Friday, February 27, 2009

Mexico plagued by myriad interlaced netwars — a TIMN analysis

[UPDATE — August 26, 2009: There has been a spate of informative articles lately on the millenarian “La Familia” and other criminal neworks in Mexico. See George Grayson on “La Familia Michoacána: A Deadly Mexican Cartel Revisited,” at Foreign Policy Research Institute E-Notes, August 2009; Samuel Logan and John Sullivan on “Mexico’s ‘Divine Justice’,” at ISN Security Watch, August 17, 2009; and Hakim Hazim, on “Mexico's Seeds of Radicalism: Micro Movements with Macro Implications,” at the GroupIntel blog, August 12, 2009. Meanwhile, Kelly Phillips’s opinion piece on “In Mexico: Outgunned and Underpaid,” New York Times, August 14, 2009, shows that Mexican army soldiers lead difficult lives, fraught with all manner of hardships. Alejandro Schtulmann’s assessment of “Mexico's Post-Election Outlook: The Broader Context,” at the RGEMonitor, offers some realistic reasons for avoiding alarmism about Mexico’s political prospects. Finally, I was going to add a list of blogs about conditions in Mexico, but the work has just been done for me by Sylvia Longmire at her Mexico’s Drug War blog, in this recent post about other blogs (also see what I added in a comment there).]

[UPDATE — March 1, 2009: John Sullivan, in a posting titled “Criminal Netwarriors in Mexico’s Drug Wars,” at the GroupIntel blog on December 22, 2008, speaks amply to the point that “Mexico is gripped by a set of inter-locking, networked criminal insurgencies.”]

To my surprise, I have something to say about the deterioration in Mexico from a TIMN perspective:
[T]he serious risk for Mexico is not an old-fashioned civil war or another revolution — that seems unlikely. The greater risk is a plethora of social, guerrilla, and criminal netwars. Mexico’s security in the information age may be increasingly a function of netwars of all varieties. . . .

There is a risk that Mexico will remain stable but, in the process, will succumb to the criminalization scenario or see its capacity for transformation become so confounded and constrained that the “stuck system” scenario prevails.


Alarm is spreading about violence and instability in Mexico, especially along the U.S.-Mexico border. Dire scenarios are being contemplated, even concocted. Recent reports that have enlivened discussion include Gen. (Ret.) Barry McCaffrey’s “Latest Academic Mexico Trip Report,” published by his firm in December 2008, and the more nuanced, sensible article by Brian Michael Jenkins, “Could Mexico Fail?,” published in the journal Homeland Security Today in February 2009 (but easier to download from RAND’s website). In addition, the Los Angeles Times continues to produce an excellent series of investigative articles. And some blogs I like to check — notably Global Guerrillas, Small Wars Journal, Threats Watch, and Zen Pundit — keep sounding warnings and offering pointers to other sources.

Why raise this here? Partly because years ago I used to be a specialist on U.S.-Mexican security issues; and Mexico still attracts my interest, if only in passing. But mostly because I’ve long thought Mexico could provide a good case for TIMN analysis. On top of that, an old friend and former consultant who is an expert on border issues mentioned to me recently that all sorts of dark networks — e.g., drug-smuggling, weapons-smuggling, people-smuggling, kidnapping, and youth-gang networks, along with criminal/crony patronage networks inside the political system — were not only growing but also becoming more interlaced and mutually reinforcing in Mexico. He thought someone should write up an analysis that might reflect past work on netwar.

But I feel so removed from Mexico matters at this point that, in my blog post a few days ago about what I planned to do next regarding TIMN, I decided not to include Mexico. However, a fortuitous serendipity has changed my mind: Googling around the Web for something else, I spotted, to my astonishment, that I’d already written a fourteen-page TIMN analysis, titled “Rethinking Mexico’s Stability and Transformability,” and could find it buried, totally forgotten until now, as Appendix B in our 1998 RAND study on The Zapatista “Social Netwar” in Mexico.

My analysis there is dated and lacking in some respects (for example, it never mentions the PAN party). And I’ve already had a mixed experience with trying to revive my cyberocracy paper and get people to look at text in it that is more than a decade old. But what I see in this piece is too spot-on to leave buried. So here are some extracts.


After summarizing the TIMN framework, the piece identifies and discusses three kinds of instability: sporadic, systemic, and then the real point of the piece, evolutionary instability, “in which a society cannot make the change to a new system that has higher evolutionary potential, for example, by changing from an authoritarian statist regime to a market-oriented democratic regime. The society hardens around the existing stage, gets stuck in the transition process, or falls apart under the strain, perhaps resulting in a great social revolution.”

