Evolution of the Mexican State

The Mexican state appears to be changing, leading a number of Mexican intellectuals to speculate on the nature of the change.  This is not simply a question of Mexico becoming a “failed state,” about which there has been much speculation, but rather an attempt to theorize the evolution of the Mexican state at this moment.  Mexicans have been struck by a number of new phenomena: the increasing militarization of the state, the ties between the state and drug dealers, and the greater U.S. involvement in the Mexican state threatening Mexican sovereignty.  What, ask these intellectuals, does all of this add up to?  What is the Mexican state today?1

Militarization and The State of Exception

First, there is President Felipe Calderón’s mobilization of the military to deal with the drug wars, which has led some to wonder if this development constitutes a kind of “state of exception,” that is, something like what we call “martial law,” some countries call “a state of emergency,” or what Latin Americans call a “state of siege.”  Governments usually declare a state of exception during extreme emergencies such as war, riot, or natural disaster.  The state of exception often involves the deployment of the military and the police and the civilians’ loss of civil and sometimes political rights for a limited period of time.  Has Mexico gradually and informally moved into a permanent state of exception?

Luis Hernández Navarro, Assistant Editor of the Mexico City daily La Jornada, writes in an article entitled “The Militarization of Politics”:

Felipe Calderón has made the war against the drug dealers the axis of his government.  The fight against organized crime has lent his administration a form of legitimation that the [2006 presidential] election denied him.  The militarization of politics has given him the tools for administering the country with exceptional measures.  The politicization of public security has allowed him to recompose the chain of command and obedience.

Mexico, writes Hernández, is now experiencing “a situation very similar to a state of exception but one not decreed by Congress.”

According to Hernández, this state of quasi-martial law had resulted in “the criminalization of [social] protest which advances every day.”  At the same time Calderón’s National Action Party (PAN) has begun to go after several gubernatorial candidates of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), accusing them of being involved in drug dealing.  “Whether or not these accusations are true, more than really fighting organized crime, they show the desire of the PAN to use the anti-drug offensive to hit its electoral rivals.”  Hernández points out that Calderón’s electoral strategy of de-legitimizing the PRI candidates may succeed but it will leave him politically isolated without a majority in Congress.  On the other hand if he does not use this strategy he will lose the coming Congressional and state elections.2

Magdalena Gómez, a former Mexico City prosecutor and now a human rights activist with the Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez Human Rights Center (Centro Prodh), writes:

The gradual militarization which the country is experiencing in the context of the fight against organized crime is advancing significantly, especially in some regions, with high costs in terms of respect for human rights, raising questions and posing constitutional contradictions, for example, that, without the Calderón government having declared the suspension of guarantees [that is, a state of exception], in practice it has generated a discourse which prioritizes and justifies ominous actions with the logic that the end justifies the means.

One of these constitutional contradictions involves the issue of the Mexican Army becoming involved in tasks of public security issues.  For example, the Army has undertaken criminal investigations usually reserved for the civilian authorities.  This despite the fact that the Mexican Supreme Court of Justice has indicated that, in all cases where they undertake such action, they should be under civilian authorities’ orders, which had not been the case.3

Whatever the short-term results, however, the significant thing is the change in the state, this new militarization and quasi-martial law character.  Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, author of The State of Exception, says in a recent interview, “. . . the state of exception or state of emergency has become a paradigm of government today.  Originally understood as something extraordinary, an exception, which had validity only for a limited period of time, but a historical transformation has made it the normal form of governance.”4

One wonders if Mexico today is undergoing that “historical transformation” to such a state of exception, a permanent state of emergency?  If so, however, what is the relationship between the state of exception and other tendencies, such as the growing role of drug dealers in government and the increasing penetration of the Mexican state by the U.S. government?

