Over the past several weeks Mexicans have become obsessed with what they believe is an American obsession that Mexico has become or could be on the way to becoming a "failed state." It began with a highly critical cover story about Mexico in a December issue of Forbes magazine, where for the first time the term "failed state" was applied to the country. Then came a memorandum written by retired general and former Clinton drug czar Barry McCaffrey in which he praised Mexican President Felipe Calderón's efforts to combat Mexico's cartels—but noted that the country "is fighting for survival against narco-terrorism." Next, the National Drug Intelligence Center of the U.S. Department of Justice issued its annual drug-threat assessment, in which it warned that "Mexican drug trafficking organizations represent the greatest organized crime threat to the United States." And finally, in early January, the U.S. Joint Forces Command, in a study titled the Joint Operating Environment, stated that "two large and important states bear consideration for a rapid and sudden collapse: Pakistan and Mexico." Soon after, the then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and CIA Director Michael Hayden were quoted in the Mexican press warning that the two greatest challenges the new administration would face were Mexico and Pakistan.
The stream of U.S. commentary has provoked an endless stream of commentary of its own in Mexico, including righteous indignation, macho responses and, among more serious observers, a query about why U.S. intelligence, military and law-enforcement circles are saying what they are saying. After all, the question—is Mexico a failed state?—is not absurd. Thus framed, the answer is simple: categorically, no. Mexico acquired most of the accouterments of modern statehood at the end of the 19th century, and today controls virtually all of its national territory and prints money. The government represents the nation abroad, exercises a quasi monopoly on the use of force within its borders, collects taxes and ensures the integrity of its citizens against perils from within and without. By these measures— indeed by any standard definition of a failed state—Mexico is clearly acquitted, and the Calderón government's response to the charges, an insistence that Mexico is not a failed state, is accurate and well justified.
However, on many of the fronts of statehood, the Calderón government may actually be losing instead of gaining. There are widespread, reliable and, in private, confirmable reports about large companies, businessmen and individuals paying "protection money" to the cartels, and requesting their assistance in different business transactions, particularly in the states of Tamaulipas, Coahuila and Sinaloa. If these reports are correct, the states' monopoly on tax collection is weakening. Similarly, the drug-gang warfare that led to more than 5,000 executions (double that of 2007, which in turn was twice of that in 2006) shows, at least, that individuals are settling their scores directly instead of through the judicial system, and consequently that the monopoly over the use of force by the state is also dwindling.
The apparently spectacular increase in the number and variety of unsolved kidnappings throughout Mexico last year would tend to suggest that the state is losing its ability to protect its citizens from domestic dangers. And finally, the supposed spillover of kidnappings, the drug violence and distribution into the United States and the threats to Americans in Mexico all indicate that Mexico is less able than before to protect foreign interests at home and its interests abroad. A sign of the dangers: in October the U.S. Consulate in Monterrey was machine-gunned; in November an American businessman was executed in Guanajuato, and in December a private security expert was kidnapped in Saltillo.
A question remains: why is the U.S. military-intelligence and law-enforcement machinery suddenly worrying so much about Mexico? There are two possible answers: the first is that these concerns are valid and growing, and that despite its praise for Calderón's bravery and boldness, part of Washington believes that without much greater U.S. support, he may fail, even if the Mexican state doesn't. The hype about the crisis in Mexico will thus be a way of pushing Calderón and the Mexican elites into seeking a much more strategic relationship with Mexico's northern neighbor.
The second possibility is that the target of these alarmist but not totally unwarranted amber lights is Barack Obama. Although he met with Calderón in mid-January, thereby maintaining a tradition in which new and incoming U.S. presidents meet with Mexico's president before other foreign leaders, Obama has never shown any particular interest in things Mexican. He has never traveled to Mexico, he has no real ties with the country except with parts of the Latino community in Chicago, and he may have been perceived as neglecting the seriousness of the situation in Mexico. Calderón certainly got the message if it was meant for him; having met with Calderón before other world leaders, there is every indication that Obama did, too.