Monday, March 30, 2009

Why Mexico may NOT fall apart — and a way to think about it

[UPDATE — July 8, 2014: While I ceased updating this post years ago, it still gets some traffic. So I thought I should mention a paper I just recently came across that provides additional discussion about the nature and role of the camarilla system in Mexico. It’s Joy Langston’s An Empirical View of the Political Groups in México: The Camarillas (CIDE, 1997). Yet, I do have questions about the paper’s analysis, and I’ll hope for clarification someday.
1. Re. historical background — My generation of American researchers acquired our first substantial knowledge of the camarilla system from Frank Brandenburg's classic book The Making of Modern Mexico (1964). It was oriented mainly to discussing the old Cardenista and Alemanista camarillas, but nobody offered a better analysis of the concept for decades (until Roderic Camp). While Langston’s paper does good work on 1980s-1990s trends, I was hoping for better historical background on the nature and evolution of the concept over those foundational decades.
2. Re. conceptualization — Langston’s paper starts on p. 1 by stating that “Camarillas are groups of public employees” — a definition to which the paper adheres. Yes, camarillas have long been mainly about public-sector elites. But my understanding has always been that camarillas often bridged into private-sector elites as well, sometimes via business favors and public-private deals. The pro-business Alemanista camarilla was like that; some later ones too. If that has changed, it would be a significant departure.
3. Re. recent trends — In the 1980s when I was still working on U.S.-Mexico relations, I’d hear that camarillas were declining as a political factor, partly (mainly?) because the old single-party was giving way to a multi-party system and few great political families were still operating. Accordingly, individual leaders, their equipos (teams), and institutions per se were becoming more important. Even so, it still remains my impression that camarilla-like dynamics (more distinctive, more clannish than abstract network-like dynamics) remain significant today.]

[UPDATE — September 15, 2010:  At the risk of further cluttering these updates to an old post, I want to note that Mexican specialists keep adding significant new analyses to the topic at hand.  Two that have shown up on blogs and that should not be missed are as follows:

Alfonso Reyes, “Plan Mexico? Towards an Integrated Approach in the War on Drugs,” posted at the Small Wars Journal blog, September 14, 2010.  His historical sections show that, even back in the 1920s, “[T]he illegal drug trade did not create corruption among Mexican authorities. On the contrary, the illegal drug trade was just one of the many illegal activities that corrupt officials were running in their states and which they were more or less permitted, even encouraged, to do given the political arrangements of the day.” (p. 8)  His sensible conclusion is that “Finally, the Mexican government should keep in mind that a strong state presence is not achieved just through law enforcement. . . . [T]he Mexican state has to improve its performance at all levels and in all areas of state responsibility: nothing short of a revitalization of the social contract is going to change the current situation. Failure to improve the effectiveness of the state and failure to build or rebuild the social contract will lead to power vacuums that will continue to be filled by new or revitalized criminal organizations.”  (p. 35)

Diego Valle-Jones, “Statistical Analysis and Visualization of the Drug War in Mexico,” posted at his Food and Fishing blog, June 15, 2010.  His analysis tends to indicate that one cartel in particular may have inside tracks.  Indeed, “Its not pretty when a state gives up its monopoly on the use of violence, and clearly there won't be peace until a new equilibrium between the cartels is reached or the Sinaloa Cartel becomes the only cartel operating in Mexico.”]

[UPDATE: May 26, 2010: I suspended updating this post months ago, but an article has recently appeared that is too relevant to leave out: a special NPR story on "Mexico Seems To Favor Sinaloa Cartel In Drug War," by John Burnett , Marisa Peñaloza, and Robert Benincasa. It speaks to a kind of networking that I had in mind as a possibiity when I wrote this post, even though I was not explicit about it.]

[UPDATE: August 26, 2009: See updates added today to prior post on Mexico’s potential being plagued by multiple netwars.]

[UPDATE — May 15, 2009: Expressing the view of a Mexican intellectual living in Mexico, a new article by Sergio Aguayo, “Mexico: living with insecurity,” posted at, provides a contrast (a corrective?) to the op-ed noted below by Enrique Krausze. Aguayo’s article shows how tentative is personal security for individuals and their families in Mexico City, and how some key elite networks remain preoccupied more with enhancing personal power and position than with improving public security and safety.]

[UPDATE — May 11, 2009: A new article by George Grayson, “Mexican Governors and Mayors Place Ex-Military in Public Safety Posts,” Hemisphere, May 11, 2009, provides excellent data and analysis about the increasing appointment of ex-military officers to sensitive posts at state and local levels. One reason is network-oriented in that “The former officers may be more adept at cooperating with their active duty counterparts against drug cartels.” At the same time, Grayson holds to the view that “Mexico is far from becoming a failed state as some Cassandras claim.” Also holding to this view is an excellent article in yesterday’s New York Times by Larry Rohter, “The Crisis Came. Mexico Didn’t Fail. Surprised? Meanwhile, RAND has issued a reprint of a balanced article by Brian Jenkins, "Could Mexico Fail?"]

