Through Hollywood’s Cyclopean eye, Mexico seems typecast as “place of the raw deal”. Either lawless badlands where anything goes – the more violent the better - haven for US fugitives or the slum-realm of decent people big dreams and wet backs. As the second decade of the 21st century gets moving, sadly the Hollywood image is proving not as far-fetched as we would like to believe. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.
Many countries have images like brands of soap or movie stars. Ask almost anyone what their image is of China, and they’ll say something like: China – big country, long history, exploding economy, the new superpower and a great example for any other developing nation. Oh, and it’s a cornucopia of inexpensive products to drive, wear, use. And of South Africa, it’s a weird mix of the fabled “rainbow nation” and a mugger’s paradise. Ask the same of America and you’ll almost certainly get a mix of the world’s only superpower, the “Great Satan”, and, most important of all, “Hey, how can I get a visa to go there?” Keep in mind that Chinese used to call America the “Gold Mountain” because of the chance to strike it rich from the mines, the railroads and factories – with a strong back and lots of patience and endurance. You get the picture.
As far as Mexico goes, at least for most “norteamericanos”, or less politely, gringos, Mexico’s image has become a pastiche of its colourful history and culture, its renowned vacation spots and, increasingly and more darkly, the combined effect of illegal immigration/undocumented aliens, narco-trafficking, criminal gangs and a more general collapse of law and order “South of the Border”. Mexico celebrated the bicentennial of its declaration of independence from Spain last year after more than 300 years of Spanish rule. Of course, in the 50 years after that, Mexico lost nearly half its territory to an expanding US, including Texas, California, Arizona and New Mexico. The French also invaded it and installed a Habsburg prince as a puppet emperor until he was removed by a rebellion led by the indigenous revolutionary, Benito Juarez. Then came new depredations from bandit gangs who even raided the southwestern US. There was more dictatorship and foreign economic exploitation under the long-time caudillo, Porfirio Diaz. Then came the perpetual revolution under the Institutional Revolutionary Party that gradually hardened into an authoritarian one-party state that helped precipitate Mexico’s very own student rebellion and its violent repression in 1968.
And all this came after a thousand years of extraordinary civilizations – first the Maya in the Yucatan and then the Toltecs, Olmecs and Aztecs – until the Spanish conquistadors under Hernando Cortez (and the priests and inquisition that came in their wake) conquered the land, exploited its gold and silver and destroyed those civilisations that had arisen in the lands that eventually became Mexico. And more recently, news stories about Mexico have focused on the intersection between drug and human trafficking and a decline in civil order because of this criminal behaviour.
Photo: An aide talks to Mexico’s President Felipe Calderon (L) before he addresses a luncheon at the Washington Conference on the Americas at the State Department in Washington May 11, 2011. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
In a review of new books about Mexico, The Economist ruefully noted: “Last year  should have been one long fiesta for Mexico, which celebrated both the centenary of its revolution against Porfirio Díaz, its walrus-moustached dictator, and the bicentenary of its independence from Spain. Instead, the country found itself in a funk: The opening of its economy to foreign trade in the 1990s had not led to the leap in living standards many had hoped for, and the arrival of real democracy in the same decade had not solved many of the country’s old problems. Added to that, the government’s crackdown on drug-trafficking cartels had led to a surge in violence, with apparently little pay-off. It was time for some serious soul-searching.”
Despite its bountiful problems, Mexico is an important international actor. It is the world’s most populous Spanish-speaking nation, a member of APEC and the G-20 and it could easily be the counterweight to Brazil for influence in Latin America – as well as a logical claimant for a place in the BRICS constellation – every bit as much as South Korea or Turkey.
