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The Evolution of Security Challenges in Mexico

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From February 19-28, I had the opportunity to travel to Mexico City to speak with academics and officials in the Mexican defense sector, regarding the evolution of challenges of transnational organized crime and insecurity in the country, and the work of the Mexican government to combat it.  My trip also gave me the opportunity to gain insights into the political environment surrounding July 2018 elections, in which Mexico will chose its next President, Congress and eight state governors, with enormous implications for the U.S. and the region.

In a forthcoming academic publication, I detail the work of the Mexican government against transnational organized crime and other security challenges in a forthcoming academic publication.  Here I set out my insights from my trip regarding the Mexican security situation and the political environment.

During my interactions in Mexico, I found the country to be at a critical moment, owing to the expansion of violence and criminality associated with the fragmentation of the criminal groups plaguing the country.  At the same time, the possible election of left-of-center populist candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) and his Morena party in Mexico’s elections threaten to lead the country away from its close economic and security cooperation relationship with the United States at a time when the relationship is most important for both countries.  Such a path would have dangerous implications, not only for Mexico, but also for the U.S. and its strategic position in the Western Hemisphere and globally.

To be fair, both cartel-related criminal violence in Mexico and the risk that the country will take a destructive step towards populism are problems for which the U.S. is substantially to blame. There’s also room, however, for the U.S. to contribute to the solution, both in its own interest and in that of Mexico.

Trends in Mexico’s Evolving Criminal Landscape

The Mexican government’s campaign against transnational criminal cartels, conducted with particular intensity during the governments of Felipe Calderon and Enrique Peña Nieto with the active participation of the Mexican Army and Navy has followed a reasonable strategy that includes drug interdiction, and the targeting of criminal leaders and their organizational structures across the Mexican government,  in collaboration with the U.S. and other international partners.  Unfortunately—if almost inevitably—these activities have had the undesirable side effect of fragmenting the criminal groups operating in the country, helping to expand violence. One Mexican security expert  estimates that as many as 245 interacting criminal groups currently operate in Mexico, counting cartel factions, affiliated gangs and other entities.

The fragmentation of the criminal landscape in Mexico drives violence in multiple ways.  The replacement of larger groups with a greater number of smaller ones creates incentives for the groups to fight for key drug routes and “plazas” (strategic geographies along those routes), as well as territory to extort and other areas of criminal interest. It gives such struggles an atmosphere of uncertainty, in which the new leaders are often less experienced, and more disposed to prove themselves or gain attention by committing murders in a particularly gruesome fashion.

Compounding this problem, the breakup of groups that once had the faculty to move drugs from South America, through Central America the Caribbean, and/or Mexico, to the United States and Europe, have left some of the remaining factions without the ability or connections to complete such feats of logistics and coordination on their own.  As a result, those groups have been driven to other criminal activities or forced to specialize in a certain part of the supply chain.  Thus whereas a single entity such as the Guadalajara Cartel could once work with local criminal associates to move drugs and other contraband all the way through Mexico, many illicit goods now must pass through the hands of multiple groups to arrive in the United States, multiplying the opportunities for competition and violence.

Nor is this phenomenon of fragmentation of the criminal supply chain limited to Mexico.  Indeed, with the work of the U.S. and governments in the region against transnational organized crime, the entire hemispheric supply chain has atomized, from the demobilization of the Colombian terrorist group the FARC and government successes in the campaign against powerful criminal bands there such as the Gulf Clan to the decapitation of virtually all of the principal smuggling groups in Central America such as the Cachiros and Valle Valles in Honduras, the Lorenzanas, Mendozas, and Lopez Ortiz families in Guatemala, and the Texis Cartel and Perrones in El Salvador.  Such fragmentation also includes the range of Mexican, Dominican, and other groups distributing drugs at the retail level in the United States.

