Shortly after two elderly Jesuit priests were killed in Chihuahua, heads of Jesuit universities called Mexico “a failed state where the law of the jungle prevails.” As a scholar researching and teaching state fragility and political violence, I know Mexico entered a dangerous spiral of violence in late 2006. Indeed, the deadly battle that Mexican authorities have been waging against drug cartels has become my favorite example to illustrate how internal rivals (like drug cartels) affect the ability of states to remain strong. Everything I have read or written on the topic is nothing compared to the fear and distress I felt when that violence was all around me. 

I recently returned to the U.S. after spending 14 months in Mexico. At first, the excitement of being back after 22 years in America made me overlook the dangers of being there. While I grew concerned about my safety over time, nothing out of the ordinary happened to me for months. But that changed a week before I returned to the States. August 9th  was a normal day at my parents’ house in Irapuato. At 7:30 p.m., a loud explosion interrupted one of our usual long evening chats. An armed command attacked and burned to ashes a convenience store located two-and-a-half blocks from us. That night, drug cartel members set fire to 25 convenience stores, cars and trucks in Guanajuato and Jalisco. In less than 72 hours, violence extended to the border towns of Mexicali, Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez, where narcos killed 11 civilians

President Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) labeled those events as isolated. “It’s likely staged, it’s propagandistic. There is no major problem,” he said. But those acts are just part of the sad Mexican reality today. Since AMLO took office, three-and-a-half years ago, more than 120,000 people have been murdered. This means that 4 people are killed every hour, putting his administration on track to become the most violent in history. As Mexican security forces are unable to cope with the pervasiveness and ferocity of drug cartel attacks, two things are evident. First, AMLO’s security strategy “Hugs, Not Bullets” has failed. Civilians and the state are at the mercy of criminal organizations. They can ignite fear among the population and turn government security agencies on their heads in seconds. Second, unable to curtail the power of criminal groups by providing citizens with basic public goods like security and justice, Mexico is, just as Jesuit priests declared, becoming a failed state.

This is not good news for any of us.

Our country shares 2000 miles of border with Mexico. There are 55 active land ports of entry. Drug cartels use the U.S.-Mexico border to smuggle illicit drugs and humans. The latter is a billion-dollar business as profitable as illegal drug trafficking, and thus has become an irresistible activity for criminal networks. Given the weakness of the Mexican state, it is not difficult to imagine that organized criminal groups control who and what crosses the border. Cartels are not only responsible in part for the opioid epidemic in the U.S. that killed 92,000 persons in 2020, but also for the exponential rise in illegal border crossings in recent years. 

Further, Mexico is the top trade partner of the U.S. As such, the U.S. imports of Mexican produce have grown in recent years and avocados top the list. The American favorite “super food” has prompted a violent war in Michoacán, Mexico. This conflict increased the prices of avocado by 81% in the past 12 months. Former U.S. Ambassador, Christopher Landau, estimated that drug cartels own 35-40% of the Mexican territory. If this is true, the chances of seeing a similar war to control the markets of other highly demanded produce like tomatoes, berries or citrus are quite high. So, you should not be surprised to see the prices of those products rise in the future. This can add fuel to the record levels of inflation that our economy is experiencing as it recovers from the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Less than 1 in 4 Americans have a positive image of Mexico.

Many associate our neighbor to the south with words like “drugs,” “violence,” “corruption” or “immigrants.” But the discussion above suggests that we are inextricably linked to our southern neighbor, and vice versa. A failing Mexican state is a national health, safety and economic threat for all of us. What are we doing to help? From 2011 to 2021, Mexico received $2.5 billion in U.S. aid to curtail the power of drug cartels. Sadly, our tax money spent in the Mérida Initiative did not help.

Another opportunity is around the corner. The U.S. Congress approved $158.9 million in assistance to Mexico for FY2022 as part of a new initiative known as the Bicentennial Framework. But the disbursement of the money has no restrictions, repeating one of the biggest mistakes of the Mérida plan.

We all should be in favor of helping Mexico. Yet two things need to happen before we see positive results. First, the U.S. government must impose and enforce conditions for every penny disbursed to the Mexican government. This minimizes the risk of seeing our money disappear in the drain of corruption or useless policies. Second, they must create a swift policy action plan to stop the illegal traffic of guns to Mexico, which exceeds 200,000 firearms per year. Most of those weapons are used by drug cartels. So, they can easily hinder the efficiency of U.S. aid, and have the potential of making part of our hard-earned tax money spent there useless.

What are you waiting for before you call or email your elected officials to demand results on both fronts?

Sergio Béjar-Lopez

Sergio Béjar is an associate professor of political science at San José State University, and 2023 Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd Project.