Back in 1994, Mexico joined with the US and Canada to form the North American Free Trade Association with hundreds of millions of people and the vast North American continent as its territory. Nafta was supposed to stabilise the Mexican economy and society by bringing factories to industrial zones in the region near the border to lower unemployment and simultaneously take advantage of lower wages and proximity to the rest of the US supply chain to increase Mexican economic growth, add to Mexican wages and, crucially, keep Mexicans at home and on their side of the boundary between the two nations. This, in turn, would lessen the political and security pressures in the US that stemmed from illegal or undocumented aliens crossing the Rio Grande into Texas, or across the empty desert lands into New Mexico, Arizona and California, in search of employment opportunities. Putting the cork in this bottle would help calm American politics in the Southwestern states.
But Nafta, like many things, hasn’t worked out as planned. Yes, American firms initially took advantage of the cost and wage differentials to move production southwards (before moving them onward to China or Vietnam) even as the flows of the undocumented haven’t slowed. As a result, the pressures on the US federal and state governments from increasingly angry citizens are dramatically greater, generating growing demands for the US to do something – anything – to stop all those Spanish-speaking foreigners moving northwards. The most affected states, like Arizona, have now been chivvied into positions of profound disagreement with the elements of the federal government specifically tasked with border control and immigration.
Immigration reform has now become another “third rail” in American politics – rather like Social Security and Medicare. Virtually everyone agrees something needs to be done, but there is less agreement on what that should be than ever before. And, as the US population becomes increasingly Latino, with the data saying the country’s Latino population has surpassed African Americans to become the second-largest population group in America, how to respond to those undocumented/illegal aliens (even the right terminology is now an uncomfortable, irascible political conundrum) is, increasingly, a domestic political issue in the US rather than simply a bilateral foreign relations issue between Mexico and its northern neighbour.
About the only other foreign policy relationship that comes close to infiltrating the domestic political landscape to such an extent must be the Israel/Palestine question, or just perhaps the Cuban-American imbroglio that has been running since 1960. Taking a position on border control, repatriation, immigration reform, and all the rest of the US-Mexico relationship means picking which group a politician will placate or anger. And angry voters usually vote against someone with greater frequency than do voters who agree with a particular politician.
Photo: Mexican poet Javier Sicilia (R) looks on alongside Luz Maria Davila (C) after the arrival of the peace caravan to Ciudad Juarez June 9, 2011. Hundreds of Mexicans began a week-long procession through Mexico on Saturday to protest the country’s bloody drug war, led by Sicilia, a crusading poet whose son was murdered by suspected cartel hitmen. Human rights activists and families of victims of violence formed a peace caravan and piled into 13 buses and more than two dozen cars to set out on a 12-state tour that will end in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico’s most violent drug war city on the U.S. border. Davila, who lost two of her sons in the massacre of Villas de Salvalcar, demanded Mexican President Felipe Calderon do more to stop the violence, during one of his visits to Ciudad Juarez in 2010. REUTERS/Tomas Bravo
But beyond immigration and population movements, the most salient issue now for both Americans and Mexicans is the now near-fatal combination of narco-trafficking and the effect of the money from both on policing and border control. And it is just a short hop from those to the even more profound question of state and governmental stability.
In recent days, the American and world media were briefly captured by the latest report of the discovery of dozens of victims from some person- or narco-trafficking that had gone horribly wrong. Although this latest example later proved to be just a bizarre rumour, hyped by a so-called psychic, solid media houses like The New York Times and The Washington Post were perfectly prepared to punt this latest tale as a fast-breaking news story. The gruesomely described killings were sufficiently believable and similar events have become so frequent, even quotidian, that law enforcement officers immediately swooped down upon the presumed site of the massacre to dig up the putative remains. This story was simply one could-have-been-true in a litany of killings that are true, such as the discovery in April of 183 bodies in mass graves in the north-eastern Mexican state of Tamaulipas; a mass killing that represents the most gruesome incident yet in the country’s now-four-year-long war against the drug cartels.
According to a newly launched, comprehensive database in Mexico, the total number of people killed in drug-related violence between December 2006, when incumbent President Felipe Calderón came to power and quickly began a military-style confrontation with the drug cartels, and the end of 2010, has now reached 34,612 deaths. December 2006 had 62, but by 2007 the total had reached 2,826. The following year, the total trebled to 6,837, and by 2009 it had risen to 9,614. In 2010, the figure was 15,273.