The violence produced by the fragmentation of the Mexican criminal landscape has been compounded by the impact on Mexico of the restructuring of the drug market in the United States, as the principal consuming country drawing narcotics and other illicit goods (as well as people) through Mexico.  Such restructuring includes legalization of marijuana in multiple U.S. states, which has caused an important, if partial shift in production to support the U.S. market from Mexico to the U.S. itself.  Complicating this factor, the crisis of opioid consumption in the U.S. has significantly increased demand from traditional Mexican heroin producing areas, including Guerrero, Sinaloa and Michoacán (as well as the Guatemalan province of San Marcos). The result on the ground in Mexico has been the intensification of fights for control of poppy production areas and associated transport routes.  Third, the expanding consumption of synthetic drugs in the United States, and the changing nature of the synthetic drug market, has not only expanded production of synthetics in Mexico (largely using precursor chemicals imported from China), but has also placed new emphasis on production sites in urban areas.  This is due, in part, to the fact that, by contrast to the production of opioids, the production of synthetic drugs is relatively more reliant on urban infrastructure, such as electricity and water.  Finally, thanks in part to the explosion of cocaine production in Colombia (with the suspension of aerial spraying of coca crops with glyphosate), an expanded wave of cocaine is entering Mexico’s Pacific coast, principally in Oaxaca and Guerrero, where smugglers often transition from maritime to land routes to evade U.S. and Mexican detection efforts.

Beyond drugs, a number of other criminal enterprises have become a significant factor in Mexico’s criminal economy, including illegal mining (particularly in Michoacán), the extortion of producers of export-oriented agricultural products (including avocados and lemons), and the robbery of gasoline and oil.  Not only have criminal factions and associated gangs begun to “specialize” in various types of crime, but a dangerous complementarity has emerged between groups.  Those with significant levels of pseudo-military capabilities, such as the Zetas and to a lesser extent Jalisco Nuevo Generation, have incorporated local gangs and common criminals into their organizations, taxing their illicit activities, while in return, arming and training them, and helping them to expand into a broader array of criminal activities.  This evolution, in turn, has helped to fuel the expansion of violence and criminality in Mexico.

The Huachicoleros

With respect to fuel theft, the activity by groups known as huachicoleros has become a far more extensive problem in Mexico than is widely recognized, generating estimated losses to the state of more than $1 billion per year, according to experts consulted for this study.  The struggles for criminal turf associated with those thefts has also significantly contributing to violence in several areas that were previously relatively secure, including current difficulties the southeast of the state of Puebla.  The huachicoleros phenomenon also highlights the extensive involvement of local communities, and the guilt of both companies and state enterprises in criminal activities.  It is widely presumed, for example, that the tapping of pipelines requires technical knowledge obtained from compromised workers of the Mexican oil company Pemex (whose employees are generally not subject to regular confidence testing) regarding when, where, and how to penetrate the pipes (improper techniques or drilling into a pipe when gasoline is flowing can produce catastrophic results).  The activities of the huachicoleros also often requires the hired security personnel of PEMEX looking the other way” regarding a range of conspicuous criminal activities, including cutting access holes in fences, or allowing the construction of homes and other structures on top of pipeline rights-of-way. Such overlooked activities also include selling discounted stolen gasoline along roadsides or to commercial entities.

Moreover, in the often remote and economically depressed areas where such illicit activities take place, the criminals share part of the benefit (including both revenues from the theft and discounted gasoline) with the local communities.  Such shared interest in the criminal activities, in turn, helps to motivate the communities to defend the huachicoleros against government forces when they attempt to act to stop such theft or recover stolen products.  Further complicating the situation, and illustrating the dangerous “complementarities” emerging in Mexico’s criminal economy, powerful criminal groups such as the Zetas, in recent years, have involved themselves in the activity, taxing the illicit revenues, while increasing the huachicoleros’ level of armament and associated training, with the result that federal forces on various occasions have encountered armed resistance when they have attempted to intervene against those robbing fuel, or recover stolen stockpiles.