[UPDATE — May 1, 2009: RAND has just issued a report on Security in Mexico: Implications for U.S. Policy Options, plus a summary research brief. As one option, the report calls for U.S. policy to: “Engage in a strategic partnership with Mexico that emphasizes reform and longer-term institution building.” I’ve also just found that the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute issued an impressive report a few months ago, The United States and Mexico: Towards a Strategic Partnership (January 2009), that provides many similar, wider-ranging, often more detailed recommendations, likewise focused on institution building. Yet, many points in both reports are implicitly about networks: e.g., bridging coordination gaps and building consultative partnerships across all levels of government, strengthening interagency cooperation and planning, and developing cross-border collaborations among state, market, and civil-society actors. Thus, while the two reports show that institution-building is currently the hot concept, my view remains that network-building may now be a more advisable, illuminatinig concept for analyzing and addressing some matters.]

[UPDATE — April 26, 2009: In a new overlap with my key points, John P. Sullivan and Adam Elkus, “Plazas for Profit: Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency, Small Wars Journal, April 26, 2009, conclude, among other recommendations, that “the US must engage both informal Mexican governing networks and help construct new cross-border partnerships that can act as policy shops for coordinating policy response and military/law enforcement cooperation against the cartels.”

[UPDATE — April 22, 2009: There's a good, balanced, earlier post on "Helping Mexico Help Itself," at Shannon O'Nell's LatinIntelligence blog, beginning February 24, 2009. However, her policy prescription is a standard one — "building institutions" — and networking barely gets noted.

[UPDATE — April 19, 2009: There have been interesting follow-up discussions about this post at two other blogs — in “Point–Counterpoint on Mexico,” at Mark Safranski’s ZenPundit, beginning March 31, and in “Building Networked Force Structure in Mexico,” at Adam Elkus’s Rethinking Security, beginning April 7. Now that I’m finally able to add comments at my own blog, I’ve quoted selected materials from these discussions in the comments section below this post.]

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I’ve never seen so many American analysts and journalists sounding alarms about Mexico — most for good reasons, others for their own agendas. And it’s true, parts of Mexico have turned awfully violent, barely governable. Government controls have weakened, and security trends are adverse. Domestic terrorism and insurgency are not presently the problem; it’s the extreme crime and corruption, driven by the drug cartels and other criminal gangs.

In a previous post here, I showed that criminalization and a “stuck system” were likely for Mexico, and interlaced netwars remain a possibility. I have nothing new to add to the latest alarmist accounts; it looks as though all the dire trends and scenarios are being spotted. According to them, Mexico is headed for major instability, even collapse, with a failed or at least hollow state. (Recent analyses and round-ups in this vein include stimulating postings by John Robb at Global Guerrillas, John Sullivan and Adam Elkus at Red Team Journal, Jeff Vail at his blog, Stephen Meiners at STRATFOR, and Mark Safranski at ZenPundit.) [UPDATE — March 30, 2009: Also see the entries by Brian Jenkins and Samuel Logan in response to the question "Mexico: Failing State?" posed March 23 at the National Journal blog for its national security experts.]

Yet, I’m struck that long-time American experts who specialize on Mexico are not providing counter-arguments. A few Mexicans are, lately Enrique Krauze. But no Americans I know of (though I’ve not searched exhaustively).

Shouldn’t analysts and journalists who specialize on Mexico be doing a better job of wondering whether and why the growing alarmism may be wrong — again?

When I worked as a specialist on Mexico, I experienced three or four periods when Mexico seemed to be on the verge of instability, in particular:
  • In 1968, at the time of the student uprising and its military suppression (I was then a graduate student studying in Mexico City).
  • During 1984-8, when a few U.S. government analysts claimed that Mexico was about to collapse due to multiple economic, political, and other crises.
  • In 1994-5, when the Zapatista uprising raised new specters of widespread insurgency, if not terrorism.
Each time Mexico remained stable and recovered. And it did so mostly for reasons that American analysts had not understood or anticipated well at the time — including American experts on Mexico who did not buy into the alarmism.

In these three instances, the key stabilizing factor turned out to be some kind of social or organizational network that American analysts were barely aware of:
  • In 1968, it was intra-elite networking that revolved around the mysterious camarilla system (or so I think, though I was just a grad student then).
  • In the mid 1980s, it was familial and other social networks that cushioned the effects of unemployment and other economic displacements.
  • In 1994, it was the roles played by newly-formed networks of human-rights and other activist NGOs, first in calming the Zapatista scene, later in monitoring the 1994 presidential election campaign.
Conditions in Mexico look worse than ever this time around — much worse, not just along the U.S. border, but everywhere that the drug cartels are powerful. So I'm not suggesting optimism, but rather a search for additional factors that may moderate the equations of gloom.

