Alas! The old clichés about Mexico are coming home again. New York Times veteran Scottie Reston had said: “Americans will do anything for Latin America – except read about it.” When four people connected with the U.S. consulate in Juarez were gunned down in March, three of them American citizens, it didn’t make the front pages. The murders came on the heels of 79 Americans killed in Mexico in 2009.
How to account for this refusal to recognize a primary security problem escalating along our 1500-mile southern border? In the mid-80s, returning from decades in Asia, it didn’t take perspicacity to recognize the classic problems of “underdevelopment” were present here, not in distant Afro-Asia. Mexico and the U.S. then as now had the only land border between the industrial societies and the Third World. The book I wrote then – the title hyped but certainly appropriate now, “Mexico: Chaos on our doorstep” – mostly only needs statistical updating.
That other classic Mexico cliché, too, bears repeating just now. Profirio Diaz, the late 19th century dictator, said, “Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the U.S.” There is no denying that we provide the world’s largest market for “recreational drugs” – conservative estimates put Mexico’s total drug smuggling in 2009 at between $25 to $40 billion, more than the country’s No. 1 export, oil. There is evidence that smugglers also supply the illicit weaponry from the U.S. which fuels a hideous war among crime “cartels” controlling the traffic inside Mexico [and increasingly on this side of the border] and against their government.
The increase in violence – including kidnappings, beheadings, torture, killing of innocent women and children – is feeding on and contributing to Mexico’s economic problems. With all the bad publicity and world recession, tourism fell by 15% in 2009, the first time in a decade, as violence spreads out over the country. The benefits of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement have been eroded by competition for Mexican border “twin plants” from “the China price”, creating additional unemployment. And Mexico’s “escape valve” – the flow of illegal immigrants with their remittances sent back home – has been severely curtailed, not so much by border enforcement as by dwindling job prospects in the U.S.
One thing seems predictable: the mowing down of American citizens in Mexico will be followed by the next act, violence on a new scale spilling over into our own border cities. It has already happened in legendary Laredo. The exceptionally low major crime rate in El Paso, Juarez’ “norteno” twin, suggests that American border cities are increasingly safe havens for higher-ups reaping drug profits.
Some Mexicans – the usual gaggle on the left, but even voices in his own conservative party – have faulted Mexican Pres. Felipe de Jesus Calderon for his all-out “war” on the drug barons. His critics see that as sparking the violence. But not to have moved against the increasingly sophisticated crime syndicates would have been to allow a further erosion of civil government, turning Mexico into a narco-state. That his campaign has been, at best, only partially successful, is surely partly because the problem had been allowed to drift for so long – corrupting the police, the military, and even Mexico’s legal system.
Ten days after the Juarez bloodbath, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s “war cabinet” [including high U.S. military] swept into Mexico City for an elaborate restatement of Washington’s pledge to help Mr. Calderon. But for all the rhetoric, policing the border – for illegal entrants more and more intertwined with drug trafficking – has not been a high priority for this Administration as it was not for Pres. George W. Bush.
Homeland Security Sec. Janet Napolitano says she is canceling out the whole high-tech “virtual” border surveillance project which was intended to help an embattled, underfunded border patrol. That may be a correct decision; it wouldn’t be the first time Washington had been scammed by oversold exepsnsive technical shortcuts. But it also could be seen as a signal that, once more, border security is being given short shrift. What makes for suspicion is that Ms. Napolitano, despite her border state background [former Arizona governor] has made one gaff after another about border security, once, for example, claiming the Canadian border had a higher priority for terrorism. Her latest was publicly to reveal participation of uniformed American military in Mexico, certain to insight nationalist sentiment there.
Pres. Barack Obama has a full plate, without doubt. However, shortly, apparently, he plans to inaugurate a new effort to draw up immigration legislation, to somehow treat the problem of the 12-15 million mostly Mexican illegals in country. But the problem of growing violence in Mexico, the disappearing border, and intimate U.S. domestic connections which feed both, must begin to take a higher priority. It’s important that if and when Congress starts the immigration debate, it grapple with its Siamese twin, the growing drug violence on our southern border. Neither can stand alone in any solution.