With so much turmoil and trouble across the country right now, most Americans are probably not thinking about our southern neighbor. But they should be, because Mexico is in trouble, facing a dual crisis of deadly drug cartels and a deadly coronavirus pandemic. As conditions there deteriorate, we should expect Mexico’s problems to become our own.
First, the cartels. Last week, one of Mexico’s most powerful cartels brought the country’s ongoing drug war right into the heart of Mexico City, long considered an island of calm in an ocean of chaos and violence.
Not anymore. Gunmen believed to be members of the violent Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) unleashed a carefully coordinated assassination attempt against Mexico City Police Chief Omar García Harfuch in one of the city’s most posh neighborhoods, attacking García’s armored vehicle at dawn on Friday with grenades, assault rifles, and a .50-caliber sniper rifle. García was hit three times but lived. Two of his bodyguards and a bystander were killed.
The hit on García was reportedly part of a string of planned attacks by CJNG against members of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s cabinet, and comes less than two weeks after a federal judge and his wife were killed by suspected CJNG gunmen in their home in the western state of Colima.
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Why is CJNG launching such high-profile attacks? Because Mexican authorities, in collaboration with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, have been targeting the cartel. Earlier in June, Mexico’s Financial Intelligence Unit announced it was freezing nearly 2,000 accounts believed to be used by CJNG. The head of the Financial Intelligence Unit, Santiago Nieto, is thought to be among the officials targeted by the cartel for assassination.
All of this is happening amid a backdrop of rising violence across the country. For several years in a row now, Mexico has seen record-setting numbers of murders, with last year’s record high of nearly 35,000 on track to be surpassed this year.
Amid all this violence, López Obrador has stuck to his simplistic campaign talking point that what the country really needs is “hugs, not bullets.” Even after Mexican troops suffered a stunning defeat last fall at the hands of Sinaloa cartel gunmen in the city of Culiacan, where National Guardsmen tried to arrest one of the sons of infamous drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán and eventually surrendered, López Obrador stuck with a policy of non-confrontation with the cartels. In the wake of the attack on García, López Obrador reiterated this approach, saying, “We’re not going to declare war on anyone.”
So much for Mexico’s worsening drug war. Meanwhile, the country is also facing a deadly pandemic that risks spiraling out of control. Like the United States, Mexico has seen rising coronavirus infection rates in recent weeks. But unlike in the United States, the coronavirus death rate is rising, not falling.
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That’s a concern because Mexico never made adequate preparations for the pandemic earlier this year. Government officials, most notably López Obrador, dismissed concerns about the coronavirus, downplayed the dangers, and failed to take precautionary measures early. López Obrador even bragged that the virus could not hurt Mexicans, touted good-luck charms he carries for protection, and attended a string of campaign-style events in March, mingling closely with crowds at a time when some health officials were warning Mexicans to stay at home.
Throughout the pandemic, López Obrador’s government has instituted no serious public policies or wide-ranging health measures to contain or slow the spread of the disease. Testing has been, and remains, virtually non-existent. Two weeks ago, the president released a bizarre video in which he urges his countrymen to “be happy,” “reject selfishness” and “consumerism.” Instead they should get out and “be free… enjoy the sky, the sun and fresh air.”
Now we’re starting to see coronavirus cases spreading north from the U.S.-Mexico border. Carmela Coyle, president and CEO of the California Hospital Association, told CNN that California hospitals are seeing an “unprecedented surge across the border” of coronavirus cases. Most of those cases are U.S. citizens, according to officials, but the rising numbers are a testament to how fast the virus is spreading through northern Mexico.
Between the rising power of the cartels and the destabilizing effects of the pandemic, the Mexican state is in serious trouble. A collapse of government authority, and perhaps of the regime itself, isn’t unthinkable under these conditions.
Americans shouldn’t wave away the consequences of a collapse of the Mexican state. Our history with Mexico has shown time and again that chaos and disorder south of the Rio Grande never stays there. That’s just as true of lawless cartels as it is of a runaway pandemic.