Total state sovereignty is a concept that much of the world population takes for granted, even if they may not know anything about it. In layman’s terms, it is when a government exercises complete control and jurisdiction over its own territory.
During war or even civil war, this control fluctuates or vanishes for the most part and that’s something we can understand. But is it excusable if the country is not at war with itself or an external power?
Can you tolerate your government lacking the ability to exercise control? What if criminal activity rises to an all-time high and you cannot even go out for a walk without being mugged and killed?
The horrific reality in which a large proportion of the Mexican population finds itself goes just like that, except it is truly hard to believe. For a country with a government that is unable to exert jurisdiction over its own territory, it seems tragically reluctant to admit that it is in a state of civil war, or that there is something fundamentally wrong underway in Mexican society.
I am talking about the current situation in the Mexican Drug War, something that people freely admit is a war but are still reluctant to call a civil war. This is despite the fact that drug cartels have grown into becoming multi-billion dollar enterprises able to maintain their own uniformed paramilitary forces, heavy weaponry, and even armored vehicles. Indeed, they have and have had skilled former-military members among their ranks.
Alexandra Graham writing for The Dallas Morning News argues that “The Mexican cartels are not fighting to overthrow the government or claim a separate state in order to have political control. The war that is raging in Mexico is not a civil war, it is a cartel war.”
Not only does this argument run with a reductive definition of ‘civil war’, but the implication that political control is only to be had through fighting to overthrow the government or secede from the country also ignores the fact that the cartels do have political control over their territories.
A near-total monopoly of violence is maintained by them in their areas and their leaders count their fortunes in the hundreds of millions and even billions, of money that they use to influence Mexican politics. That in its very essence is power and political control, and they constantly undermine the Mexican government.
Mexican news media is awash with reports of powerful cartels such as the Cartel de Sinaloa (CDS), Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG), Knights Templar Cartel, Cartel de Golfo (CDG) all being involved in manipulating elections at all levels, voter intimidation, and illegal financing.
Of course, all of this has led Mexico to become the deadliest country for journalists, a grim badge of dishonor for a supposedly democratic state.
At the heart of billion-dollar heavily armed drug cartels, lack of government sovereignty, and taking away the monopoly of violence from the state exists one clear thesis about what kind of country Mexico has become. It has become a feudal state.
Indeed, Mexico today resembles medieval France more than any other country in the modern world.
While accusations of neo-feudalism in the United States, Europe, or Saudi Arabia are focused on the growing power of government regulatory boards, individual billionaires, or corporations, neo-feudalism in Mexico is imposed by rifles, machine guns, and jackboots fueled by fentanyl and cocaine.
The origins of the drug conflict and how the political ecosystem has allowed these powerful cartels to grab so much power is complex and multi-variant, with omnipresent involvement on the part of the United States and the CIA. It was omnipresent enough to claim the life of investigative journalist Gary Webb, among countless other Mexicans still dying regularly.
Gary Webb’s time was a time in Mexico in which the memory of the 1986 World Cup held in the country was still fresh. It was when the rebel socialist Zapatistas formed the only paramilitary group active in Mexico and that too, was seen as a relic of the then recently-ended Cold War that saw the end of communism.
Contemporary powerful drug bosses of the time such as the Arellano Félix brothers and Hector Palma Salazar could never have imagined the extent of power cartels would eventually come to wield. Some of the bosses from that period nonetheless lived long enough to eventually enjoy that power today.
The kind of power that makes it possible for men such as Nemesio Oseguerra Cervantes to run a powerful personal paramilitary that succeeded in shooting down a Mexican military helicopter carrying elite special forces troops. The kind of power that allowed Ovidio Guzmán López of the CDS to mobilize battalions of gunmen to take the fight directly to the Mexican Army and free himself in 2019.
He was arrested again in 2023, which led to his gunmen attacking Mexican military aircraft, killing army soldiers with impunity, and even attacking civilians in his home state of Sinaloa. Being able to escape punishment so brazenly does seem to be a family heritage for him, as his father Joaquín Guzmán escaped his custom-tailored lavish prisons multiple times.
An ever-present culture of total fear and distrust is the result and the one event that truly kicked everything up to the sixth gear was the appearance of the Los Zetas Cartel in the early 2010s. Their hyper-violent operations and unspeakable crimes led to a cartel arms race, and most importantly for this part of the article, the establishment of autodefensas; self-defense groups.
As the name implies, they were formed by fed-up, angry, and scared common citizens seeking to defend their communities from cartel violence. Running street battles and drive-bys became an all-too-common occurrence. As if it could not get any worse, many of these autodefensas also became drug cartels themselves. The most notable and violent of these is Los Viagras.
Apart from the readily visible culture of fear, the situation has more or less created an entire cartel subculture whose hallmarks include organizations looking for missing family members claimed by the cartel violence and a TikTok genre full of cartel sicarios flaunting their lives online and declaring their allegiances. It is nothing short of total misery and the only winners in this conflict are going to be the cartel bosses positioning themselves as the new feudal lords of Mexico.
Interestingly, Mexico is being billed as the next major production hub after China, and it apparently looks set to become rich off it. How any of it is going to pan out in a cartel-dominated feudal ecosystem is beyond me personally and the dream of a rich and prosperous Mexico definitely must sound like a cruel joke to large swathes of the population.
Mexico does stand out as the global production and distribution hub of drugs, which is what enabled these cartels to rise up. Their products are sold across all continents, with links to the most major criminal enterprises across the world. The Mexican government itself can only dream of such outreach.
In the wider context of an ever-growing market of drugs, with an ever-increasing number of users, Mexico has stepped in to fulfill this demand to the point of breakage. We should not be surprised if certain drugs are branded ‘Sinaloa Cartel fentanyl’ or ‘Knights Templar cocaine’ in the future.
The seal and name of the Mexican federal government may cease to hold what little meaning they already have, even if the Mexican state does not fragment.
Should an entire country slowly die for the fulfillment of 30 minutes of chemical bliss? Can you fathom such powerful paramilitaries ruling parts of your own country? Can neo-feudalism of the violent kind be stopped?
These are all profoundly important questions to answer for the future anywhere in the world.
[Photo by Diego Fernández / AP Mexico Photography Agency, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons]
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
Fatin Anwar is a student of Geography at the University of Dhaka and a freelance writer/researcher.