The Question of the Zetas

With respect to major criminal entities operating in Mexico, the Cartel Jalisco Nuevo Generación (CJNG) is the group that has expanded most significantly during the presidency of Enrique Pena Nieto, taking advantage of government actions against rivals such as the dominant Sinaloa Cartel, the Gulf Cartel, and Los Zetas (among others) to expand into spaces that they previously occupied.  CJNG attracted international attention for its violent orientation and military capabilities with its April 2015 ambush of federal police forces in Jalisco, and its subsequent downing of a Mexican Army helicopter in May of that year.  The illicit connections that CJNG has inherited through its common origins with the internationally-well-connected Sinaloa cartel have given it access to precursor chemicals in Asia, logistics networks in central America and Africa, and affiliated distributors in the United States and Europe.  The resulting criminal flows generate earnings for Sinaloa that may be as high as $10 billion per year, and contribute to the group’s ability to acquire military grade arms, and build networks to expand across Mexico and beyond.  In addition to CJNG’s paramilitary capabilities and orientation to violence, it has also adopted an approach previously used with some success by groups such as La Familia Michoacana and Caballeros Templares, entering an area in alliance with opportunistic local allies, using extreme albeit selective violence, announcing to would-be rivals and the local population that it seeks to establish order.

Despite such advantages, while CJNG is clearly one of the most significant criminal groups in Mexico, it is not clear whether it has supplanted the Sinaloa cartel as the largest, or whether it is as capable or menacing as some media accounts suggest.  While the organization has demonstrated its ability to acquire military-grade weapons such as rocket-propelled grenades and large-caliber machine guns, and to conduct ambushes against federal forces, the sophistication with which it has actually used the expensive arms that its illicit earnings have funded has been uneven.  Moreover, while much has been written about the territorial expansion of the group, its role in many of the most ongoing struggles for territory are limited at best, including fights over plazas in Tijuana, Juarez, and Baja California Sur.  While the group is one actor among many in Guerrero, and is involved in fights for opium poppy fields in northern Michoacán, it is a marginal player at best in the ongoing contest between factions of the Zetas and Gulf Cartels in Tamaulipas, or in Zeta-dominated Puebla and Veracruz.

While a detailed discussion of the previously mentioned 245 estimated criminal groups in Mexico is beyond the scope of this work, the variety and international character is impressive.  In addition to Mexican groups, experts consulted for this story also mentioned Korean, Russian, and Chinese mafias operating in areas such as Mexico City, as well as the integration of Venezuelans, Colombians, and Argentine immigrants into existing criminal structures.  One concern, in this respect, has been the possible contribution of knowledge about particular military and criminal capabilities by former members of Colombia’s FARC guerillas and other criminal bands.

Some Mexican States of Concern

With respect to the geography of Mexican crime, the experts consulted for this work responded almost universally that the state of greatest concern is Guerrero.  There, a confluence of factors has created a “perfect storm” that has left the state (albeit certainly not the Mexican nation) in a crisis of governance.  Contributing challenge include the previously mentioned expanded U.S. demand for heroin (which has fed a struggle for poppy production in Guerrero’s highlands), the flood of cocaine arriving from Colombia on the state’s pacific coast, the role of Acapulco as a center of tourism and other revenue to be coopted or taxed by criminal groups, a social culture in the state accepting of criminality and violence (and long resistant to state authority), and the fragmentation of groups fighting over criminal territory and routes there.  With respect to the tolerance of criminality and disposition toward violence among an important segment of Guerrero’s residents, one of the few non-trivial guerrilla groups to emerge in Mexico in modern times, the Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR), was born in the state.   With the confluence of such mutually reinforcing dynamics, the penetration of criminality and associate violence has reached almost inconceivable proportions.  According to one expert from the state, as much as 80% of Guerrero’s population is involved directly or indirectly in the criminal economy.

