The bloody seizure of the entire city center of Culiacán by one of El Chapo’s sons signals Mexican state collapse. There is a war underway. It won’t stop at the border.
You may have read the news just a few days back: the Mexican military captured not one but two of El Chapo’s sons in the heart of Culiacán, the Sinaloan capital. One son freed himself—which is to say his entourage and retainers at hand overpowered and killed the soldiers at hand—and then, in a decisive riposte, seized the entire city center of Culiacán to compel the liberation of his brother.
This is important because Americans have not had to think seriously about this for nearly a century: there is a place on the map marked Mexico, but much of it is governed by something other than the Mexican state.
The forces that emerged were in the literal sense awesome and awful. Heavy weaponry that would be familiar on any Iraqi, Syrian, or Yemeni battlefield was brought to bear. More and worse: custom-built armored vehicles, designed and built to make a Sahel-warfare technical look like an amateur’s weekend kit job, were rolled out for their combat debut. Most critically, all this hardware was manned by men with qualities the Mexican Army largely lacks: training, tactical proficiency, and motivation.
Then the coup de grace: as the Chapo sons’ forces engaged in direct combat with their own national military, kill squads went into action across Culiacán, slaughtering the families of soldiers engaged in the streets.
Cowed and overmatched—most crucially in the moral arena—the hapless band of soldiers still holding the second son finally received word from Mexico City, direct from President AMLO himself: surrender. Surrender and release the prisoner.
It’s an absolutely extraordinary episode even by the grim and bizarre annals of what we mistakenly call the post-2006 Mexican Drug War. The Battle of Culiacán stands on a level above, say, the Ayotzinapa massacre, or the Zetas’ expulsion of the entire population of Ciudad Mier. Killing scores of innocents and brutalizing small towns is one thing: seizing regional capital cities and crushing the national armed forces in open fighting in broad daylight is something else.
“Drug War” is a misnomer for reasons the Culiacán battle lays bare. This is not a mafia-type problem, nor one comprehensible within the framework of law enforcement and crime. This is something very much like an insurgency now—think of the eruption of armed resistance in Culiacán in 2019 as something like that in Sadr City in 2004—and also something completely like state collapse. The cartels may be the proximate drivers but they are symptoms. Underlying them is a miasma of official corruption, popular alienation, and localist resentments—and underlying all that is a low-trust civil society stripped of the mediating mechanisms that make peaceable democracy both feasible and attractive.
Note as an aside that the cartels are not even necessarily drug-trafficking-specific entities. There have been ferocious and bloody cartel battles—against one another, against the state—for control of economic interests ranging from port operations to the avocado crop to lime exports. Illegal drugs supercharge their resources and ambitions, but absent them and that illegality they would simply assume another form.
I want to pause here and be explicit: none of this is an argument that Mexicans are incapable of liberality and democracy. The millions of Mexicans in the United States illustrate the contrary quite well, and localist democratic structures in Mexico proper are often of the sort that would make a communitarian conservative’s heart swell with pride. What is argued here is that Culiacán illuminates that the Mexican state as constituted is incompetent to that end.
Simply put, we can understand the past two centuries of Mexican history as a cyclic alternation between chaotic liberality and pluralism on the one hand, and orderly (if corrupt) autocracy on the other. The orderly and corrupt Porfiriato was followed by the horrors of civil war unleashed by Madero, followed in turn by the “perfect dictatorship” of the PRI, followed in turn by this century’s emergence of true Mexican multiparty democracy—and therefore the disintegration of the state we see now.
This is important because Americans have not had to think seriously about this for nearly a century: there is a place on the map marked Mexico, but much of it is governed by something other than the Mexican state. That’s been true for years.
The Battle of Culiacán, government surrender and all, made it open and explicit.
What happens now, barring an exceedingly unlikely discovery of spine and competence by the government in Mexico City, is more and worse. The country is on a trajectory toward warlordism reminiscent of, say, 1930s China or its own 1910s. Some of those warlords will be the cartels. Some of them will be virtuous local forces genuinely on the side of order and justice—for example the autodefensa citizen militias of Michoacán. Some of them will be the official state, grasping for what it can. Some of them, given sufficient time, will be autonomous or even secessionist movements: look to Chiapas, Morelia, et al., for that.
The lines between all these groups will be hazy and easily crossed. None will be mutually exclusive from the others.
It is tragic and a pity, because Mexico has in fact mastered the forms if not the substance of democratic civics. It is a shame because much of the Mexican diaspora in the United States is transmitting back home ideas of natural rights and a virtuous armed citizenry—right at the moment we ourselves have stopped believing in those things. (This has been a significant driver of the autodefensa phenomenon.) It is a loss because, depending on how you measure it, México just this decade tipped into a majority middle-class society for the first time in its history. In regions like the Bajío, advanced manufacturing is taking root and a class of engineers is slowly changing the old ways.
Nevertheless as any student of history will tell you, revolution happens not when things are bad, but when expectations are frustrated.
So what does all this mean for the United States? A century of relative peace along our southern border has left us complacent. We haven’t seriously thought about what it might mean if a nation of one hundred twenty million people with thousands of miles of land and coastal access to the United States went into collapse. We still tell ourselves a series of falsehoods about Mexico: that the immigration problem is about immigration, that the crime problem is about crime, that the Mexican state is the solution and not the problem, that they can handle their own affairs, that light-armor forces can overrun Culiacán and it isn’t our problem.
From Culiacán, Sinaloa, to Nogales, Arizona, is one day’s drive.
We know how we handled it last time México evaporated as a cohesive state, in 1910-1920. By late spring 1916, cross-border raiding got so bad that we mobilized the entire National Guard and called for volunteers. Most people remember the punitive expedition against the Villistas. Less remembered are the raids and counter-raids at places like San Ygnacio, Texas—and still less remembered is the time the United States Army was compelled to attack and occupy Mexican Nogales in 1918, and Ciudad Juárez in 1919.
You may rightly ask whether we are capable of the same policy now—and if we are, whether we are competent to execute it.
Mexico is not an enemy state, and the Mexicans are not an enemy people. Yet as Mexico falls apart, we need to ask ourselves questions normally reserved for objectively hostile nations. There is a war underway. It won’t stop at the border.
It’s time to look south, and think.
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