The Relationship between the State and the Drug Dealers

While the government takes emergency measures against the drug dealers, it is well known that the drug dealers have been at the same time well ensconced in government.  For at least 10 years, there have been cases of high military and civilian officials being found to be involved with the drug lords, among the most famous that of the drug general in the Mexican White House.  (That man was Division General Jesús Gutiérrez Rebollo, the so-called “Narco-General.”)5

Some even suggest that it was governmental power which helped to create the drug dealers.  In a recent interview with La Jornada, Guillermo Garduño Valero, an authority on national security at the Autonomous Metropolitan University (UAM), said:

The drug business arises from power and it is power that maintains, protects, and foments it.  . . .  This phenomenon surges from power, and the political class, who had in a certain sense engendered it, end up losing control of it; on the other hand, [the drug dealers] then turn against the political class.

The drug dealers, says Garduño, actually have no interest in governing a municipality or a state, since their vision is limited to the drug market, and the government officials have an interest in the drug dealers only insofar as they serve as a source of funds.  The drug dealers only want the state to act as accomplices in their dealings.  “The problem is that this has already reached the levels of the state’s very capacity of control,” Garduño says.6  The question then is: What happens when the state loses its historic definition: the monopoly of violence within its borders?7  Is it at this point that it becomes a drug state?  Or a failed state?

U.S. Government Penetration of the Mexican State

At the same time, something else is happening as well, that is, the growing U.S. penetration of the Mexican States.  Carlos Fazio in a recent article, “The Marines Have Already Landed,” writes that since the era of William Perry, U.S. Secretary of Defense from 1994-1997, the United States has wanted to join the two countries together not only economically and politically, but also militarily.  The adoption of the Mérida Initiative, or Plan Mexico as it is also known, providing billions of dollars in military aid represents another important step along the path toward joint military action in Mexico.

But, says Fazio, this has also been propitiated by other ideological theories, concepts and slogans from the theory of “limited sovereignty” to the notion of humanitarian “good interventionism,” a revamped doctrine of counter-insurgency aimed at the enemy within, originally the Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas.  The Mexican government attempted to promote the illusion that it faced “narco-guerrillas,” but that having failed, writes Fazio, they turned to “a ‘war’ against the drug cartels, as the right piece for the social construction of chaos and fear.”  He writes:

Fourth generation asymmetric war is decentralized, dispersed and utilizes combined scenarios throughout a territory.  In its development it erases boundaries between the soldiers and the civilians, between the battlefields and the secure urban areas, and it takes the form of extreme social violence without any apparent order or continuity.  The elements are already present in today’s Mexico, one day in Ciudad Juárez [opposite El Paso, Texas], another in Uruapan [Michoacán on the Western Coast], or Reynosa [opposite McAllen, Texas], another time in Cancún or in La Marquesa [a park outside of Mexico City].

With the planned use of propaganda and the use of tactics and strategies of social control by way of manipulation of information and psychological action which are inseparable from it, in this type of war the means of mass communication are the new armies of conquest.  Military bombardment has been replaced by media bombardment.  Slogans and images substitute for the weapons of mass destruction.

Calderón’s call for a “crusade” against the drug dealers is accompanied by television images of naked, decapitated bodies, and by calls to “clean up” government and get rid of “the bad guys.”  The purpose of it all, writes Fazio, is to “eliminate the capacity to think.”  Meanwhile, the Marines have landed and established a beachhead in the Mexican government.8

John Saxe-Fernández, a professor of political science at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), suggests in his article “Chaos and Intervention” that the United States creates chaos in Mexico intentionally.  “The U.S. security apparatus’s manipulation of the dynamic of arms, business, and drugs is central to the promotion of chaos and instability in [various Latin American] countries, which then lays the basis and provides the excuse for intervention and military occupation.”  The U.S. does this in Colombia or Mexico, he argues, to promote its “hegemonic and corporate domination.”  This process of creating chaos leading to intervention and occupation, he writes, carries “grave risks for the sovereignty and integrity of [Mexico] and its vast natural resources.”9

The State and the State-in-Waiting

We should add another question to these various views of the Mexican state: whether the “Legitimate Government” of Mexico is a-state-in-waiting.  Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the candidate of the left-of-center Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), refused to accept the results of the 2006 election.  He argued that the National Action Party (PAN) with the complicity of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) stole the election which he had won.  Refusing to accept the fraud, he proclaimed himself the “Legitimate President of the Legitimate Government of Mexico.”