Beyond Guerrero, another Mexican state of significant concern is Tamaulipas.  There, criminal groups continue to fight over the same three principal points of entry into the United States that have been used since the 1940s when their predecessors supplied heroin to the U.S. market during and after World War II: Laredo (today dominated by the Zetas), Matamoros (today dominated by the Gulf Cartel), and Reynosa (also dominated by the Gulf Cartel).  With respect to Reynosa, the takedown of the criminal boss “El Toro” in the fall of 2017 unleashed a struggle between two would-be successors, Los Metros and Gente Nuevo, that unleashed such violence that Mexican President Pena Nieto cancelled a scheduled trip to the city (officially citing complications of his agenda).

Another area of concern has been Veracruz, dominated by the Zetas, previously contested without success by CJNG.  In a fashion also seen elsewhere in Mexico, the presence of the Zetas has prompted the emergence of a secretive group, La Sombra, engaged in the assassination of the former.

In Mexico City, an increase in violence, in combination with banners (narcomantasannouncing the arrival of CJNG in the city have raised concerns.  Yet while persons consulted for this study believe that CJNG may exercise influence as a supplier or coordinator of criminal enterprises in parts of the city, working with local groups such as the Mafia de la Union (Tepito) and the Cartel of Tlahuac, they were generally skeptical that CJNG had the manpower or the intention to directly participate in Mexico City’s massive criminal economy, which involves complex linkages between street vendors, small businesses, drug sellers and other local criminal groups, unions, and politically-affiliated organizations.

Mexico’s Political Landscape

If the picture painted by Mexico’s criminal landscape is worrisome, the challenge is compounded by upcoming national elections, which raise prospects of both political instability, and a harmful turn away from the close economic and security relationship with the United States, painstakingly built over the past three decades over a difficult historical legacy.

Make no mistake.  If Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) is elected President of Mexico, the rhetoric coming from Washington about the moral character of Mexican immigrantsbuilding a wall, and the damage done by a U.S. withdraw from NAFTA will be substantially to blame, insofar as it has seems to vindicate AMLO’s populist rhetoric about the bad character and unreliability of the “pinches gringos” to the north.  Yet the question of who is to blame does not make the prospect of an AMLO presidency any the less real, nor mitigate the potential consequences it would have for both Mexico and the United States.

Arguably, AMLO is currently near the ceiling of his demographic support base among the Mexican electorate, polling 33% versus 25% for Anaya and a disappointing 14% for Meade, according to a February 2018 poll by the respected newspaper Reforma.  Many in the country having strong feelings either for or against him.  Yet in the wake of multiple and bitter divisions among the Mexican political center and right, the country’s one-round presidential election means that AMLO could be elected President, even though receiving less than a third of the vote.

The candidate currently polling second in the presidential race, Ricardo Anaya, reflects a coalition of Mexico’s second largest party, the National Action Party (PAN), and the remnants of the third largest party, the left-of-center Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD).  Nonetheless, the policy differences between the two parties, and the perceived authoritarian manner in which Anaya circumvented the PAN’s conventional electoral process to take the nomination from rival Margarita Zavala (wife of Mexico’s still influential former President Felipe Calderon) has spawned disillusionment that has fueled the defection of key politicians from the coalition to both the PRI, and to Morena.  These include Javier Lozano, who left the PAN to work for the Meade campaign in the PRI, and Gabriela Cuevas, who defected to AMLO’s Morena party.  In addition, the alienation of Zavala and her followers over Anaya taking the nomination from her in a way that was perceived as improper, prompted her to successfully get on ballot as a third-party candidate, where her conservative platform will likely draw voters away from both Anaya (PAN/PRD coalition) and its historic rival the PRI.

