The Mexican Drug War: Pobre Mexico, Pobre Estados Unidos

Diaz: Poor Mexico!

By Carl L. Bankston III

“Pobre Mexico,”  Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz is reported to have said in his last days, “tan lejos de Dios y tan cerca de Estados Unidos” [“poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States”].  Mexican writer improved on this lament and uncharacteristically expressed the sentiment with greater impartiality when he wrote, “pobre Mexico, pobre Estados Unidos, tan lejos de Dios, tan cerca el uno del otro” [poor Mexico, poor United States, so far from God, so close to each other”].

Fuentes: Poor United States!
Mexico is currently in the midst of a full-scale drug war. Just how many have died in this conflict remains a matter of debate and speculation. The PBS Newshour gives an estimateof 45,000 deaths since President Felipe Calderon declared the war five years ago, but acknowledges that those fighting the war see “more murders than they can count.” Some of my Mexican friends have told me that the casualty count is too high, that Calderon plunged the country into a bloodbath, and that the federal government of Mexico should call off the war. The casualty count has been high and any citizen of Mexico should have a say in the policies of that country that I, as a North American, cannot assert.  Nevertheless, the organized criminal drug organizations are there and it is difficult for me to see that ceasing the war now would be anything other than simple surrender. To understand why these organizations exist, though, we ought to look at their historical background in terms of the Diaz/Fuentes quips: at the political and cultural emptiness of the nations south and north of the Rio Grande, and at how they have mutually exacerbated their domestic troubles.

The criminal organizations took root in Mexico only partly because that nation has a favorable climate for drug crops and lies on the drug route between South and North America. These organizations grew because of the high degree of centralization of the Mexican political system and the high-level of corruption fostered by such centralization.  The centralization came into existence because of the absence of functioning local civic institutions.The revolution that broke out in 1910 in attempts to overthrow the governing elite of Porfirio Diaz plunged the country into a series of revolts and short-lived governments. Mexico was a nation of Mestizo and Indian peasants ruled by large landowners of European ancestry (although, ironically, Diaz himself was a Mestizo). The problem of creating a government with its roots in the broad masses of the nation left the country, in the period immediately following the revolution, in the hands of generals whose claims to power were based on the number of soldiers at their command.

The first steps toward a solution of this problem were taken during the administration of President Alvaro Obregon (1920-24). Obregon began reorganizing the guerilla armies of the revolutionary years into a disciplined national army, supported the establishment of a national trade confederation, and revived and enforced earlier land-reform legislation. In this way, he not only gave a military basis to his regime, but he also extended control over urban workers and the peasantry.  He was, in other words, creating a highly centralized, mass society. In 1923, Obregon backed Plutarco Elias Calles as his successor. Adolfo de la Huerta, Obregon’s own immediate predecessor and rival of Calles, raised a revolt. Although a significant portion of the military favored de la Huerta, volunteers from the labor and agricultural sectors turned the struggle to the side of Calles and Obregon.

The new corporatist regime of military, labor, and peasantry took concrete organizational form. It acquired this under the leadership of Calles. During Calles’ presidency, he established such close ties to the Regional Confederation of Mexican Workers (CROM), which represented both agricultural and labor organizations that the CROM became virtually an organ of the emerging Mexican corporate state. When Calles approached the end of his term, in 1928, he reluctantly gave in to the overwhelming power of Obregon in the Mexican Congress and consented to Obregon’s return to power. Although a revolt by the opposition was put down before Obregon’s successful election, the returning president was assassinated before he could enjoy his power. To prevent political tensions from erupting once again into armed struggle, Calles addressed Congress called for that body to name a provisional president, and declared the need for a political party that could institutionalize the Revolution and integrate all factions of Mexican society.  In March, 1928, the Partido Nacional Revolucionario was created in the city of Queretaro, under the direction of Calles, for just that purpose. The Comite Central Organizador of the new party undertook “invitar a todos los partidos, agrupaciones y organizaciones politicas de la Republica, de credo y tendencia revolucionaria, para unirse y formar el Partido Nacional Revolucionario” [“to invite all the parties, groups, and political organizations of the Republic, of revolutionary belief and tendency, to unite and form the National Revolutionary Party”].

The party organized in Queretaro continued, despite name changes, to rule Mexico until the very end of the twentieth century. President Manuel Avila Camacho (1940-46) reorganized the party under the name Partido Revolucionario Institucional, which it retains today. While various presidents emphasized “left-wing” issues such as nationalization and land-reform and others emphasized “right-wing” issues such as economic expansion, the party itself remained a mechanism for the incorporation and integration of all national institutions.

Although at one level Mexico became a highly centralized corporatist state, at the village and town level it retained an ancient patron-client that pre-dated the revolution. I recall in the first half of the 1970s visiting a friend in central Mexico, who had built a cabin in the Sierras Occidentales. At that time, the nation was in the throes of one of its most radical efforts at land reform under President Luis Echeverria (1970-1976). Concerned that Echeverria’s regime might seize some of their extensive landholdings, my friend’s father carved up his own property and placed portions of it in the names of his young adult children, providing my friend with the opportunity to try his own experiment in living off the land. I doubt that he is still living in a cabin today, but his attempt at alternative living was probably more successful than were the collective ejidos promoted by the Mexican president, which were generally disastrous for themselves and the Mexican economy.