What might keep Mexico from disintegrating this time? My guesstimate is that networks will be the decisive factor again. And the networks that will matter most this time will be:
  1. Informal intra-elite social networks that reflect what’s left of the old camarilla dynamic.
  2. Cross-border organizational networks for U.S.-Mexico security (military, police, intel) cooperation.
Regarding the second point, I have little to say today. I’ve (we’ve) already said a lot elsewhere in connection with the proposition that “it takes networks to fight networks.” Exactly how to apply that to U.S.-Mexico cooperation is going to be an increasingly important challenge. In my view, Secretary Hilary Clinton used exactly the right word: “co-responsibility.” It’s a crucial concept for this awful problem. And working it out may spell the difference between failure and success along the border. These kinds of networks matter a lot more now than they did in the other alarmist periods mentioned above.

Instead, I'm going to elaborate on my first point, about camarillas. The term usually means circle, clique, or even faction. But no single word reflects their nature. They are not interest groups the way Americans may think. A camarilla is more like a fluid, informal, political clan, clustered around an ambitious leader who is on the rise — a hierarchical, clannish, “big-man” network. Internal relationships tend to be patron-client and mentor-disciple, and to depend on mutual obligation. The goal is to pull each other up a system’s levels. It is like a sub rosa team on the hunt, constantly scheming and maneuvering, willing to share and trade information with anyone that offers advantages. And the ultimate spoils are positions — it’s a clannish system geared to near-term patronage, not long-term policymaking.

Ideally, the makeup of a camarilla is rarely consistent except for a commitment to the leader’s rise. Indeed, a camarilla should have members from diverse political, professional, ideological, and other backgrounds — even criminal, if that can help. Whereas Americans may tend to seek uniformity in building alliances and coalitions, Mexicans may prefer diversity. And that’s because a camarilla’s activities depend on being able to tap and trade information from all sectors of society. Camarillas often have loose boundaries that allow for myriad, multiplex connections elsewhere; an ambitious individual may even belong to more than one camarilla.

I am far from certain that camarillas are still a major factor — I just don’t know that much about Mexico anymore. The camarilla system had its heyday when Mexico was run by the PRI, essentially as a one-party system. Camarillas were then the informal, personalistic structures that made the formal institutions work — and not work. Today, now that Mexico has evolved to more like a three-party system (PAN, PRD, PRI) in which ideology matters more than before, these informal intra-elite structures surely operate quite differently and may be less significant. But I gather that camarilla dynamics still matter, and I think they're worth wondering about, especially if there is evidence of links between criminal gangs and officials or other elites who may play on those links for political gain. Camarilla dynamics can cut in favor of the alarmist scenarios, but they may also turn matters in positive, stabilizing directions too.

Those are my principal points for this post. I’d advise most readers (if there are any) to stop here. For those few who may want to know more, I’ve added three appendixes, two of which provide excerpts from some very old writings. I add them in order to emphasize that we are dealing with deep histories and deep logics that have to do with the enduring powerful nature of the T part of TIMN in some societies.

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Appendix A: The Camarilla System and Elite Cohesion [circa 1988]

To say more about the nature of intra-elite networking in Mexico, I’ve dredged up old material I wrote in a paper long ago for a book chapter somewhere — David Ronfeldt, Whither Elite Cohesion in Mexico: A Comment (1988). I know it’s old, but it’s about all I’ve got. For a recent analysis about the continuing relevance of the camarilla system, see Roderic Ai Camp’s book Politics in Mexico: The Democratic Consolidation (2006).

At least my old paper offers an illuminating comparison to the dowreh system in Iran. The subsection on it was based on writings by James Bill and Marvin Zonis. That this kind of analysis is still pertinent is evident in a recent article by Abbas William Samii, “The Iranian Nuclear Issue and Informal Networks,” Naval War College Review, Winter 2006.

Brazil is said to have a similar system called panhelinha (see writings by Howard Wiarda). News accounts I’ve seen lately about the nature of some powerful families/clans in Afghanistan and El Salvador indicate that this may be a common cultural phenomenon worldwide that Americans have not understood well. If so, it adds further light to the significance of the T part of my TIMN work. It also helps explain the roots of corruption — and why corruption, especially that which involves nepotism or smuggling, has such a natural fit in some societies.