Although Mexico’s traditionally dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) has a powerful electoral machine for mobilizing the resources of state governors and the manpower of social organizations such as Mexico’s two teacher’s unions, its candidate, the highly qualified technocrat Jose Antonio Meade, has thus far proved to be better regarded in international circles and the Mexican elite, than among average voters. Meade is currently third in the polls, handicapped by a perceived lack of charisma, and having failed thus far to energize traditional PRIistas leaders such as Fabio Beltrones and Osorio Chong, who view Meade as somewhat of an outsider for having served as a technocrat by leading ministries in both PAN and PRI governments, rather than having worked his way up through the PRI party apparatus.

While Meade has officially incorporated Beltrones (as campaign coordinator for the northern states), and Chong (as PRI coordinator for the Senate), among other old-guard PRIistas, his imperative to the old guard to “make me yours” has receive a lukewarm response from the apparatus which must mobilize to put him in office.

Despite popular beliefs, the core political base of AMLO as the former mayor of Mexico City is not the rural poor (for which the PRI has a well-developed political machine with extensive resources, manpower and nationwide logistics capabilities to capture their votes), but rather the urban middle class, many of whom are not comfortable with either his social conservativism or often irrational policy proposals.  These include proposed amnesty for criminal cartel leaders and restructuring the widely respected Mexican Army and Navy into a national guard.  The ability of AMLO to win will depend in part on whether such reservations among the urban middle class are outweighed by their frustration with the perceived widespread corruption in Mexico’s government and party system, and the failure of either the PAN or PRI (who collectively had the presidency during the past 12 years) to meaningfully reduce problems of public insecurity, corruption, impunity, or other problems.

Many experts in Mexico consulted for this study believe that, despite AMLO’s consistent and significant lead in the polls, when the presidential campaign officially begins at the end of March, the PRI political machine will succeed in turning the numbers around, employing a combination of direct and indirect attacks that inculcate fear or undermine confidence in AMLO (and the leftist coalition that would accompany him to power) while simultaneously undermining confidence in Anaya as an alternative, in order that those currently identifying with the PAN-PRD coalition shift to Meade as the alternative who can best prevent the election of AMLO.  To do so, the PRI will also have to mobilize the support of its (currently reduced) number of governors, and its “on-the-ground” political infrastructure, such as the teachers and other nationwide unions and social groups.

Numerous conspiracy theories abound in Mexico regarding the techniques the PRI will employ to win.  Some have speculated the conservative religiously-oriented Social Encounter party (PES), currently aligned with AMLO due to the latter’s evangelical orientation, will turn on its ally and back the PRI.  They note that the founder of the PES is actually old-guard PRI leader Osorio Chong, and its current president, Hugo Flores, is a close friend of Chong’s.

Expectations that the PRI electoral machine will, through whatever combination of resources and trickery, overcome AMLO’s demonstrated lead in the polls may be overly optimistic in the face of divisions in the PRI base. Moreover, a true test of the mobilization potential of the PRI electoral machine has not occurred for many years, considering that in 2006, divisions over the party’s then presidential candidate Roberto Madrazo impeded a full mobilization, while in 2012, a strong showing by Enrique Peña Nieto minimized the degree to which the PRI needed to use its political machine.

Beyond the question of whether AMLO can win the presidency, there is considerable debate regarding his disposition, and whether he could actually significantly change the direction of Mexico and its relationship with the United States.

AMLO has thus far maintained a relatively disciplined message regarding his fight against corruption, while seeking to reassure Mexico’s business groups and other power brokers that he will not turn Mexico into a Venezuela-style populist failed state. He has also signaled that he will not excessively target PRIistas for possible wrongdoing stemming from their activities while in government (as the PAN is perceived to have done in states where it won governorships from the PRI in 2016).  AMLO has even astutely mocked accusations of his complicity with Russia, which would arguably strategically benefit from an anti-U.S. populist and expanded instability on the US southern frontier.

