President George H.W. Bush’s adviser, the fearless southern political strategist Lee Atwater, once said to Dan Quayle, Bush’s vice-president at that time, “You were the best rabbit we ever had. Let them chase you and they’ll stay off the important things.” From the time that I read this anecdote some years ago, I kept thinking about whether it might be the same with the crime wave that we are living through today. Might it be that the violence is distracting us from the essential, from the factors that make peaceful coexistence possible in every community?
There have been several studies, arguments, and discussions that over recent months have begun to advance our understanding of the phenomenon. Beyond the specific arguments, what seems important to me is that the debate, above all that which has taken place in the pages of the periodical Nexos, but also in other forums, throughout the last two or three years, knowledge has truly advanced. The following is my own learning in this regard.
In the first place, it appears to me that there continues to be an enormous lack of understanding of the profound causes for the relatively sudden growth of criminality, without which it is impossible to turn back the current situation. For starters, I have no doubt concerning the confluence of two factors, more or less simultaneously but nonetheless independently, which produced the phenomenon. One factor was the decentralization of power that began to occur from the mid-nineties: perhaps the key year was 1994 when, at the apex of PRIist power, the first rash of abductions and killings was unleashed. There was insufficient power in the presidency to halt or prevent it. From this moment to the PRI defeat in 2000, power migrated to the states and municipalities without the latter having the most minimal understanding of its implications. From a system controlled –but not institutionalized- from above, ours proceeded to generalized decontrol. States and municipalities rejoiced in the inebriation of money and freedom that they began to enjoy, but did not invest this in public security, investigative capacity, or in an effective system for the procurement of justice.
While the fiesta was in full swing, the narco traffickers, and other criminal groups, began to grow in accelerated fashion. This growth was due to circumstances that, in retrospect, appear to be clear: a rising demand for pirated and stolen goods; the development of the consumer drug market in the country (small but mushrooming at exponential rates); the declining profitability from narco trafficking in the U.S., and the impact of 9/11 on the manner of introducing drugs into U.S. territory. Each of these factors generated a rapid ascent in criminal activity in Mexico. It is possible, although doubtful, that had this occurred during era of harsh PRI government of the old regime, strongly centralized and controlled, the system would have been able to impose rules and continue with its history of the administration of crime, as it always had. Truth to tell, everything suggests that the new phenomenon turned out to be infinitely more complex and powerful, in addition to that it transpired precisely when the political system was falling to pieces. The combination of these two factors could not have happened at a worse moment.
In analytical terms, it is important to determine whether the army caused more violence, or whether there were other factors. What is not in doubt is that the crucial factor in the rise of criminality and violence was not the army, but rather the disappearance of local government. As Ana Laura Magaloni and Antonio Azuela argue convincingly, strong or weak, local government achieved the maintenance of an equilibrium that controlled the criminality. It was not a perfect scheme of legality, but it fulfilled the most elementary function of government, which is to keep the peace. The sudden attack of organized crime and the brutal imbalances in the political power structure destroyed these equilibria. The presence of the federal government only dealt with the funeral rites. The problem was already there.
From this perspective, the way the action taken by the federal government can be one of “winning” or “losing” in front of the criminal mafias and its diagnosis can be correct or in error, but while local governments are not fortified, there will be no possible way out. That is, given the weakness of both the judicial and police institutions throughout the country, without decided action on the part of the federal government, it would be inconceivable to confront organized crime. However, to create a new platform of coexistence, social harmony, and control of criminality, there is no alternative to a strong local government endowed with the appropriate and relevant instruments for embattling crime at every corner. Neither of the two efforts is sufficient in itself, but without the second of the two, success is impossible.
The problem is that there never has been, at least since the Revolution, strong local government in the country. The old system was not created for there to be effective instances of state and municipal government, but instead, came into being to control the political groups and the population in general. That system never developed an institutional capacity that possessed even the slightest possibility of acting independently; in fact, its specialty was to sever the head of anyone attempting to do so. Observed in retrospect, this is the heart of the tragedy that we are smarting under at present.
Mexico requires answers and proposals that see through to the heart of the problem, and not its symptoms. That is why either the preferred solution of many PRIists (to return to centralization and control) or that of the pro-alliance actors (to exclude the PRI and to pretend that governance can be achieved without governmental structure and political ability) is simply absurd. Politicians of both stripes benefited from power decentralization, but neither of these assumed responsibility for its consequences.
What has worked in other countries, beginning with Colombia, is the combination of the following: strong local government and one that is duly outfitted in institutional terms; a police structure in which the population can trust; an integral economic development strategy which turns the local government into the heart of the economic flourishing and that generates employment having nothing to do with organized crime; and a concerted effort among the three governmental levels to fight against corruption. Evidence derived from Colombia suggests that without a frontal attack on corruption, the population will quite simply not believe that any advance has been achieved.
With all of the “what ifs” that one wishes to assign, the actions taken by the federal government and the army comprised a necessary response when faced by the risk of integral collapse of the government. But this effort cannot be the raison d’être of a government, nor is it sufficient. Lacking at present is what comes next and, it cannot be overstated, it would be better to begin now.