Here is the except from what I wrote in 1988. Remember that this is from an era when Mexico had essentially a single-party political system (the PRI), and was still a decade away from evolving into a three-party system (PRI, PAN, PRD).
For decades [the 1920s-1980s], Mexico has had a phenomenally cohesive ruling elite known as the “revolutionary family”. Its outstanding feature used to be its ability to encompass a wide range of personalities, interests, sectors, and ideological tendencies. The diversity of the family's membership sometimes gave way to serious infighting, but a broadly shared commitment to principles of balance, equilibrium, and mutual accommodation generally worked to preserve elite cohesion. The durability of the family was even thought to involve a “pendulum” whereby different political “wings” would take turns alternating in power across presidential terms. In its classic period during the 1940s-1960s, the family was renowned for its most prominent wings, the Cardenista and Alemanista wings — the former being more identified with left of center, statist, centralist, populist, and nationalist positions, the latter more with right of center, conservative, federalist, and pro-private sector positions.

The result was a uniquely Mexican system that could occupy and control all relevant political space. To use a common spatial metaphor, the system was pyramidal. It was highly centralized. But it was also broad-based; it cut across diverse regions, classes, sectors, institutions, and ideologies. Both the centralizing and the cross-cutting capabilities of the system were important for elite cohesion.

The system not only dominated political space; it co-opted all relevant dimensions of political time. Individuals of leftist as well as rightist aspirations could easily coexist within the revolutionary family — not just because the system rewarded them for doing so, but more to the point, because each could persist in believing, regardless of circumstances at any given moment, that the long-range future of the system was wide open and could ultimately evolve in accord with his preferences, be those of the left or the right. So long as all future options seemed open, the system could retain the allegiance of all sorts of elites.

The term “revolutionary family” is still used to refer to Mexico's political elite. But so many changes have occurred that this family no longer exists in its classic form. The political elite is in the throes of a dramatic transformation. Elite cohesion, far from being assured, has become a major uncertainty. . . .

Analysts may often talk as though the Mexican political system is well organized into formal structures, like the Ministry of Interior, the PRI, and the labor sector. We may then talk as though political consensus and conflict occur in terms of such formal structures. Yet we know full well that what happens in Mexican politics often depends on underlying, informal, fluid interactions among the elite. It is easy to overlook this because it is difficult to do research in this area and know more than incidental anecdotes and gossip. Yet any effort to analyze the evolution of the elite and the prospects for continued cohesion must attend to the formation and interaction of informal groups like camarillas and equipos.

The camarilla system

In a word, camarillas may be defined as cliques. They typically consist of a key leader and the individuals who get grouped around that leader, usually with the objective of getting the leader and other members of the camarilla into higher positions of influence. The formation and cohesion of the group depend on personal ties and loyalties, as well as on mutual interests in acquiring and exercising political power and enhancing career mobility. The cohesion and effectiveness of the group also depend on the ability of the members to provide information and access that is useful to the group and its leader(s), and on the ability of the leader to provide rewards to the other members as he gains higher positions.

The group may have an ideological complexion. But ideology is not what holds it together, and too clear a definition may not be to the group's advantage. The group may also be identified with a particular institution. But again, institutional connections are not what hold such a group together, and too strong an institutional identification may not be to its advantage. The literature on Mexico is not as clear on this point as it should be — one reason for introducing the discussion about Iran in the next section. The more diverse the membership — that is, the more it cuts across personal, institutional, sectoral, ideological, and other lines, and the more it links varied interests together — the better the prospects for a camarilla.

As leaders compete with other leaders for power and other rewards, so do camarillas compete with other camarillas. In the Mexican system, no leader can advance without building his own grupito, along with connections to other important camarillas. Thus they, and not the individual leaders per se, have been called the “most basic membership units of power.” (Johnson) Accordingly, “Power struggles between various individuals within the official party are often conflicts between competing camarillas, rather than true ideological debates between the left and the right.” (Camp)

The camarilla system writ large resembles a vast web. An individual may belong (or at least have connections) to more than one camarilla. Each camarilla may seek links to other camarillas. Membership in any one camarilla may be fluid and shifting. The interconnections may thus result in “extended alliance networks” (Grindle) that suggest “wheels within wheels” (Padgett) or pyramids within pyramids (Camp).

By comparison, the equipo is a somewhat different phenomenon. In a word, it means “team” and refers to those trusted, confidential persons, usually employees, who work as staff for a particular leader, usually a high-ranking office-holder who needs able advisers and aides. A high-ranking leader must have a good equipo, but members of the equipo may or may not belong to the leader's camarilla.

Camarillas and equipos are thus crucial mechanisms for building vertical and horizontal alliances in Mexico. They are “of fundamental importance in ensuring and maintaining elite cohesion in Mexico.” (Grindle) Functioning properly, they embody the principles of accommodation and equilibrium that have long held the political system together. Policymaking processes within the government and the PRI, the ability of one leader to influence another, and ultimately Mexico's political stability, may depend more on the workings of these informal elite structures than on the formal institutions per se. . . .

