From the Stratfor:

Edgar Millan Gomez was shot dead in his own home in Mexico City on May 8. Millan Gomez was the highest-ranking law enforcement officer in Mexico, responsible for overseeing most of Mexico’s counternarcotics efforts. He orchestrated the January arrest of one of the leaders of the Sinaloa cartel, Alfredo Beltran Leyva. (Several Sinaloa members have been arrested in Mexico City since the beginning of the year.) The week before, Roberto Velasco Bravo died when he was shot in the head at close range by two armed men near his home in Mexico City. He was the director of organized criminal investigations in a tactical analysis unit of the federal police. The Mexican government believes the Sinaloa drug cartel ordered the assassinations of Velasco Bravo and Millan Gomez. Combined with the assassination of other federal police officials in Mexico City, we now see a pattern of intensifying warfare in Mexico City.

The fighting also extended to the killing of the son of the Sinaloa cartel leader, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera, who was killed outside a shopping center in Culiacan, the capital of Sinaloa state. Also killed was the son of reputed top Sinaloa money launderer Blanca Margarita Cazares Salazar in an attack carried out by 40 gunmen. According to sources, Los Zetas, the enforcement arm of the rival Gulf cartel, carried out the attack. Reports also indicate a split between Sinaloa and a resurgent Juarez cartel, which also could have been behind the Millan Gomez killing.

Spiraling Violence

Violence along the U.S.-Mexican border has been intensifying for several years, and there have been attacks in Mexico City. But last week was noteworthy not so much for the body count, but for the type of people being killed. Very senior government police officials in Mexico City were killed along with senior Sinaloa cartel operatives in Sinaloa state. In other words, the killings are extending from low-level operatives to higher-ranking ones, and the attacks are reaching into enemy territory, so to speak. Mexican government officials are being killed in Mexico City, Sinaloan operatives in Sinaloa. The conflict is becoming more intense and placing senior officials at risk.

The killings pose a strategic problem for the Mexican government. The bulk of its effective troops are deployed along the U.S. border, attempting to suppress violence and smuggling among the grunts along the border, as well as the well-known smuggling routes elsewhere in the country. The attacks in Mexico raise the question of whether forces should be shifted from these assignments to Mexico City to protect officials and break up the infrastructure of the Sinaloa and other cartels there. The government also faces the secondary task of suppressing violence between cartels. The Sinaloa cartel struck in Mexico City not only to kill troublesome officials and intimidate others, but also to pose a problem for the Mexican government by increasing areas requiring forces, thereby requiring the government to consider splitting its forces — thus reducing the government presence along the border. It was a strategically smart move by Sinaloa, but no one has accused the cartels of being stupid.

Mexico now faces a classic problem. Multiple, well-armed organized groups have emerged. They are fighting among themselves while simultaneously fighting the government. The groups are fueled by vast amounts of money earned via drug smuggling to the United States. The amount of money involved — estimated at some $40 billion a year — is sufficient to increase tension between these criminal groups and give them the resources to conduct wars against each other. It also provides them with resources to bribe and intimidate government officials. The resources they deploy in some ways are superior to the resources the government employs.

Given the amount of money they have, the organized criminal groups can be very effective in bribing government officials at all levels, from squad leaders patrolling the border to high-ranking state and federal officials. Given the resources they have, they can reach out and kill government officials at all levels as well. Government officials are human; and faced with the carrot of bribes and the stick of death, even the most incorruptible is going to be cautious in executing operations against the cartels.

Toward a Failed State?

There comes a moment when the imbalance in resources reverses the relationship between government and cartels. Government officials, seeing the futility of resistance, effectively become tools of the cartels. Since there are multiple cartels, the area of competition ceases to be solely the border towns, shifting to the corridors of power in Mexico City. Government officials begin giving their primary loyalty not to the government but to one of the cartels. The government thus becomes both an arena for competition among the cartels and an instrument used by one cartel against another. That is the prescription for what is called a “failed state” — a state that no longer can function as a state. Lebanon in the 1980s is one such example.

There are examples in American history as well. Chicago in the 1920s was overwhelmed by a similar process. Smuggling alcohol created huge pools of money on the U.S. side of the border, controlled by criminals both by definition (bootlegging was illegal) and by inclination (people who engage in one sort of illegality are prepared to be criminals, more broadly understood). The smuggling laws gave these criminals huge amounts of power, which they used to intimidate and effectively absorb the city government. Facing a choice between being killed or being enriched, city officials chose the latter. City government shifted from controlling the criminals to being an arm of criminal power. In the meantime, various criminal gangs competed with each other for power.

Chicago had a failed city government. The resources available to the Chicago gangs were limited, however, and it was not possible for them to carry out the same function in Washington. Ultimately, Washington deployed resources in Chicago and destroyed one of the main gangs. But if Al Capone had been able to carry out the same operation in Washington as he did in Chicago, the United States could have become a failed state.

It is important to point out that we are not speaking here of corruption, which exists in all governments everywhere. Instead, we are talking about a systematic breakdown of the state, in which government is not simply influenced by criminals, but becomes an instrument of criminals — either simply an arena for battling among groups or under the control of a particular group. The state no longer can carry out its primary function of imposing peace, and it becomes helpless, or itself a direct perpetrator of crime. Corruption has been seen in Washington — some triggered by organized crime, but never state failure.

The Mexican state has not yet failed. If the activities of the last week have become a pattern, however, we must begin thinking about the potential for state failure. The killing of Millan Gomez transmitted a critical message: No one is safe, no matter how high his rank or how well protected, if he works against cartel interests. The killing of El Chapo’s son transmitted the message that no one in the leading cartel is safe from competing gangs, no matter how high his rank or how well protected.

The killing of senior state police officials causes other officials to recalculate their attitudes. The state is no longer seen as a competent protector, and being a state official is seen as a liability — potentially a fatal liability — unless protection is sought from a cartel, a protection that can be very lucrative indeed for the protector. The killing of senior cartel members intensifies conflict among cartels, making it even more difficult for the government to control the situation and intensifying the movement toward failure.

It is important to remember that Mexico has a tradition of failed governments, particularly in the 19th and early 20th century. In those periods, Mexico City became an arena for struggle among army officers and regional groups straddling the line between criminal and political. The Mexican army became an instrument in this struggle and its control a prize. The one thing missing was the vast amounts of money at stake. So there is a tradition of state failure in Mexico, and there are higher stakes today than before.