One of my most distinct memories is of visiting my friend’s parents at their hacienda on the occasion of his father’s birthday. I remember the local villagers gathering in front of the hacienda, all dressed in traditional white Mexican clothes to sing songs for the patron. Underneath the modern mass state, attempting to direct all aspects of the national life of its atomized citizenry was a pre-modern society of patrons and clients.

A highly integrated centralized state cultivates corruption for three reasons. First, it has no balance of power to check the inclinations of office-holders to pursue their own self-interests. Second, all the rewards flow toward a controlling bureaucracy. Third, by attempting to coordinate all activities, the state establishes links with all areas of business and politics, including the illicit areas. A society such as Mexico’s lacks even the limits that may be imposed by local civic institutions, since these are mainly those time immemorial patron-client networks.

Mexico did at long last move away from single-party government. The Partido de Accion Nacional was founded in 1939 for the purpose of representing a Catholic social philosophy. From its inception, the party was critical of authoritarian tendencies in the PRI and supported increased reliance on individual initiative in the economic life of the nation. The PRI allowed PAN to exist as a nominal opposition party without, until recently, any real power or chance of challenging the ruling party. PAN finally began acquiring some influence, though, largely because of the growth of a Mexican middle class and because of popular disgust with the obvious corruption of the PRI. The PRI itself also fragmented, with its left wing breaking off to form the Frente Democratico Nacional.

In 2000, a PAN candidate, Vicente Fox finally broke the PRI monopoly by winning the presidency.  The current president, Felipe Calderon, succeeded Fox in a hotly contested election in 2006. While the PRI political monopoly has been broken, though, the pattern of connections among office-holders, business leaders, and unions remains in place, with the difference that now there are competing integrated power bases, that also have their own supports in the police and the military. Many of the people in the nation, though, are still peasants, whose traditional patronage systems have been disrupted both by the federal bureaucracies and by the emergence of new criminal systems. Understanding those criminal systems requires looking at the other unfortunate partner in this troubled relationship, the United States.

About the year 1970 (periodizations are always somewhat arbitrary), the United States entered a new period in its history characterized by three interrelated trends: First, the U.S. underwent a rapid centralization of its own political system.  Second, it became a demand-driven, import-based economy, buying more from other nations than it exported to feed the constantly increasing material expectations of its population. Third, it experienced a cultural shift, in which the consumption of goods became ever more important in the lives of its people.

Although there have been a number of periods of rapid growth in the size and influence of the U.S. federal government, none compare with the dramatic increase in the few years before and after 1970.  This was the time in which the United States truly became a welfare state, with the federal government deeply involved in virtually every area of the lives of its citizens. While there are justifications for some of the growth in federal intervention, such as protecting the voting rights of citizens in minority groups, this trend tended to redefine the social relations of Americans. The sociologist Robert Nisbet has argued that the most effective social relations have existed historically within small, highly localized, face-to-face ties. In the past, Nisbet wrote in The Quest for Community, the “institutional systems of mutual aid, welfare, education, recreation, and distribution” were primarily the products of “family, local community, church, and the whole network of interpersonal relationships.” Centralized state power, from Nisbet’s perspective, has resulted in serious problems for modern societies. It has weakened traditional and immediate institutions, such as the family, without being able to replace fully the functions of those institutions. This has created settlements of atomized individuals in place of true communities as well as undermined the abilities of those individuals to work together for common goals.  While the most serious deterioration of community has occurred in North America’s low-income inner cities, among those most directly dependent on the central state, basic community institutions have been weakened throughout the nation.

Part of the shift in power from localities to the federal government involved federal efforts to maintain high demand and high levels of public consumption. By the end of the 1970s, Americans were consuming more than they were producing, so that imports began to exceed exports. To the extent that Americans were producing domestically, the labor in new and often unpleasant industries fell more and more to immigrants, from Mexico more than anywhere else. America was importing people, in other words, in order to maintain its ever-increasing expectations for standards of living among the native-born.

Defining themselves through consumption led Americans to import more than labor and legal goods. The social psychology of consuming is: the purpose of life is to maximize enjoyment. These material goods will increase your enjoyment. No consumer goods fit this consumer psychology quite so well as pleasure-inducing goods. The inner cities, where the purposelessness and anomie of living with decayed social institutions was greatest, became sites of the most savage drug wars within North America, but drug use, as the purest form of consumerism spread through the nation in the post-1970 period. This was precisely why living next to the United States became so unfortunate for Mexico. The latter became an exporter of massive amounts of drugs, as well as workers, to the consumer culture of the northern neighbor, giving rise to highly organized criminal corporations extending throughout Mexican society. Poor Mexico, poor United States, so far from God and so close to each other.


The Moral Liberal Sociology Editor, Carl L. Bankston III is Professor of Sociology at Tulane University in New Orleans, LA.  He is the author and co-author of a number of books and numerous articles published in academic journals. An incomplete list of his books includes: Growing Up American: How Vietnamese Children Adapt to Life in the United States (with Min Zhou, 1998), Blue Collar Bayou: Louisiana Cajuns in the New Economy of Ethnicity (with Jacques Henry, 2002), and A Troubled Dream: The Promise and Failure of School Desegregation in Louisiana (2002), Forced to Fail: The Paradox of School Desegregation (hardback, 2005; paperback, 2007), and Public Education – America’s Civil Religion: A Social History (2009) (all with Stephen J. Caldas). View Professor Bankston’s full bio, here.  He blogs at Can These Bones Live?