Despite such effective positioning, AMLO’s specific proposals and cabinet nominees (particularly in the security sector) cause grave concern for those who take them seriously.  He has not only (as noted previously) suggested amnesty for Mexico’s criminal bosses, but has proposed abolishing Mexico’s intelligence service CISEN and its presidential guard/secret service (the Estado Mayor Presidencial) and folding the federal police and well-respected Army and Navy into a national guard (which is authorized under the constitution but does not currently exist).  His designated top security advisor, Alfonso Durazo, is almost universally regarded as lacking experience in the sector, while his nominee for the interior ministry, Olga Sánchez Cordero, widely respected for her ability as a jurist on the Supreme Court, is questioned as having the disposition to manage what is arguably the most politically demanding cabinet post in Mexico.  In the defense sector, AMLO’s designated liaison’s to Mexico’s Army and Navy, LTG Audomaro Martinez Zapata and VADM Jose Manuel Solano Ochoa, however capable, would have to overcome the legally questionable hurdle of returning to active service, as a President Lopez Obrador wishes to appoint them as the Secretary of the Army and Navy respectively, under the current Armed Services enabling law.

In the face of AMLO’s questionable proposals and leadership nominees, many Mexican analysts reassure themselves (in a style eerily parallel to the discourse during the U.S. presidential election regarding Donald Trump), that AMLO would not be able to implement his more radical policy proposals.  They note that AMLO’s Morena movement is, at best, expected to win 40% of the lower house of Mexico’s Congress and perhaps 1/3 of its Senate, denying him the legislative basis for implementing his proposals.  In addition, his party is expected to win at most three to five of Mexico’s governorships (Mexico City, Tabasco, Morelos, and possibly Veracruz and Puebla) up for grabs in the election. This small minority of governorships, in combination with his minority in the legislature, would arguably prevent him from either changing the constitution, or mobilizing significant resources among Mexico’s states to implement his policies (long a tactic of the PRI, with its historic control over virtually all of Mexico’s governorships).  Indeed, colleagues to whom I spoke even made half-joking references to the Mexican “deep state” which would theoretically prevent AMLO from causing too much damage through his policy initiatives if he is elected to power.

AMLO’s difficulty in implementing his agenda through traditional legislative channels is not entirely reassuring.  On one hand, such weakness may drive him to use a tactic that he has repeatedly employed in the past, seeking to pressure opposition politicians by mobilizing his followers in the street (a tactic whose impact would be multiplied by AMLO’s position as president, but which would significantly add to political tensions in the country).

Beyond mass mobilizations, although the Mexican presidency is a notably weak institution, AMLO could still effect significant change through his control over ministries, not least in the foreign policy direction of the country with respect to the United States, the rest of the region, and extra-hemispheric actors such as Russia and China.  Indeed, one of the most visible ways in which a legislatively and constitutionally frustrated President Lopez Obrador could rally his base and generate symbolic “achievements” would be to adopt a hostile posture toward the Trump administration, symbolically demonstrating a reassertion of Mexican national pride in the context of the U.S. president’s perceived insults against the Mexican people.  Such a posture could include the shutting down of currently very close U.S.-Mexican defense cooperation, a return to Mexican Army cooperation with Russia in terms of training and equipment purchases, and an opening of the doors to expanded cooperation with the PRC, including the expansion of current Chinese commercial projects in Mexico (such as those in the manufacturing, petroleum and telecommunications sector), as well as a green light to Huawei and ZTE participation in Mexico’s strategically critical 5th Generation telecommunications infrastructure, expanded Chinese professional military education exchanges, and an open door to state-financed sales of major weapons systems by major PRC-based  companies such as NORINCO, CEIEC, and AVIC, beyond the marginal quality artillery pieces that NORINCO previously sold to the Mexican Army.

Even if AMLO pursues a more moderate political course, either due to his personal inclination or the institutional limits placed on him, the people who come into power with AMLO are a legitimate source of concern, both for leaders in Mexico and in the United States.  Indeed, those associated with AMLO to date, such as Nestora Salgado Garcia, a leader of a self-defense militia who was jailed for kidnapping and believed to previously have ties to the EPR guerrilla movement in Guerrero, do not inspire confidence.

