South of the Border Roundup

I think that we’ve already said more than enough about our position on Afghanistan. The funny thing is that we have a similar situation (narcotics, corrupt governance, poverty) in a country just south of our own border: Mexico. What is occurring there is as complex as anything that we have to deal with in Afghanistan except that it actually poses a real problem in our own backyard and one that we have been unable or unwilling to fully address. Over 14,000 people have been killed in the drug cartel wars in the past three years and it doesn’t look like it will stop any time soon.

Start here: Pulitzer Prize winner Philip Caputo reports from the silent streets of Juarez. Silent due to the fear of people to speak out about the truth of what is happening to the city and the sources of the violence. Many questions are asked but even questioning what is going on is a deadly business.

Corruption Index: Mexico ranks 3.3. Not so bad considering the neighborhood but it is one of the most endemic influences that destroys the state’s ability to exercise control and for people to trust the state. Surprisingly, the US only gets a 7.5 and Spain a 6.1.

In the Caputo article, he argues that the US plays softball with its aid-withdrawal threats against Mexico. Despite it failing to live up to its end of the bargain, Mexico still gets a large percentage of aid from the US to fight not only what is really our drug war but general aid for the government as well. I would agree with his assessment that the reason we don’t put a foot down and enforce the agreement is because using the cheap labor in Mexican factories is perceived as being very important for the US and we would not want to rock the economic boat. Economic development is important in Mexico but one has to wonder if some of our current economic problems don’t stem from shipping off some of our manufacturing jobs to people earning sub-par wages and in bad working conditions just so we can fuel our consumerist society at a discount.

As Julian Cardona is this BBC story says of Juarez:

“We have an unsustainable economy – a globalised economy – which pays very low wages. That allowed an alternative economy to be created which also globalised – drugs. Both economies are playing here. Juarez is a very important place for both.”

Another BBC story about La Familia, a cartel gang that mixes violence and religion.

One curious feature of the organisation is that, according to Mexican intelligence documents, it strongly discourages its members from consuming alcohol or drugs, and has a quasi-religious ideology.

The group’s alleged spiritual leader, Nazario Moreno Gonzalez, also known as “El Mas Loco”, or “the maddest one” is understood to have published and distributed his own bible, based on the macho Christian writing of contemporary American author John Eldredge.

Speculation on the emergence of vigilante groups. This happened in Colombia as well with government backing and the turned into a civil war that continues even now. Not really the best sign.

Stratfor’s subsite on tracking the cartels.

And, probably the most comprehensive and up-to-date resource, the LA Time’s section on the Mexico Drug Wars. With an interactive map and continually updated stories.

An alternative take on what the US-Mexico relationship should be focused on from Foreign Policy in April ’09:

But I worry that this is merely another head fake in the relationship, because Americans are paying attention for the wrong reasons and will soon move on, while the dashing of expectations that this time Americans might pay attention to the relationship will cause lasting damage. Those Americans paying closest attention to Mexico are simply interested in closing the border, and the rest will be distracted by another crisis once they realize that this one is messy, but containable, and is largely Americans’ doing. It’s not as cathartic to clean up your own mess as it is to altruistically fix problems you didn’t create in the first place.

For all the talk of a porous border in the immigration context, what flows from north to south — vast drug profits and weaponry — is far more destabilizing to the security of both countries. How eager is Washington to police those flows? How eager is Washington to engage Mexican development in a sustained manner, along the lines with which the European Union addressed the development of its poorer members such as Ireland and Greece? How eager is Washington to resolve the paralyzing impasse over immigration reform?

When this country stops fiddling in sandboxes and tribal wars elsewhere in the war will we have the willpower to actually confront the true nature of our relationship with our sister nation Mexico and how we have an adverse influence on its destabilization? Will we finally do something about the flow of arms or address our nation’s addiction to ‘illegal’ drugs? Or we will try and hide behind our walls and put our hands over our ears and ignore the problem until it blows up in our face many more people, Mexican and American, die?

9 Comments

  1. Ian

    I’m confused. Are you arguing against the War on Drugs? Are you saying we should be involved in quasi-nation-building in Mexico? Should we close the border?

  2. Jordan

    Trying to present minimal argument here but point to a neighbor in trouble and pretty much ignored while we fight our wars elsewhere.

    I, personally, have no real solution for the ‘War on Drugs’. I am for the legalization of marijuana. Cocaine makes people annoying but that’s about it. Meth and heroin (Mexico traffics more in the former w/ Afghanistan being the lead provider of the latter) are more dangerous but I’m not sure how to curb the demand for such things other than running vivid ad campaigns like they did in Montana and (I think) North Dakota that seemed to have some effect. Everyone remembers the Rachel Leigh Cook frying pan-on-egg “This is your brain on drugs” commercial from the 90s but for some reason marijuana use has been the lead target of campaigns in the 00s.

    Our borders are already closed, in name, to those we don’t want over here. That doesn’t work. Traffickers, of drugs or humans, know how to get over and are far more imaginative than our Border Patrol in doing so.

    Nation-building has a negative and military-focused connotation these days since it began to be used to describe what we were doing in Iraq. I think that what needs to be done is to put far more initiative into economic and social development in Mexico and not just focus on the drugs so that we can avoid having a failed state on our border. I am not sure how to address that issue though. I don’t think NAFTA has worked out well. We lose jobs in the US by sending them down south and exploiting a large cheap labor market down there which, though it benefits those people in some ways, still hasn’t stopped immigrant. The only thing to do that is our current recession.