Against this background, the piece lays out four scenarios about Mexico’s future that still look appropriate:
  • Major instability — in which, because of massive violent unrest, elite infighting, or other reasons, the political and economic systems break down, with dire consequences. . . .
  • Criminalization — in which drug traffickers and other criminal mafias gain so much power and influence, including through the use of paramilitary and quasi-guerrilla forces, that a variant of “Colombianization” takes hold. In this scenario, powerful clannish, family-based mafias that are already embedded in Mexico’s system take advantage of all types of instability, and perhaps foment some, in order to strengthen their hold (and their holdings). Mexico is characterized by criminal mercantilism, and possibly strategic crime against the United States. . . .
  • A “stuck system” — in which Mexico’s leaders, operating in ever-shifting alliances, make halting advances with political and economic reforms, but traditional, deeply embedded nationalist and corporatist principles continue to be reasserted, prompting periodic slowdowns, reversals, and distortions in the reform process. Mexico’s decision to halt and revise its plans to privatize the petrochemical sector helps substantiate this scenario. Mexico does not quite cross the threshold to having a truly democratic, market-oriented system — and many elites are contented with that. In this scenario, to reiterate an old aphorism, the more the system changes, the more it remains the same — and keeps returning to remain the same. Evolutionary instability is a key issue here; but the scenario also implies continued levels of sporadic instability.
  • Successful transformation — in which Mexico’s leaders succeed in implementing a range of political, economic, and other reforms, and Mexico muddles through, or breaks through, to build a truly democratic, market-oriented system. In this scenario, sporadic instability may still occur, especially in provincial areas; but it helps spur Mexico’s rulers to implement needed reforms. Systemic instability becomes moot, and Mexico transcends the prospect of evolutionary instability.
There is nothing unusual about the two polar scenarios — the ones about major instability, and successful reform. Versions of them often appear in scenario layouts about the future of Mexico. One might even say they are tantamount to “vanilla” scenarios, in that versions of them appear in most layouts about most countries — there is little that is inherently and uniquely Mexican about them. What look more interesting are the other two scenarios — the ones about criminalization and the “stuck system.” They reflect historic and continuing realities in Mexico; they are genuinely Mexican scenarios.
These scenarios set the stage for offering a TIMN analysis, on grounds that this “helps explain the volatility of Mexico, which is moving haltingly to develop a T+I+M system at a time, on the eve of the 21st century, and in a neighborhood, North America, that is rife with the growth of +N forces and their spillover effects.”
Mexico has had a statist, largely undemocratic T+I system most of this century, and the forces that prefer to maintain it that way remain strong, even fierce, at national and local levels, especially among old guard elements of the PRI and PRD parties in central and southern Mexico. Although capitalism has made inroads for decades, this has not meant that an open market system was being developed. Mexico did not begin moving effectively to become a T+I+M system until the 1980s. It has not completed the transition, and the actors who want this advance in the complexity, versatility, and adaptability of the Mexican system still seem to be a minority. Even the recent privatization of many state enterprises, whose effectiveness is crucial for building a solid market system, has been conducted in a clannish manner involving favoritism.

For the Mexican system, then, the key evolutionary challenge at this stage is to adopt and adapt to the market system and integrate it into society as a whole. The reasons are cultural and political as much as economic. If Mexico cannot convert to a T+I+M society, then the open competitive principles that the market form ideally represents will not take root and spread throughout the social system — Mexico will remain a mostly T+I society that chronically exhibits the rhetoric but not the reality of democracy. For the +M transition to be fully realized, the government must continue distancing itself from the PRI, and the party system must become more openly and fairly competitive in the wake of the marketization of the economy.

Many trends and events that have recently [circa 1998] disturbed Mexico — such as the conflict in Chiapas, the apparent infighting between traditional and modernizing forces in PRI and government circles, the rising influence of drug traffickers, the periodic disarray in financial matters, the growing denunciations of neoliberalism, the uneasiness among investors, the growing disparities between the northern and southern regions, the rise of new civil-society actors — all reflect, directly or indirectly, (a) the difficulties Mexico is having accepting the market form and its principles of openness and competition, and (b) the unsettling feedback effects that this form’s rise has on the old, defensive clannish and hierarchical structures, as well as (c) the complexity of making the +M transition when +N forces are also gaining strength and having complex, ambivalent effects. Mexicans are gradually making room for the market form in Mexico’s overall design, but progress has been erratic, even among business elites, and it has aroused some strong, even violent resistance.

