A war is raging in Mexico, but a deaf silence in newspapers, international fora and political discourse has prevented most US Americans, and in fact, many concerned publics around the world, from taking notice. The war is not dissimilar from the ones raging in the Northern triangle in Central America. Debates regarding immigration flows have provided greater visibility to the plight of countries like Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, mired in the clash between governments and drug traffic organizations and criminal gangs. A combination of an explicit foreign policy by the Government of Mexico that seeks to deny in every international forum the seriousness of the situation, with the neglect that -with the exception of Cuba and Venezuela- characterizes the State Department attitude towards much of Latin America and the Caribbean, has prevented the world from paying attention. US and European tourists continue to flocking into the safe havens of the Mexican resort enclaves, business continues as usual among those involved in the industrial supply chains of North America, while rich Mexicans protect themselves from the battlegrounds by living in their gated communities and hiring private security to protect them.
The war in Mexico is not quiet. It has taken more than 200,000 lives in the past ten years, mostly young men in their prime. Mass graves dot the Mexican landscape, with tens of thousands of people gone missing, presumably killed by the warring factions. Entire populations from some towns have been displaced, as invisible refugees seek shelter and a new life elsewhere, escaping violence and security threats. In Culiacán, Sinaloa, a botched attempt to capture the son of “El Chapo” Guzmán led to an urban siege, shootouts and the eventual liberation of the criminal, a controversial decision made by the Federal government, on the argument that the release prevented mass bloodshed of civilians and soldiers alike. That recent fiasco is not, however, an isolated event.
Among political scientists, a conventional definition of an interstate or civil war is when a conflict involves over 1000 war-related casualties per year, with a minimum of 100 from each side. Mexico has surpassed such conventional threshold more than a decade ago. The last few weeks alone would already count the deaths of Mexican law enforcement, community police and soldiers in the triple digits. Just two weeks ago, at least fourteen state police officers lost their lives in an ambush in Aguililla, Michoacán. In that same state, at the end of May, municipal police stations in the city of Zamora were attacked, leaving 3 police officers dead and 10 seriously wounded. In Tepalcatepec one of the most infamous Mexican drug cartels, the Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG), clashed with the local militia in a declared war against their leader “El Abuelo”, leaving 9 dead an 11 wounded. Although Michoacán is currently a hotspot of violence the war is raging in many other states, including Guerrero, where a confrontation left 14 civilians and 1 soldier dead in the village of Tepochica, a week ago. The Guerrero Violence Project, led by Chris Kyle, offers most comprehensive effort to document violent death in that state, documenting 372 violent deaths between June 1 and July 31 of this year, including dozens of police officers — most of them volunteer indigenous community police — as well as drug traffickers. But there is also the collateral damage of the deaths of taxi drivers, peasants, students, carwashers, peddlers, tourists and their guides. This source also documents dozens of unidentified bodies found in the streets or in mass graves. In many other states we simply do not have such detailed documentation of the death toll from the war. Violent death has become routinized for millions of Mexicans who live amidst the conflict.
Policy makers and the public are more likely to know about the latest developments in Syria, an attack to security forces in Palestine, or a mass demonstration in Barcelona, than about the seriousness of what happened in Culiacán last week. It was not just one more episode of political violence, unrest, or a display of incompetence by a government. The Mexican state was unable to exercise its legitimate monopoly of the use of force, the distinctive characteristic of a state. I am not saying that Mexico is a failed state, or that the state is absent. But when something so intrinsic to stateness is failing, anywhere in the world, we should pay attention. And when it happens in the country that shares a 3000 kilometer border with the US, it might be the most important American foreign policy concern.