Meddling Where We Oughtn't

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Mexico, if left alone, would be a reasonably successful and stable country of the upper Third World. It isn’t Haiti, isn’t Bangladesh, isn’t a dying patient with multiple tubes in every orifice. If not strong-armed into chaos, it would be all right.

But the United States won’t leave it alone. Washington is pushing it to wage Washington’s “war on drugs.” As usual, Washington has no idea what it is doing. Nor does it care. Should untoward consequences follow, it will be surprised, this being the characteristic condition of American foreign policy.

Untoward consequences are quite available. The narcotraficantes that Mexico is supposed to fight for Washington are a formidable armed force. They have unlimited money, which they use to buy heavy weapons. They have unlimited money, which they use to corrupt the government of a comparatively poor country. Mexico does not have the wherewithal to fight them. The army here is small and poorly armed. This is reasonable since Mexico has neither territorial ambitions nor enemies. Except, certainly in effect, the United States.

The government is outgunned by the narcos. Further, the traffickers have the advantage of being dispersed and invisible. The situation is, or quickly could be, exactly that faced by the US in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan: narcos can appear from nowhere, blow up police stations, assassinate judges, or kill a dozen teenagers at a party. Then they disappear.

Thus they can destabilize the nation and hold the population hostage. This doesn’t bother Americans, who barely know where Mexico is. It bothers Mexicans, who know their people are dying in an exported American war.

Bear in mind that anti-Americanism thrives here and throughout Latin America. Much of it is justified; some of it isn’t. The US population, the most comprehensively ignorant of the advanced world, knows nothing of the reasons or of the countries. But the hostility is real. Shrugging it off could prove a mistake.

If Mexicans had to choose between the drug lords, who are often seen as counter-culture heroes, and the US, seen as an enemy too dangerous to be openly called an enemy, many would go with their compatriots in the drug trade. A repertoire of narco-corridos, songs glorifying the narcos, exists. Los Tigres del Norte in Sinaloa have specialized in these.

Although Mexico doesn’t have America’s festering antagonisms — blacks hate whites hate browns hate men hate women hate Jews — there are groups, particularly in Chiapas, who are potential insurgents. If they should ally themselves with the narcos and go to the mountains, or set up cells in the cities, the result would be a long, bloody civil war: Afghanistan on the US border. This is not Freddian fantasy. Thoughtful Mexicans worry about it.


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The Mexican army cannot handle an uprising of any magnitude. The Pentagon would then intervene to “help” Mexico. Que dios nos ayude.

The Pentagon is working toward intervention, whether it knows that it is or not. There is something called the Merida Initiative, in which the US supplies money and advice to transform Mexican society to combat the narcos. The colonels in the Five-Sided Squirrel Cage really believe they can reform the Mexican judiciary and infuse the police with virtuous fervor for American ideals. I spoke to a field-grade American officer about this. He had taken a six-month intensive course in Spanish at the Defense Language Institute and spoke less Spanish than my daughter did after two weeks here. The money would be used to reform the Mexican government, he said, which would then make short work of the narcos. He explained this with the earnest mission-orientedness that officers display when they are about to do something senseless.

I didn’t say, “Give me a freaking break,” because I knew it would accomplish nothing. You don’t “reform” countries you don’t understand by solemn brainless enthusiasm. The money would vanish like water in dry sand. Mexico does not want to be remade in the image of the United States, for remarkably good reasons. The more the US meddles, the less legitimate the government that permits it will be. Not a good idea.

Why does the military regularly misestimate the nature of the Third World? Because soldiers live, and think, in a rigid, conformist, orderly world in which good (us) and evil (them) are starkly distinct, in which one gives orders and things happen, in which all are on the team and working toward a common goal. Officers are insular, self-righteous, ruthless (after all, they are fighting Evil) and clueless. The workings of the Third World are the polar opposite of orderliness of the military. The colonels are instantly lost in the complex relationships, informal arrangements, family loyalties and invisible politics of Latin America. And they do not understand that when they intervene, they are not the good guys.

This is why we hear again and again from some buzz-cut horse’s ass with stars on his shoulders about how we are trying so hard to “help the Afghan people.”

One might ask: Why are drugs Mexico’s problem? Americans, huge numbers of them, want drugs. If they didn’t want drugs, the narcos couldn’t sell the stuff. But the American government doesn’t want its citizens to have drugs. Fine. Let the government attack its own citizens. Leave others out of it.

Washington isn’t going to rid the US of drugs any more than it rid the country of alcohol. Popular demand is far too great. The US crawls with crank labs, open-air crack markets, meth cookers, fields of marijuhweenie too large not to have been noticed by state authorities. California talks of legalizing grass in defiance of the Feds. All God’s chillun loves drugs — good ol’ boys, Ivy League students, their professors, high-school kids, middle-class suburbanies, congressman, musicians, and several Republicans. Mexico is going to change this? They must be smoking something good in DC.

A friend recently told me of being in a boat off Florida with several honeys in bikinis aboard. A Coast Guard cutter pulled alongside because the guys wanted to look at the babes. My buddy, being sociable, hollered, “What are you guys doing?”

“We’re looking for drugs.”

“Oh. We’ll follow you.”

Whereupon the Coast Guardies broke out laughing. Even the cops don’t really care.

Mexico can’t fix things, if indeed they are broken. Leave the place alone.

Fred Reed is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well and A Brass Pole in Bangkok: A Thing I Aspire to Be. His latest book is Curmudgeing Through Paradise: Reports from a Fractal Dung Beetle. Visit his blog.

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