History Moving North

As Mexican society fragments, the impact will hit the United States with force—and U.S. society is likely to fragment in some of the same ways.

MEXICO is the example of failing capacity in a state that is supremely subtle and middle-of-the-road -- not extreme, like many sub-Saharan African states, or even Pakistan, and not quite so wretchedly vast, intractable, and bureaucratic as India or China. After a few weeks in those countries one is ready to tear one's hair out. Mexico, though, is remarkably modern and easy for businesspeople to deal with. Indeed, without Mexico's dynamism -- a partial rebuke to the mañana cliché -- the Mexican state wouldn't be in as much trouble as it is. A country of Wal-Marts and shantytowns, of wholesome beach resorts and drug-dealing policemen with gold chains around their necks, Mexico offers a view into the future that is both reassuring and terrifying. To understand how the map of Mexico is being transmuted is to see more clearly where the United States may be headed.

To begin: the December, 1994, peso crisis, as a result of which the peso lost half its value, is a blind alley for analyses of Mexico's future. It was not the first currency crisis in Mexico, and it won't be the last. In 1940 Graham Greene wrote, in The Power and the Glory, "the peso dropped with a revolution." If there had been no peso crisis, or if Mexico's recovery from the crisis were complete, Mexico's destiny would be the same. What really ails the Mexican economy is so basic, undramatic, and long-term that it does not translate into news, and is therefore ignored.

Antonio Alonso Concheiro, of Analítica Consultants, who is one of Mexico's leading planners and futurists, briefed me recently on Mexico's underlying illness. Here is a summary of what he said.

Though Mexico's rate of population growth has been steadily dropping from a high of 3.4 percent in the 1960s, each year for years to come almost two million new Mexicans will join the population, which is currently 92 million. Forty percent of Mexicans are now so poor that using a condom every time they had sex would cost more in a year than they spend on clothes. If population growth continues at around two percent, a million or more Mexicans will be added to the work force annually through 2020, in a country where real unemployment is already roughly 25 percent. The Mexican government reports that 40 percent of its citizens are now under fifteen. Just to create enough menial jobs, Mexico's economy must grow by six percent annually. To create good jobs and move the country into the First World -- where Mexican government officials and some upbeat American analysts claim that Mexico is slowly headed -- the economy would have to grow by nine or ten percent. In 1995, however, the economy contracted by three percent, because of the devaluation of the peso; the best Mexico can hope for in the foreseeable future, Alonso told me, is a steady economic growth rate of three or four percent. Nobody except wild optimists disputes this.

Either or both of two things will therefore happen: Mexico will gradually become poorer and more crime-ridden than it already is, and Mexicans will migrate to the United States at an even greater rate than they are migrating now. Many of those heading north will be attracted not so much by job prospects as by family networks already established across the border. Needless to say, many of Mexico's most dynamic workers are being lost through northward migration.

Up to this point Alonso's briefing merely recounted obvious, if not well-publicized, realities. Next he inserted an opinion. "I see a good scenario and a bad scenario. The good scenario is that we will soon face a challenge much more severe than the peso crisis: something like a trade war between Japan and the United States that leads to a world recession [and undermines Mexico], or a complete freeze in Mexican immigration by the U.S. authorities. That would lead to intensive destruction of current Mexican political institutions over the next decade, and the rise of local bosses and free-enterprise networks to replace them." Unaware, perhaps, that he was paraphrasing Edward Gibbon in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Alonso said that a weak and highly flexible central government is necessary for the continued existence of the state. Currently, 80 percent of all Mexican tax revenues go to the central government.

Alonso's bad scenario is that "no true crisis will emerge." Indeed, the Mexican government and American editorial writers have already proclaimed Mexico's recovery from the peso crisis; over the long term, according to the bad scenario, the low-level erosion of the state will continue -- in a sufficiently gradual way as to be always deniable, but leading to quasi-anarchy.

Mexico, as I said, is a nuanced example of state failure. The future will likely see a middle path between Alonso's good and bad scenarios. The public ridicule to which the current President, Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon, has been subjected, and Zedillo's intention to break precedent by not choosing his own successor in 2000 (this intention was rejected by the party at its convention last fall), are but two indications that Mexico's highly centralized presidential system is unraveling. Institutional reform in the country will, though, probably not be as fast or as deep as is necessary.

Working from Alonso's briefing and also material from Mexican government statistics, interviews with other Mexicans, including former officials, and my own recent travel there, I will draw a map of the southern part of North America in the early and middle decades of the next century.


MEXICO'S population growth is geographically unbalanced. Whereas women in the southern Mexican states of Guerrero, Oaxaca, and Chiapas have, on average, four or more children over a lifetime, those in northern Mexico have two or three. Southern Mexico follows a Third World, Central American-style growth pattern, northern Mexico a First World, U.S.-style one.

Presented by

Robert D. Kaplan is the author of Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific. He is the chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor, and a national correspondent for The Atlantic. 

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