Tentative Implications for Stability and Reform

Thus, what will prevail is still up in the air: Continued progress toward a democratic T+I+M system (that also has +N elements)? Reversion to a neocorporatist T+I system? Or something else that may bring authoritarian solutions, and a new set of problems?

A complete reversion is surely beyond the pale. Many economic and political reforms since the 1980s seem irreversible. But a resurgence of negative opinions — e.g., that Mexico is not suited to marketization, that statist designs are better for Mexico, that national identity, dignity, and sovereignty are weakened by liberalization, that Mexico’s system cannot withstand more instability, and that the “colossus to the north” is interested only in exploitation — indicate that exponents of both the bright and dark sides of the T and I forms may yet keep the M from flowering. Thus, while a complete reversion to the old T+I system may not be possible, archaic forces could constrain the achievement of a positive +M combination and of a broadly democratic system. In other words, Mexico could get stuck.

The effort to make a transition from one evolutionary stage to the next is bound to generate social contradictions and conflicts, as all sectors try to adjust to new forces and new realities. Mexico’s halting transition from a T+I to a T+I+M system is, and will go on, causing all sorts of minor and some major disturbances. At times, this may mean labor union strikes, or electoral protests, or shootouts involving drug traffickers and other criminals, or protest demonstrations by students, environmental or human-rights activists, or creditors (as in the Barzón movement), etc. At times, the scene may be a major city; often it may be a provincial area where caciquismo is entrenched. Sometimes, a conflict will take the form of a netwar, but traditional forms of conflict will also arise and endure. The list of possibilities is long and diverse.

At the moment, Mexico’s governing institutions appear to be strong enough that such disturbances should prove manageable, challenging but not jeopardizing Mexico’s systemic stability. Indeed, the serious risk for Mexico is not an old-fashioned civil war or another revolution — that seems unlikely. The greater risk is a plethora of social, guerrilla, and criminal netwars. Mexico’s security in the information age may be increasingly a function of netwars of all varieties. Mexico already appears to be the scene of more types of divisive, stressful netwars than other societies at a similar level of development, in part because it is a neighbor of the United States.

At present, neither social (EZLN/Zapatista), guerrilla (EPR), or criminal (drug-trafficking) netwar actors seem likely to make Mexico ungovernable, or to create a situation that leads to a newly authoritarian regime. This might occur, if these netwars all got interlaced and reinforced each other, directly or indirectly, under conditions where an economic recession deepens, the federal government and the PRI (presumably still in power) [sic] lose legitimacy to an alarming degree, and infighting puts the elite “revolutionary family” and its political clans into chaos. All this seems quite unlikely, however, since in many respects Mexico seems in better shape now than in the early and middle 1980s, when many analysts argued that breakdown or collapse might be imminent. However, an eye should be kept on the period just before, during, and after the year 2000 elections. Could this provide a propitious time for an old guard Priista with criminal bearings to gain his party’s presidential nomination? For guerrilla groups like the EPR to take to the field? For a subtle interplay to be developed between gangster and guerrilla groups that allows for the imposition of a heavy-handed regime whose darker purposes include strategic crime and criminal mercantilism?

The challenge may not be so much safeguarding the governability of Mexico as coping with the netwars and other disturbances in ways that assure both the continued stability and transformability of the Mexican system. Both dynamics, stability and transformability, are at stake; and there is no easy relationship between them — sometimes stability can be enhanced by economic and political reforms, at other times it can be disturbed by such reforms. There is a risk that Mexico will remain stable but, in the process, will succumb to the criminalization scenario or see its capacity for transformation become so confounded and constrained that the “stuck system” scenario prevails.

Would updating this analysis lead to significantly different conclusions and implications? It looks to me as though TIMN analysis offers an unusually durable way to think about Mexico and its future.

UPDATE — March 12, 2009: I've been keeping an eye out for analytical sites that provide at least occasional coverage of Mexico from a non-alarmist perspective (even if they also report on alarmist perspectives). One I like so far is New World Global Outlook, which looks generally interesting as well.


Spartacus O'Neal said...

Thanks for the John Robb link. You might enjoy this post by Rudolph Ryser:

Spartacus O'Neal said...

While the Jenkins article eventually gets around to cautioning against panic, the Sullivan essay seems to hyperventilate from beginning to end. At least Jenkins notes that drug policy is driving the crime wave, which is important to emphasize given the colossal failure of the war on drugs. Given the propensity of American media to inflame alarmist pronouncements by "experts", it would probably be good to tone down the national security state of mind diatribes.