The Legitimate Government did not, however, signify the arrival of a political crisis of dual power as some speculated at the time.  López Obrador did not create a revolutionary provisional government, but rather a kind of shadow cabinet.  Since 2006, López Obrador has been touring Mexico, visiting every single municipality in the country, speaking against the Calderón “usurper” government and often calling for its overthrow.  Three years later, López Obrador remains capable of mobilizing tens of thousands to rallies in the national plaza and thousands in smaller cities and towns.  While denying the legitimacy of the existing government, he has not prepared a revolution, preferring to lay the foundation for the 2012 election campaign.  López Obrador’s rhetoric regarding the government remains ambivalent, vacillating between reform and revolution, and even though it is in reality a radical rhetoric laid over reformist politics, still the presence of a significant political force within the country which says that it does not accept the legitimacy of the government and calls for its overthrow also tends to undermine the legitimacy of that state.10

Nor is López Obrador alone.  Subcomandante Marcos and the other leaders of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), who attempted a revolutionary coup in January of 1996, remain active in the southern state of Chiapas where they, too, reject the legitimacy of the government and actively organize communities to withdraw from it.  The Zapatista strategy of gradual secession from the state demonstrates all of the problems of utopian anarchist pacifism — laid over a history of an initial guerrilla uprising — even as it, too, contributes to the ideological undermining of the state.  And, in addition to the Zapatistas, there are a dozen other small guerrilla organizations operating in the central states, some defining themselves as Marxist-Leninist and some as nationalists, which seek the violent overthrow of the Mexican government.

All of these movements, large and small, represent persistent threats to the state’s claim of legitimacy and some of them represent potential alternatives to the present state of affairs.  Perhaps what we can say is that all of these various tendencies exist and that we are at a crucial moment in the history of the Mexican state where one or another of them or some combination will in the end succeed in becoming the dominant force that transforms Mexico into something quite different.  That is, unless some wing of the Mexican elite proves capable of reinvigorating itself and recreating a functioning capitalist democracy — that seems to be López Obrador’s potential alternative — or the working people prove capable of building a radical movement that could raise the possibility of a socialist alternative, something far from likely at the moment.



1  An earlier version of this article appeared in Mexican Labor News and Analysis, March 2009, at <www.ueinternational.org/>.

2  Luis Hernández Navarro, “La Militarización de la política,” La Jornada, March 24, 2009.

3  Magdalena Gómez, “Ejército: ¿quién los regresará a los cuarteles?” La Jornada, March 17, 2009.

4  Ulrich Raulff, “An Interview with Giorgio Agamben,” German Law Journal, Vol. 5, No. 5, pp. 609-614.

5  Carlos Fazio, “Mexico: The Narco General Case,” Transnational Institute, December 1997.

6  Alfred Méndez, “El narco se le mantiene y protege desde el poder, asegura especialista en seguridad,” La Jornada, March 2, 2009.

7  Both academics and leftist intellectuals hold this view of the state.  Max Weber writes, “. . . a state is a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.”  And “. . . the modern state is a compulsory association which organizes domination. . . .” Max Weber, “Politics as a Vocation,” in: H.H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, eds., From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology (New York: Oxford, 1958), pp. 78 and 82.  Similarly Vladimir Lenin writes of a “special apparatus for the systematic application of force and the subjugation of people by force.  It is such an apparatus that is called the state.”  Vladimiar Lenin, “The State: A Lecture Delivered at the Sverdlov University, July 11, 1919,” Collected Works, Vol. 29, pp. 470-488.

8  Carlos Fazio, “Los marines llegaron ya,” La Jornada, March 9, 2009.

9  John Saxe-Fernández, “Caos e intervención,” La Jornada, March 26, 2009.

10  Andrés Manuel López Obrador, La mafia nos robó la Presidencia (Mexico: Grijalbo, 2007).  Also see the Legitimate Government website at <www.amlo.org.mx> and López Obrador’s letter to Hillary Clinton on the occasion of her visit to Mexico, which is also interesting in this regard: <mrzine.monthlyreview.org/amlo290309.html>.

Dan La Botz is a Cincinnati-based teacher, writer and activist.  Contact him through his home page: <DanLaBotz.wikidot.com>.