Similarity to the dowreh system in Iran

Mexico is not the only country where elite politics revolve around informal groups that take shape around around key individuals and connect together into vast web-like networks. Elsewhere in Latin America, Colombia and Brazil reportedly have informal, group-based systems similar to Mexico's. However, the system to which I will call attention lies farther afield. The literature on the dowreh (or dawrah) system in Iran in the early 1970s often sounds like it could be describing Mexico's camarilla system. Moreover, that literature makes points about the dowreh system that seem useful for better understanding the camarilla system.

In a word, dowreh means clique — more literally, circle, ring, or cycle — and refers to a “small group of people...who organize about some common purpose and meet on a regular basis.” (Zonis) Dowrehs are designed to build and reinforce personal ties. In politics, their purpose is to further the members' careers in a system where traditions are strong, channels to power are personal and informal, institutions are weak, and overt political activity is impossible or risky.

The dowreh system helps advance and protect personal interests by plugging individuals (and their groups) into diverse communications channels and information networks — the more the better. Ideally, an individual should hold several positions and jobs at the same time. He should then belong to, or be in contact with, several dowrehs at the same time. For its part, a dowreh should have a member located in each key ministry or other sector, encompass all shades of opinion, and be represented in all camps. Important families should act like dowrehs. In this way, the dowreh can help its members to move up if a break comes, to survive if things change to their detriment.

To Western eyes, dowrehs may seem composed of strange, unlikely, and even contradictory assortments of individuals: perhaps old-style politicians as well as young technocrats, merchants as well as bureaucrats, leftists as well as rightists, and individuals from disparate regions and classes. But that is precisely a strength in this highly personalistic system. The deliberate diversity of membership helps position the dowreh and its members to collect information from all directions and take advantage of contacts and opportunities wherever they may arise. It is natural in Iran for an individual to cultivate multiple loyalties and keep shifting position, and for dowrehs to be elastic and constantly in flux. Indeed, there may be no clear distinction, for either individuals or dowrehs, between who are the moderates and pragmatists,and who are the radicals and ideologues — a dowreh may need both, and an individual may shift from one stance to the other depending on the circumstances.

Personalism may be the most important cultural or psychological factor that explains the tenacity of the traditional dowreh system — but it is not the only such factor. Bill and Zonis found that the system results from, and compensates for, the constant climate of tension, insecurity, uncertainty, cynicism, distrust, dissimulation, intrigue, exploitation, and avoidance of responsibility in which the elites work. The sense of uncertainty and insecurity was most evident among the younger generation of elites in the early 1970s, with the alienation from traditional personalistic politics being most evident among new technocrats (who would compensate by looking outside the system — abroad — for support and allies).

The dowreh system, difficult as it may be for Americans to understand, is inherently designed to provide balance and equilibrium and facilitate control and co-optation among competing elites. When working properly, it serves to distribute power — it inhibits excessive concentration and splinters heavy opposition. By keeping politics hidden, it serves to avoid open conflict and confrontation. And because no demands are ever totally rejected or refused, it promises that individuals or groups may eventually have a new opportunity to recover, advance, and circulate.

A few implications of the comparison

To be sure, Mexico is not Iran; any similarity of their elite systems does not necessarily imply an Iranian-like future for Mexico. There are big differences between the two countries. For example, traditional cultural and religious forces are stronger in Iran, whereas formal institutions and political parties are stronger in Mexico. Personalism — a key factor behind both the dowreh and the camarilla systems — takes different forms in each country; patron-client attachments are more important and durable in Mexico. The two countries' political cultures reflect differences in their Islamic and Catholic backgrounds. . . .

The similarity of the Mexican to the Iranian elite system also helps call attention to some interactions between elite change and institutional change. Traditional systems like the camarilla and the dowreh appear to work best when formal political institutions are relatively weak and far from modern. Institutional modernization, by compartmentalizing elites and requiring them to define themselves more precisely, can interfere with the fluidity and flexibility required by the traditional elite systems. Where modernization is occurring and formal institutions are gaining strength, then such elite systems seem best suited to corporatism as a way to build a broad-based (and purportedly democratic) but nonetheless highly centralized (and therefore authoritarian) system. If the formal structures of power weaken drastically, then power struggles, policy outcomes, and political stability may depend largely on who can make best use of the traditional informal mechanisms of elite interaction until institutional power is restored. But if at the same time the traditional mechanisms of elite interaction and cohesion have lost their flexiblity and vitality, and/or if extreme fragmentation and polarization have taken hold, then it will be very difficult to restore the established institutions as the decisive actors.

