OPPENHEIMER: Drugs aren't only war Mexico faces

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's trip to Mexico last week drew a lot of media attention to the bloody U.S.-backed war on the drug cartels along the border. But Mexico is facing five other wars that nobody is talking about, which may pose even bigger threats than the drug lords.

I'm not minimizing Mexico's war against the drug cartels.

Drug-related violence has left more than 17,000 dead over the past four years in Mexico.

But I wouldn't be surprised if closer U.S.-Mexico security ties, likely to be announced during Mexican President Felipe Calderón's visit May 19 to the White House, eventually will drive the drug lords underground, or to move to the next country. It happened in Colombia, and it may happen in Mexico.

Instead, a paper written by former U.S. Department of Defense Latin America chief Roger Pardo Maurer, the first draft of which was published by The Small Wars Journal, leads me to wonder about the other five critical challenges Mexico is facing that are unknown to much of the rest of the world.

First, what will Mexico do when it runs out of oil? Oil revenues represent as much as 40 percent of Mexico's federal budget, but it's rapidly running out of oil. The U.S. Energy Information Administration projects the country will be forced to start importing oil in 2017.

Second, what will Mexico do when it runs out of water? Mexico City already has acute water problems, and water shortages are causing tensions along border states. Global climate change is likely to make Mexico even more arid than it is today, experts say.

Third, what will Mexico do to compete better with China, India and other emerging powers with better education systems and more skilled work forces? A recent World Economic Forum study into Mexico's competitiveness, conducted by Harvard University economists, concluded that the country's main obstacle to competing in the world economy is its bad education system, and that it's not doing much about it.

Fourth, what will Mexico do with its new generations of unemployed young people if it no longer can "export" them to the United States because of stricter immigration procedures? An estimated 1 million young Mexicans enter the labor force every year, and Mexico needs to grow at about 5 percent a year — much more than it has recently — to absorb them.

Fifth, what will Mexico do to bring its indigenous people, mostly living in its southern states, into the modern economy? While recent governments have poured billions into southern states since the 1994 Chiapas rebellion, it is not clear the region is benefiting as much as northern states from Mexico's insertion in the global economy.

I called Pardo Maurer this week and asked him if he is afraid, as are some of his most alarmist colleagues, that Mexico might become an ungovernable place, or a "failed state."

"Mexico is very unlikely to be a failed state because of narco terrorists," he told me. "It is far more likely to become a failed state because of these other issues, and I fear that we will miss sight of them if we reduce our agenda with Mexico to narco-trafficking."

Judging from what happened in Colombia, tighter U.S.-Mexico security relations will be able to squash the drug cartels militarily, or drive them to other countries. But it won't do much to reduce narcotics trafficking while U.S. drug consumption remains at current levels, and it certainly will not do a thing to help solve the other five wars Mexico is facing.

The United States has been lucky to have neighbors as peaceful as Canada and Mexico. Russia, China and many European countries would have loved to be that lucky.

If President Barack Obama wants to keep it that way, he should launch the Community of the Americas he promised during the campaign — a trade, energy, security, infrastructure and education alliance that would allow all countries in the region, including the United States, to compete more effectively in the global economy. And the place to start would be Mexico.

Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald. Contact him at