While Calderon says this comprehensive database will “strengthen transparency and accountability” and that “in the federal government, we are aware of the need for this struggle [against organised crime] to be carried out with openness towards society”, his critics assert Calderón’s strategy, instead of controlling the violence, has actually fuelled it.
Experts say nearly 90% of all fatalities are likely to have been gang members killed in turf wars between the different organisations competing over trafficking routes into the US. Mexican officials now insist the national per capita murder rate (including those not related to the drugs conflict) remains lower than equivalent rates in Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela. But the new data also shows that in key states like Chihuahua, on the border with the US, the death toll has risen by an astonishing 1,800%. In 2007 there were 244 drug-related deaths, but 4,427 victims in 2010. And in the city of Ciudad Juarez, just across the border from El Paso, Texas, an astonishing 6,437 people have died in drug-related violence since late 2006. Most recently, an international commission has asserted that international campaigns against drug gangs and drug trafficking have generally been failures. Instead, innovative solutions are needed to help nations like Mexico that can no longer cope with the violence. Or, as one commissioner said, “Our minimum goal is to get the US to discuss the problem in all its magnitude and not to lock itself up in a policy that has failed. Mexico and Colombia must get the US to debate. The belief that there is no alternative because of electoral reasons is not acceptable.”
The Wall Street Journal added: “As spiralling drug violence kills thousands in Mexico and police battle gangs for control of Brazil’s drug-infested slums, an international panel has concluded that the U.S.-led war on drugs is a failure. ‘The global war on drugs has failed,’ said a report by the Global Commission on Drug Policy due to be released Thursday. The report calls for a frank dialogue on the issue and encourages governments to experiment with the regulation of drugs, especially marijuana.”
The ongoing drug war, the fallout of fatalities, the impact of the violence and growing corruption in the country’s various police forces have meant that in Mexico’s upcoming election –a new president in 2012 – the results may hinge on how voters believe the likely candidates can end, or at least tamp down, the growing carnage.
In particular, police success or failure in Mexico City will come under the microscope. The megalopolis is divided between the administration of Marcelo Ebrard, mayor of the Federal District, which includes the core of the city, and that of Enrique Peña Nieto, governor of the surrounding Mexico State, which has a little more than half of the capital’s 20 million citizens. Peña is now the front-runner for the presidential nomination of the formerly ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, whereas Ebrard is vying to carry the flag of the left-of-centre Party of the Democratic Revolution and his main rival for the nomination of their party is Andrés Manuel López Obrador, himself also a former mayor of the capital.
Ebrard argues Mexico can slow down criminal gang recruitment by getting more young people into schools and jobs, while Peña wants to put a crimp on gangster finances (and power) by squeezing the country’s massive informal economy. But voters may take more note of their actual records in office than of their campaign promises. Miguel Mancera, the chief prosecutor in the Federal District, says the murder rate there is lower than in several states that used to be safer than the capital. His counterpart in Mexico State, meanwhile, says the homicide rate there is lower still.
But this may simply be because the situation in so many other parts of Mexico has degenerated so fast and so far as to be truly dire. The Federal District, after all, reported 25% more murders in 2010 than it had just four years earlier. Worse still, critics say the stats aren’t worth much and probably underreport crimes by major amounts anyway. Mexico State’s criminal statistics simply aren’t “very orderly, reliable or even available” says Juan Francisco Torres Landa of Mexico United Against Crime, an anti-crime pressure group.
Meanwhile, a recent report on Mexican crime in The Economist connects the dots between crime and the corruption of the police and judicial system in Mexico. “The police and prosecutors of both Mexico City and State are the most open to bribery in the country, according to the Mexican branch of Transparency International, a Berlin-based NGO. This month Castillo’s office [for Mexico State] arrested 16 municipal policemen on suspicion of working with a local criminal gang called ‘The Hand with Eyes’. Tip-offs from corrupt officers cost as little as 1,000 pesos (almost R600), he says. Little wonder, then, that fewer than 10% of residents of Mexico City and State trust their local officers, among the lowest rates in the country. Civic organisations have taken to going in groups to report crimes and setting up advice booths outside prosecutors’ offices.”
