Globalist Analysis

Drug Wars and Faltering States: The Demise of National Identity (Part II)

How do the weaknesses of nation-states show up in the drug wars of Mexico, Brazil, Colombia and Pakistan?

Weapons seized in Plan Merida. Read Part I here.

Takeaways


  • Today, "country experts" advising the U.S. Department of Defense will tell you that 10-15% of the population of Mexico is connected in some way to the drug trade.
  • America's insatiable drug craving has done to Mexico what 30 years of American-funded jihadis have done to Pakistan.
  • Narco-gangs have 100,000 tiradors (shooters), which is slightly more than the deployed army of the Mexican state.
  • Societal transformation takes the form of rising poor communities that the state can no longer control — or wants to control.
  • Our 40-year "War on Drugs" merely showcases how American drug demand translates into a field of distortion.

Our 40-year "War on Drugs" merely showcases how U.S. drug demand translates into a field of distortion that has cleared a swath of pure cultural destruction from Mexico to Ecuador.

What of gangs like Mara Salvatrucha, created by the U.S. war in El Salvador in the 1980s?

Of those refugee kids who came to the United States — only to be re-exported by us back to the slums of San Salvador in the 1990s — as many as 50,000 quickly became the shock troops of a U.S.-inspired transnational gang enterprise.

What did they begin to do when they got back home? They started taking over the country. This was a fully funded American disruption.

Now with Plan Merida — the code-euphemism for U.S. military assistance to Mexico a lá Plan Colombia — we will stamp a "security" seal on the chaos our drug demand has already wrought. We are not, as in Iraq or Afghanistan, crashing down with our main force. We are simply adding military embellishment to longstanding disruption.

We should not think that world change is simply the result of the tidal surge of drug demand or U.S. military interventions. Yet Pakistan and Mexico represent two important nation-states that are being hollowed out — by us.

Finding connections

Paradoxically, Mexico has much in common with Pakistan, even though they are cultures and worlds apart. Both states are run by latifundistas (great land owners). Both countries share the threat and promise of vibrant transborder regions.

Historically, this has meant that both the Mexican and Pakistani state authorities have always relied on intermediation between core areas — which are controlled by the national elites and their political regimes — and the untamed and "ungoverned" spaces on the periphery. Indeed, the main goal of many governments was making sure they had a reliable truce, which realistically meant that they could buy-off those they could not control.

But both countries also share the disruptive force of El Norte in their lives. The insatiable U.S. drug craving has done to Mexico what 30 years of American-funded jihadis have done to Pakistan.

There was a time when the Mexican state might still make quiet arrangements with maturing narco-communities. Corrupt but savvy Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) Presidentes succeeded for many years in keeping the threat at arms length.

But — again like Pakistan — the distortion just went on too long. The chaos acquires cultural standing and initiates a transformation of national identity itself.

Today, "country experts" advising the U.S. Department of Defense will tell you that 10-15% of the population of Mexico is connected in some way to the drug trade. Narco-gangs have 100,000 tiradors (shooters), which is slightly more than the deployed Army of the Mexican state.

How can we get our arms around these numbers? Think of the sweep of the drug enterprise. It must co-opt the Federal Police as well as ordinary people across the entire road network of Mexico. Everywhere, people are needed to do the little things that move traffic along — or to just look the other way. With family and friends involved, it becomes an entire society of complicity.

Mexico's elites and army face unenviable choices. Paradoxically, what seemed like a new strength to the Mexican nation — a working multi-party political system — could well represent strategic vulnerability. When the PRI ruled as a single party, it was easy to come to certain understandings with the gangs who rule the chaos spaces. Who do the new, rougher drug gangs deal with now?

Moreover, the solidity of the old PRI created continuity, not just in political life but also in political authority. The bitter electoral battle of 2006 is but a foreshadowing of the divisions in Mexican society. These will only sap the authority of future governments to act for the nation as a whole.

In July 2009, after Mexican President Felipe Calderón deployed the active Army to the drug war, a Mexican senator declared, "The people are losing hope."

Perhaps as many as 20,000 have been murdered by Cartelistas since Calderón took office, and more than 1,000 members of the army and police have also died. Also in July 2009, 12 government intelligence officers were abducted, tortured and executed in a single day.

As in Pakistan, when a brittle ruling elite and their regime take on an authentic insurgency, they run the risk of losing legitimacy themselves. By demanding that they take actions on our terms, we ensure the self-deconstruction of our own key allies.

Look at the past 30 years in Colombia. Why, with the cartels broken and FARC insurgents in recess, is so much more coca still being grown? Because the industry is now the societal norm, and Colombian society and identity has been transformed.

Societal transformation takes the form of rising poor communities that the state can no longer control — or wants to control. Add to this anxious elites who seek the security of gated lifestyles and the retreat of security services who begin to carve out their own personal nest egg — and you have a portrait of a nation-state becoming something different.

It is a mosaic of local identities, held together by a loose weave of relationships intermediated by the state.

Consider the Early Middle Ages — the time of decompression after Rome's fall. This is not a bad image to use in order to understand the contemporary world. Much like then, the current period of Late Modernity is seeing state systems eroding at the edges, and even in their centers.

The core constituencies continue to claim and operate the state apparatus, but those who have been left behind must seek other places of belonging and meaning.

In the Early Middle Ages, this amounted to something of a liberation. One-quarter of the Greco-Roman world was enslaved. The withering of the state meant lower taxes — and often freedom.

Unfortunately, this bonus is not in the offing today. Those left behind must seek identity with protection, and often this means the grip of gangs or vigilante ex-police militias.
Moreover, they offer health services, cooking gas, and cable hook-ups.

The case of Brazil

Perhaps 25% of Brazil's urban population lives in favelas, the fetid slums of an emerging other world.

Most have been "administered" by drug lords — little baronies where the narco-patricius also provides essential services and varying degrees of social welfare — in the absence of any effort by a withering state.

But what is happening now? I spent some time recently with a Brazilian Army Colonel — and as he heard my questions about the favelas, he waved his hand impatiently.

"This is not what worries me," he said. "Do you know about the police-militias? Do you know how retired cops are taking over the favelas, kicking out drug lords and then taking their place? Do you know that they do this with the complicity of active duty police? This is what worries me."

When a policeman decides that the better model is the narco-patricius* in his favela (and he can do better, thank you), then the state has become an eggshell.

Though the Brazilian nation-state is not going away anytime soon, something is happening. Nor is it happening only in the cities. The rural revolt against the latifunidstas — championed by the landless movement — suggests that identity-migrations are underway nationwide.

Editors Note: This the second of a three-part series. Read Part I here. Part III will be published on The Globalist tomorrow.

* Patricius in the Early Middle Ages was often an honorific title granted by the Emperor to barbarian kings and dukes.

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About Michael Vlahos

Michael Vlahos is a professor at The Johns Hopkins University Advanced Academic Programs.

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