mexican Revolution in these letters, and again it becomes relevant. Read it, and you will see that the autodefensa, as much as the cartel, has deep roots.
I regret having to write all this about Mexico. Yet we must be realistic about it, and that goes double for those of us who love it. It is a profoundly rich nation in every way that matters except law. But the riches that exist are extraordinary, and so I will leave you with one of them here.
It is not well-known in the United States that even as the American popular-music scene descends ever-further into dreary sameness and creative stupor, Mexican popular music is experiencing a thoroughgoing renaissance. The past decade has seen a surprising revival of a variety of Mexican traditional-musical genres, and their direct incorporation into popular music here. It is one of the most vibrant scenes around, and one of its leaders is the luminous Natalia Lafourcade. I could do an entire post on her, and the popular-arts revival she leads, but for now enjoy her half-hour “Un Canto por México” mini-movie. It is the loveliest thing you will see all day.
This too is Mexico.