In response to the slaughter, Mexican cultural figures are pointing a spotlight on the criminal decay, the fight against it and the overall costs to Mexican society. A new documentary film by Charlie Minn “8 Murders a Day” is a harsh attack on Calderón’s military-style campaign against the warring drug cartels in Juarez. As one figure in the film, a local reporter says to camera, “Everyone is afraid in Juarez right now,” while the shocking murder statistics, more than 3,000 dead in 2010 alone, roll across the screen. The New York Times, in its review, says this doccie “portrays a city seething with official corruption, and a president and military in bed with drug lords. Add a population with no access to social services or a living wage (thanks a lot, Nafta) and you have a human-rights tragedy of epic proportions.”
And when the son of Javier Sicilia, one of the country’s most respected poets, was killed in violence tied to the drug gangs (even though police say the young man was an innocent bystander), Sicilia has become the country’s newest, loudest voice in speaking out about the violence that has ravaged Mexico. Sicilia told the BBC that while “I’m not a political animal, I’m a moral voice – I have to do this out of my moral convictions, because people have asked me to do it.”
His harsh criticism of what he calls Calderon’s “stupid strategy” to fight the drug cartels seems to be finding traction with large sections of Mexican society, increasingly frustrated by the rising violence. At his son’s funeral, Sicilia read his latest and last poem to the mourning crowd:
The world is not worthy of words,
they have been suffocated from the inside
as they suffocated you, as they tore apart your lungs …
the pain does not leave me, all that remains is a world
through the silence of the righteous,
only through your silence and my silence, Juanelo.
And then he told the assembled mourners that as his protest against all the killings, they had just heard his final poem. Ever.
In the days after his family’s tragedy, Sicilia has led marches under the banner “¡Hasta la madre!” — roughly meaning “We’ve had it!” His public jeremiads have become a focal point for Mexican anger with the drug cartel violence and death, including the many thousands who have died in the crackdown over the past four years. Sicilia told reporters, “What my son did was give a name and a face to the 40,000 dead. My pain gave a face to the pain of other families. I think a country is like a house and the destruction of someone is the destruction of our families.”
Mexico’s problem is, of course, more than Sicilia’s personal tragedy. But it is also more than just Mexico’s problem. The killings, the drug gangs and cartels – and the smuggling of immigrants by yet other gangs – and the growing corruption from it all, brings America and Mexico together in both disarray and in a need to find real solutions. The drugs, after all, wouldn’t be smuggled from Mexico if a nearly insatiable American demand for them didn’t exist. And the gangs wouldn’t work so hard to bring them into the US (and get rid of other drug gang rivals and to corrupt Mexican and American border guards and immigration officials in the process) if the profits weren’t so huge from this illicit trade in the first place.
However, one thing is certain unless some way can be found to lessen this traffic and staunch its impact, its corrosive effect on the Mexican political system will continue to grow. And for Americans, of course, the spectre of a failed state brought low by narco-trafficking right at their border should be something that keeps political leaders and law enforcement officials on the northern bank of the Rio Grande wide awake at night, wondering how it can all end. DM
For more, read:
Mexico drugs war: Corruption grows on US border at the BBC website.
Main photo: Relatives of missing women hold flyers with information about their loved ones after a rally led by Mexican poet Javier Sicilia to support victims of feminicide in Ciudad Juarez June 10, 2011. Hundreds of Mexicans began a week-long procession through Mexico on Saturday to protest the country’s bloody drug war, led by Sicilia, a crusading poet whose son was murdered by suspected cartel hitmen. Human rights activists and families of victims of violence formed a peace caravan and piled into 13 buses and more than two dozen cars to set out on a 12-state tour that will end in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico’s most violent drug war city on the U.S. border. The sign reads “In Juarez, justice first”. REUTERS/Tomas Bravo.
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