    So…that’s my general thoughts on the matter and they could very well be wrong. I think there’s a general lack of imagination and willpower on the part of the US to deal with our drug demand and the effects that it has on people in other places. We also have no trouble stirring the pot in regards to violence in other countries and pursuing a military-based option where real economic work probably needs to be done.

  3. Ian

    You can’t have it both ways. You can’t lament us sending jobs and then want us to foster economic development down there.

    Also, I’m not a fan of arguments that draw a false correlation between things. Afghanistan and Mexico are two completely separate issues (just like the Vietnam and Iraq Wars). The problems with one are not really relevant to the problems with another. As much as I dislike big defense spending, I hate to see those comparisons of how many text books you could buy with the money spent on one jet fighter. You could draw those kind of comparisons all day between whatever you want?

    Example: “Why spend so much money on the war in Iraq? We could be fighting AIDS in Africa.”
    Retort: “Why fight AIDS in Africa? We could be helping our homeless here in the US.”
    And so on, and so forth.

  4. Jordan

    You can’t have it both ways. You can’t lament us sending jobs and then want us to foster economic development down there.

    I could be wrong. Automation is probably as responsible as NAFTA for manufacturing job loss in the US. I’m not sure how to address the needs of both countries. This post was more about security issues, issues that can be addressed through development.

    Also, I’m not a fan of arguments that draw a false correlation between things. Afghanistan and Mexico are two completely separate issues

    So there are no correlations or similar ideas in any issues in any part of the world? Each is its own separate problem, fully individual, that does not relate to any other problem that has every occurred on the earth?

  5. Ian

    “So there are no correlations or similar ideas in any issues in any part of the world?”

    Hey, you are the one being a reductionist. You are trying to simplify and equate two different situations like religious extremism and terrorism in one case, and poverty and drug sales in the other, while fully neglecting the fact that these people have very different cultures and motivations. We as a country have very different relationships with Afghanistan and Mexico as well.

    “Each is its own separate problem, fully individual, that does not relate to any other problem that has every occurred on the earth?”

    The war in Afghanistan is a response to a direct attack on the US. Your equating it with Mexico is done only by some shady handwaving arguments about security and drugs. Mexico has its own set of problems, and I agree with you that they should be addressed. I just don’t see a legitimate connection to Afghanistan. Seems like a red herring to me.

  6. Jordan

    I think the similarities rely on:

    -dealing with large-scale drug trafficking operations
    -dealing with mass poverty
    -assessing and dealing with corruption
    -how to handle small, mobile groups of armed gangs

    I’m not trying to make any hand-waving arguments and I don’t think I equated the two on any broader scale than the above. I don’t see how we can not learn from what we are doing in Afghanistan, what works and doesn’t, as well as lessons from the past in Colombia, which would be even more of a similarity. I’m interpreting what you are saying as that neither situation has anything similar to be learned from and to use in helping the Mexican government retain control over their state security and helping improve the lives of its citizens. I don’t see how we can make any decisions without taking in past actions, the good and the bad.

    This was in a previous comment:

    As much as I dislike big defense spending, I hate to see those comparisons of how many text books you could buy with the money spent on one jet fighter.

    There’s no reason not to make those comparisons. Our budget is a finite thing and I think there is nothing wrong in saying “I’d rather spend the money on education vs defense”. That’s how budgets get made and executed.

  7. Ian

    “I think the similarities rely on:”

    Yeah that’s fine, but that isn’t what we are doing in Afghanistan. We are there in a military capacity. We are killing those gangs left and right. We are funding one gang to fight another. We are propping up a corrupt government.

    “I don’t see how we can not learn from what we are doing in Afghanistan”

    We can’t do in Mexico what we are doing in Afghanistan.

    “helping the Mexican government retain control over their state security and helping improve the lives of its citizens.”

    By what, having our soldiers prop up a weak government that we support but the people don’t necessarily?

    “There’s no reason not to make those comparisons. Our budget is a finite thing and I think there is nothing wrong in saying “I’d rather spend the money on education vs defense”. That’s how budgets get made and executed.”

    The reason is: The two are completely separate issues, and you are only trying to make an emotional plea by saying “think of the children” when railing against defense spending. Yes, both education and defense are paid for with taxpayer money. Yes, you have every right to think that we should spend less on defense and more on education. The truth is equating the two is silly, because the only reason you do so is because of your own personal biases. Why not choose to equate textbooks with welfare or highways? Why not choose bank bailouts? You could pick any number of things you don’t like, but that is just your own personal biases. You can make an argument for greater educational funding without resorting to the comparison of text books and jet fighters. You can also make an argument against exorbitant defense spending without mentioning textbooks.

    The purchase of a jet fighter isn’t without any extended benefits either. Some engineers designed those planes. Some workers built it from materials some other workers manufactured. Some pilot will fly it and some other soldiers will maintain it. All of these people have families too. The image of the jet fighter is supposed to be negative since it is associated with war and destruction. The image of the book is supposed to be positive because its about education and learning. But that’s all the comparison is: an image. Its used to further an agenda, which is likely well meaning, by use of a red herring. Either you underestimate your audience’s intelligence by making such an argument, or you are dumb enough to buy into it yourself. Its just an emotional manipulation.

  8. Jordan

    So how is the government supposed to make budgetary decisions?

  9. Ian

    That’s irrelevant to what I am saying. Boiling it down for you: The choice isn’t between defense and books, but the comparison falsely portrays it as such.