The similarities between the dowreh and camarilla systems show that elite cohesion may depend on the ability of leaders to form highly diversified alliances that may seem contradictory and incompatible at first sight, but where the contradictions are really quite compatible and to mutual advantage. The analyses of the dowreh system illuminate that where personal loyalties can be counted on, such alliances enhance a group's prospects by plugging it into a broad range of communication networks, information sources, and rival decision centers. As noted earlier, Mexico's classic revolutionary family, and the camarillas comprising it, long embodied such alliances. The family had strong centralizing and cross-cutting abilities that enabled it to occupy all relevant political space. And it could incorporate elites who had different ideological (i.e., time) orientations, partly because of widespread beliefs that the future possibilities and policy options of the system remained open regardless of present circumstances.

This is not the case with today's elite in Mexico. The principles that guided the classic camarilla (and dowreh) system do not appear to be working very well anymore. However this should be explained — whether it owes to shifts within the elite or broader forces of social change — the centralizing tendencies within the elite and the key institutions have become excessive, and some groups comprising and competing within the elite seem to have lost the ability and the interest to cut across diverse personal, ideological, sectoral, and other lines. In addition, a sense seems to have spread, both in ideological and personal terms, that the system's long-range future options are not so open anymore. Members of the elite have begun operating according to much narrower spatial and temporal horizons.
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Appendix B: The Growth of Organized Smuggling [circa 1992]

What follows is an excerpt from an analysis we did long ago about the rise of organized smuggling networks. Though dated, the analysis shows that these networks tend to be deeply embedded in Mexico, partly because of the nature of camarillas and other kin-like systems. The analysis also shows that the history of relationships between criminal organizations and government personnel runs a lot deeper than today’s write-ups reveal when they keep focusing on the Zetas. (But, for a good recent analysis of them, see Samuel Logan, “Los Zetas: Evolution of a Criminal Organization,” International Relations and Security Network, posted March 11, 2009.)

Here’s my excerpt from Peter H. Reuter and David Ronfeldt, Quest for Integrity: The Mexican-U.S. Drug Issue in the 1980s (1992, pp. 12-14):
Within the limits, it appears that smuggling was not regarded in Mexico as being inherently criminal or “outside” the system. Indeed, major smuggling operations often became embedded in that system. In the mid-1970s, tens of thousands of peasants participated in marijuana and poppy cultivation and trafficking, particularly in Sinaloa. In the late 1980s, the “traffickers [were] increasingly viewed in the countryside as modem Robin Hoods, who finance hospitals, schools, and churches in a time of crisis, and who defy an unpopular US-made ‘law and order’ that protects rich American consumers and producers, and punishes underprivileged Mexican peasants.”

Smuggling enterprises, like many Mexican business enterprises, tend to be family- and region-based. Extended family ties, along with equally extended political and social kinship (compadrazgo) ties, assure that no major enterprise can operate in isolation from society and politics. Any enterprise that needs respect and protection can probably obtain it. A leader can eventually make contact, directly or indirectly, with almost anybody he wants. Once an operation gets well established, elite political cirdes or cliques (camarillas) at the local and national levels may begin including individuals who have contacts with the smugglers, if not the smugglers themselves.

Elite coalitions in Mexico normally include what, to American eyes, are incredibly diverse, contradictory tendencies. In the United States, it is normal for like-minded individuals to band together. But in Mexico, the camarilla system works best when the individuals in a clique cut across diverse ideological, institutional, professional, and other lines. This permits the coalition to tap into as many sources of information, power, and wealth as possible. Major smuggling enterprises cannot be ignored in such a system. Moreover, from a traditional Mexican nationalist perspective, a smuggler who sells to Americans but is anti-American and keeps his money in Mexico may be more respectable, and less suspect in terms of nationalist credentials, than a businessman who admires and works for Americans in Mexico….

The proposition is sometimes voiced, particularly in Mexico, that the narcotics boom since the mid 1980s resulted largely from the oil bust in the early 1980s. According to this line of argument, the oil boom in the late 1970s spread funds throughout the government-PRI apparatus, increased the incomes of the middle and upper classes, and whetted the appetite for corruption at high levels. When the economy plunged, some individuals and offices turned to exploiting the drug business and allowed it to expand as a major new source of wealth at the time.

But this is too facile an explanation. It appears that Mexico's major smuggling enterprises — for narcotics and illegal aliens going North, and for automobiles and other items going South — were largely organized in the mid- and late 1970s. The oil boom and bust may have facilitated their expansion, but they were already on their way to consolidation. Narcotics production and trafficking in Mexico were not spurred by the decline in the oil-driven economy, but by the continued demand in the U.S. drug market, along with Mexico's natural advantages. Even if the oil boom and strong economic progress had continued, Mexico would probably still be a major supplier of narcotics to the U.S. market. Besides, the regions in which marijuana and poppy cultivation occur were relatively untouched by the oil boom.

