Saturday, 6 November 2010

Book review: Amexica

I bought Amexica, by Ed Vulliamy, about a week back and haven't been able to put it down apart from occasional forays into various articles, which I hope to write up over the weekend.

I've been doing a fair bit of reading on the Mexico situation of late, as its a fascinating real world case study of a post-political conflict, so this book was too good an opportunity to resist.

The book paints an undeniably bleak picture, of a state which, if it has not already failed, is on the edge of failure in the face of a tidal wave of violence. The core of this violence is the drug trade, however, this violence has also created an opportunity for violence of all kinds to rise to the surface.

What is especially worrying for the observer is the fact that the major social institutions charged with retaining order, the police and the military, are both seen to be comprehensively corrupt. This corruption varies in severity, from soldiers letting trucks cross the border without being searched properly, to active corruption, with police officers facilitating or taking part in massacres.

The book runs through a gamut of different themes, looking at the plight of many different groups, from the mentally ill, whose shelters are now targeted by gunmen for mysterious reasons, to women, who, in some cities, vanish by the dozen a week, only to be found violated and murdered dumped int he street.

Because the book flows through the authors own observations and interviews with a range of colourful characters it is extremely personal, and makes the plight of the Mexican people all the more poignant.

Its hard, from this narrative, to see how the Mexican state can ever recover, and more importantly, how this violence can be prevented from spreading North into America itself, if indeed it hasn't already. Although the border wall and other means of preventing illegal immigration are of some use, fundamentally, the flow of people to and fro continues, and with immigration come the cartels.

The other problem is that without the cartels the Mexican economy would have severe issues. The flow of money undoubtedly supports the wider economy, particularly as that legal economy is weakened by the slow flow of factories out of Mexico into Asia. The cartels pay well, although the risks of working for them are high, and often there are few other opportunities. Also, for young men, there are few other chances to become involved in a community.

Long term its hard to see where this trend takes us. If the cartels were not being challenged so directly by the state then the violence would probably recede, or at least that is the implication of the book. However this would inevitably lead to a swifter decline for the state as the cartels could channel more money into corrupting local institutions, without the need for so much street war. It would also probably lead to the rise to supremacy of a single cartel over the others.

The problem is that unlike much of the some of the cartels in South America the Mexican cartels show less interest in replacing the functions of the state as they work to collapse it. Elsewhere in the world we have seen the extraterritorialisation of parcels of land by powerful cartels who take at least some pride in providing security and stability to the areas they control, whilst seeking to expand their territory over time.

Some Mexican cities, at least according to the book, have been wholly corrupted by the cartels. The end result of which seems to be the total collapse of local media, and the decay of traditional state functions. Substantial amounts of violence still occur, although more of it is directed at women. This can only occur in places where one cartel is wholly dominant, and there is an implication that if another cartel attempted a hostile takeover then violence would swiftly return to the streets.

I'm also interested in whether America itself can cope with the gradual decline and possible collapse of its neighbour to the South. As violence starts to penetrate the Southern states it remains to be seen if structures which will push it back can be developed. With political focus on overseas conflicts and fixing problems in the economy and in the core of the country it seems unlikely that this issue on the periphery will achieve significant attention. It is well worth reading this piece by Robert J. Bunker, featured recently in Small Wars Journal, which calls for precisely this shift in political focus.

It seems unlikely that American institutions will prove to be substantially better than those in Mexico to cope with a post political conflict. It only remains to be seen if the cartels decide it is worth the risk of raising the ire of America. Most likely, in the short term, that the cartels will resist this temptation, it serves very little purpose with Mexico still unsubdued.

This is the first truly comprehensive book I've found on the growing crisis in Mexico, elegantly and emotionally written it doesn't lose its way and digs into some of the more complex issues around 4th generational war, and post political conflict without difficulty. Even if it is a wholly depressing read its worth the time. Lets just hope that Mexico isn't a harbinger for the types of conflicts which will dominate the 21st century.

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