While the advance of China and Russia in the hemisphere in recent years has been noted as an item of concern (most prominently by U.S. Secretary Rex Tillerson), it is difficult to understate the grave damage to the U.S. strategic position in the region that would be caused by a Mexico, spurned by a U.S. border wall, insults and the economic harm from the abandonment of NAFTA, all focused by a charismatic, anti-U.S. populist leader who would be more receptive to economic, military and political cooperation with China, Russia and other anti-U.S. actors.

Indeed, the damage caused to the U.S. interests in Latin America by Hugo Chavez would be nothing compared to the impact that AMLO could have. AMLO could link the wrongs that many Mexicans feel that they have suffered from the U.S. in the current context, to the nation’s history of wars and military intervention by the United States, in a narrative that would resonate throughout Central America and the Caribbean, where Mexico has traditional leverage and economic influence, as well as throughout the rest of the Americas.  Beyond the increased security challenges for the United States from drugs, immigration and illicit threat networks if Mexico cut off its security cooperation, an anti-U.S. Mexican narrative from a President Lopez Obrador, combined with expanded relationships with Russia and China, would gravely undermine the U.S. pursuit of policy objectives throughout the Americas, and possibly force the U.S. to rethink its strategic posture globally.

As I have argued in numerous other publications, with its ties of geography, commerce, and people, there is no other region which more directly affects U.S. security and prosperity than Latin America and the Caribbean.  In this context, if Latin Americans are our neighbors, whose security and prosperity intimately affects us, Mexico is our family.

Ironically, despite the difficulties generated by President Trump’s harsh tone toward Mexico, his national security and foreign policy team have arguably recognized the importance of Mexico and treated it with the attention and respect it deserves. U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ three visits to Mexico include his first trip abroad, as well as the first-ever visit by a U.S. Secretary of Defense to Mexico’s Independence Day celebrations.  Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in his own multiple visits, has openly recognized U.S. co-responsibility for the scourge of drug cartels in Mexico.  The U.S. has set up a bilateral working group on transnational organized crime generating monthly interactions between senior U.S. and Mexican officials.  Even during the sexenio of Felipe Calderon, the U.S. and Mexican military have never conducted as many joint activities, or worked as closely together as they do today.  Ironically, seldom in U.S. history has an administration had a policy establishment with as many people with personal and professional experience working with Mexico than does the current administration.

In a future article, I will detail the extensive work of the Mexican government in coordination with the U.S. and other partners, to confront the very serious security challenges it faces.  Yet just as occurred with the election of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela in 1998, all of that cooperation could evaporate (albeit not necessarily immediately), depending on the direction that Mexico chooses to take in its upcoming presidential election.  There could not be a time in which the United States and Mexico need each other more, or when words of friendship and respect from President Trump to our Mexican family could be more beneficial, and more consistent with putting our collective America first.

Note: The author would like to thank VADM Ricardo Gomez Meillon, VADM Vasquez Zarate, Arturo Sarukhan, Rear Admiral Orozco Peqaven, Rear Admiral Martin Barney Montalvo, MG® Paulino Jimenez, RADM Hector Solis, CAPT Ernesto Encinas, CAPT Pablo Cruz, Guillermo Valdes, the US Defense Attaché Office in Mexico City, Raul Benitez, Jose de Cordoba, Dudley Althaus, Iñigo Guevara, Alexander Carlos, Manuel Guerrero Hernandez, Adalberto Arauz, Patricia Escamilla-Hamm, Duncan Wood, and Eric Olsen, among others, for their important intellectual contributions to this work.

Evan Ellis is Latin America research professor for the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute. The views expressed in this article are strictly his own.

“The Evolution of Security Challenges in Mexico,” Global Americans, March 2, 2018,