Another proposition argues that narcotics production and smuggling develop as a result of poverty and underdevelopment. To some extent, this assessment is true, but again it is an oversimplification that misses important points. Most of the major smuggling enterprises are technologically and organizationally sophisticated. They may be filled with crude characters, but their operations rest on the latest advances in air and ground transportation, information and communication systems, financial operations, and, in the case of narcotics, weaponry. Such organizations exhibit functional specializations and complex networks that are not “underdeveloped.”

After the termination of the U.S. bracero program in 1965, smuggling of aliens into the United States was conducted by adventurous loners who had little concern for security and by small family-based operations. But the growth of and competition for new business, the increasing importance of operational skill and security, and the shift from agricultural areas to cities as the destination of many aliens created a need for larger, better organized operations. Thus organized smuggling developed in the 1970s, and today it includes multimillion-dollar businesses, many of which are still based on families, each with its own turf. But they are functionally specialized operations, with different people serving as recruiters, organizers, guides, and credit collectors, and with staff on both sides of the border. Much of the smuggling is now done on credit, a phenomenon that emerged in the late 1970s.

Organized drug smuggling developed in a somewhat parallel manner, but with a particularly pernicious manifestation of institutional corruption and complicity. During the 1970s, the police forces under the Office of the Attorney General (PGR), which had overall charge of the anti-drug campaign, remained quite professional. But a powerful office in the Government Ministry, the Federal Security Directorate (DFS), along with its police forces, fell into league with major drug traffickers. One interviewee suggested that the DFS's involvement with drugs may have grown out of “dirty war” operations that the DFS conducted against guerrillas and terrorists —e.g., the guerrilla groups led by Genaro Vazquez Rojas and Lucio Cabañas, the urban terrorist group known as the 23rd of September Communist League — in the early and mid-1970s in the states of Guerrero, Jalisco, and Sinaloa. According to this speculation, the DFS resorted to using local drug producers and traffickers as operatives, exchanging tolerance of their criminal activities for assistance with paramilitary operations. After the armed leftist groups were wiped out in the late 1970s, the DFS personnel went into business with the drug traffickers. Whatever the explanation, it became evident by 1985, following the kidnap-murder of Enrique Camarena, that the DFS had been in league with the traffickers; largely as a result of U.S. pressures, the agency was disbanded.
* * * * *

Appendix C: Mexican Periodicals and Blogs on the Internet

I have no desire to become an expert or specialist on Mexico again. But out of curiousity, I browsed to see what Mexican periodicals and blogs are now on the Internet.

Leading daily newspapers: Lots are online. One of particular note is Reforma, at

Key weekly and monthly journals:
  • Este País, at
  • Letras Libres, at
  • Metapolítica, at
  • Milenio, at
  • Nexos, at
  • Proceso, at
Blogs: I’ve found only one active blog in/on Mexico that relates to this post: Medios México. A blog that had dealt with security and military matters has evidently gone away.

If anyone has suggestions to add, please leave a comment.



Jay Taber said...

To get a feel for Mexican culture, I have found the novels of Paco Ignacio Taibo II an enjoyable passage south. Oddly, the acclaimed crime writer once co-authored a book in collaboration with Subcommandante Marcos.

David Ronfeldt said...

Discussion of this post at ZenPundit (see “Point–Counterpoint on Mexico,” beginning March 31) led to the following exchange:

Mark Safranski:

Frankly, we are all better off if Ronfeldt is correct and the “alarmists” are wrong, though I think the grim state of affairs south of the Rio Grande is deterring most Mexico experts from going out on a limb to make positive predictions.

My comment:

The little feedback I’ve received on my posting indicates the following: Yes, camarillas are still important, esp for PRI leaders, but camarilla dynamics are now more about garnering contacts than striving for power. And yes, there’s increasing awareness among American officials operating along the border that more/better networks are needed with Mexicans, but there is also immense inertia and distrust impeding their organization, informally and formally. So, I too remain pessimistic, but still reluctant to turn alarmist, given my past experiences, as well as my continuing sense that my post’s points remain on a likely track.

Meanwhile, what I’ve most wondered these past few days is the extent to which all the new U.S. border-line (borderline?) security measures (esp the fence) are "causing" much of the upsurge in violence by and competition among the different types of criminal gangs in Mexico, and also against the government, perhaps in part because of how those measures re-channel access routes. Surely this proposition has already been noted and discussed somewhere(s), and I just haven’t read enough yet. If the proposition is valid, it could have quite a mix of implications, positive and negative.

Mark Safranski:

The PRI era camarillas as you described them reminded me of the old, Soviet, nomenklatura "clans" - except that the Mexican camarillas seem to have stayed relatively benign while the Russian nomenklatura fractured into siloviki, mafiyas and oligarch factions and have been anything but positive in their influence.

Border security, unless it is comprehensive and systemic, might be like squeezing a balloon as you suggest. We’re raising transaction costs but ultimately drug smugglers could put their drug product on a plane or boat to a third country and just raise the price by the marginal difference. Coyotes can head deeper into the desert - the border is long and the ppl manning it are relatively few relative to it’s size. Unless underlying structural issues ( drug laws, temporary labor access) are addressed, tweaking gun control laws, adding "smart" fences etc. just nibbles at the edges.

David Ronfeldt said...

Discussion of this post at Rethinking Security (see “Building Networked Force Structure in Mexico,” beginning April 7) led to the following remarks:

Adam Elkus:

I am in firm agreement with Ronfeldt that a key part of any US strategy towards Mexico will be the construction of cross-border networks for border security. The advantage of these ad-hoc groups is that they can collaborate in a manner that is fundamentally more immediate and bottom-up, providing a useful means of producing policy, sharing information, and coordinating response. The Border Governors' Conference (yearly on both sides of the border) is a great example of these kinds of forums--as is the more informal military and police cooperation that has been built up over the years.

My comment:

On our side, what we need are networks that work, more than czars. Czars and networks don’t quite fit together. Yet, I’ll be patient and hopeful for a while. After all, I’ve written elsewhere in favor of “government by network” under the rubric of cyberocray. Border relations may become a good proving ground.

But I won’t focus on this here. I’d rather emphasize something else today:

On Mexico’s side, recent developments are reminding me of two old cautionary patterns that sometimes affect bilateral relations. American newcomers to Mexico are not likely to know about them.

One is about how Mexicans — I’m speaking of policy analysts and strategists — often criticize the United States for speaking with so many different voices, for being so disorganized, that Mexico cannot be sure what Washington wants. It’s a solid criticism. And back in the late 1970s, some of us listened and proposed the creation of a single, special office in Washington for managing complex interdependence with Mexico. But then, to my surprise, as soon as it looked like Washington was getting organized, the line among Mexicans reversed. The complaint became that we wanted to become centralized in order to further U.S. domination. Therefore, Mexico should not welcome or otherwise support this effort by Washington to speak with one voice. In short, the analysis was turned upside down, inside out. They longed for a return to our disorganization.

Of course, many new bilateral mechanisms have taken hold since that early effort, so I don’t mean to harp on the pattern’s persistence — but I’ve seen indications of its remergence lately.

The second pattern has to do with Mexican resistance to concrete American proposals to strengthen aspects of bilateral cooperation, even where doing so may be to Mexico’s advantage in some respects. An example I recall involved providing a new technology decades ago. What was explained to me once, almost as an aside, was that Americans always have a list in mind; and if Mexico accedes to something, the Americans will just start pressing for the next item. Relations then became an endless, exhausting struggle. Better not to even start, if it can be avoided.

Again, I simplify, and I don’t want to exaggerate. Bilateral relations have progressed anyway. And I’ve seen no recent indications of this pattern’s reemergence. But it is an interesting pattern, still worth knowing about in my view.

Both patterns are rooted in Mexico’s historic, indeed eternal concerns about preserving national sovereignty and dignity. They are sensible concerns that Americans will have to work with and through. And I hope we can.

Meanwhile, I continue to see evidence that my original proposals — about the residual importance of camarilla networking inside Mexico, and about the need to organize stronger cross-border (or pan-border) networks for military, police, and intelligence cooperation — remain worthwhile.

My second comment:

At last, there’s a potentially upbeat article today -- the latest in the generally downbeat latimes series on “Mexico under Seige” -- that reports on a Mexican army general’s mounting success against criminal gangs in the Tijuana area. Among the points made:

“The police departments in Tijuana and Rosarito Beach, as well as the state police, are now run by current or former army officers.

“Gone are many of the police informants, or ‘antennas,’ that supplied organized crime with intelligence and cleared the streets before cartel kidnappings and raids, U.S. and Mexican authorities say.

“‘They took away [organized crime's] eyes and ears,’ said one source . . .”

Read more here:,0,4688678,print.story

I’m supposing this helps substantiate points I’ve been trying to make, but I can’t be sure because, among other things, the article only hints at networked cooperation.

Historyscoper said...

The Mexican government has never worked, so why expect that it ever will? Without the U.S. to prop it up, where would it be? Yet the sad situation at the U.S.-Mexico border problem forever looms.

The age-old pesky U.S.-Mexico border problem has taxed the resources of both countries, led to long lists of injustices, and appears to be heading only for worse troubles in the future. Guess what? The border problem can never be solved. Why? Because the border IS the problem! It's time for a paradigm change.

Never fear, a satisfying, comprehensive solution is within reach: Megamerge: the Dissolution Solution. Simply dissolve the border along with the failed Mexican government, and megamerge the two countries under U.S. law, with mass free 2-way migration eventually equalizing the development and opportunities permanently, with justice and without racism.