Dying on Our Doorstep

Now that the Iraq campaign has drawn to a close, President Obama urges us to focus on political challenges closer to home. Good idea. In fact, why don’t we take an important lesson from Iraq (i.e., phantom WMDs) and start paying attention to real national security threats to boot. In that case, let’s review the gruesome evidence pouring out of Mexico these days.

Ciudad Juarez was recently safer than most American cities of comparable size (just over a million people); now it knows a murder rate of 2000 per year, ten times that of Houston. Mayors and public officials have been assassinated in northern Mexico, and a former presidential candidate was kidnapped in May (he’s still missing). Open air gun battles and car bombings are becoming an alarmingly common occurrence. Headless corpses show up alongside highways, and just last week, a mass grave of 70 Central American migrants was uncovered—purported victims of the Zetas, one of Mexico’s most vicious cartels.

The Mexican cartels operate—and kill—with utter impunity. They think nothing of descending the whole country into war, in their contest to control the lucrative drug routes to the US. The Mexican government has deployed the military to patrol the streets, but since this move, the violence has only escalated.

There ought to be serious concern in this country for the stability, indeed viability, of our neighbor. 2000 annual murders in Ciudad Juarez—half the death toll of the 30 year long Irish Troubles— very nearly spells lawlessness. Open air pitched battles between drug gangs and the army spells war. Car bombs and mass graves, well, I’m afraid that spells something far worse. I think we must face the daunting notion that Mexico, a populous and rich nation, an important trade partner and homeland to many American citizens, is very nearly a failed state. And on our southern border.

It’s quite mystifying, and I might add, more than a bit shameful that Mexico’s troubles are absent from the current political discussion in this electoral cycle. Mexico only enters that discussion when it comes to illegal immigrants, whom some would rather toss back into the cauldron below the border.

Mexico’s plight is troubling for our national security—and needless to say, heartbreaking to watch. It’s one thing when lawlessness grips Yemen or Somalia half a world away, and the neo-Cons ominously warn of the impending ‘global reach of terror.’ They have to work us up and convince us that Yemen is a national security issue, though it is remote and desperately poor. But with Mexico, there is very real terror right at our doorstep—where’s the hysteria?

For his part, Glenn Beck is worked up. However, he detects the same nefarious global terrorist network operating in Mexico. In a recent show, he suggested that the car bombings in Mexico betrayed the influence and training of Hezbollah, as if they had the wherewithal, interest and time to meddle in northern Mexico. Actually, I don’t think they would dare tread on Zeta territory.

No, Mexico is a sufficient national security threat all by itself. We don’t need specters of Hezbollah to blow it out of proportion. Mexico is already blown out of proportion. Mass graves and car bombs serve notice of that. Beck’s suggestion is galling—as if Mexico’s suffering were all about us. As if this were just another case of dark forces in the world conspiring to sabotage our cherished freedom. Well, he’s not totally wrong: it is about us, but not in the way he admits. Absent from his analysis is his usual bluster about personal responsibility. For, Mexico’s misery is due in no small part to our behavior and policies.

Our government is egging on President Calderon in his battle with the cartels, urging him – and funding and supplying him—to up the ante and obliterate them on their own terms: violence. But this is a deadly, futile track. Rousseau pointed out the dangers in government violence. There is a happy medium, he argued, in the amount of violence a government can exercise.

If the government exercises too much violence, sooner or later, the government undoes its own authority and delegitimizes itself. Well, what else are we to make of the situation in Mexico, where the army patrols the streets, but violence only increases. Have the cartels come to respect and fear the government any more through this move? Clearly not. And now, the government has no further guns to draw in this battle—upping the ante did not work. The cartels responded with car bombs. What’s next? Should the government resort to nuclear weaponry?

Naturally, however, our defense industry is all too happy to chip in with the effort, and profit from all the investment in US weaponry. And, it turns out, the drug cartels are equally avid buyers of powerful American arms. The current drug war in Mexico is where law-and-order types in this nation long wanted to take us: just crush the drug lords and their networks would fall, was the thinking. Mexico offers sufficient testimony to the failure of this approach. Little thought was given to the addicts propping up these violent networks in the first place. But surely, that is where we must turn sooner or later.

Back in June, after a particularly deadly day in the drug war, President Calderon addressed the nation to soothe nerves, predict success, and apportion blame. And blame he did. A significant part of the problem, he informed his countrymen, is that they find themselves next to the largest drug user on the planet.

In an interview on NPR shortly thereafter, Joseph Califano, former Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare in the Clinton administration, confirmed Calderon’s bold assertion: though we comprise only 5% of the world’s population, we consume two thirds of the world’s illegal drugs. Mexican cartels rake in $40 billion annually from our drug habit.

The origins of Mexico’s misery are here, in places like Baltimore, where nearly ten percent of the urban population is addicted. And Baltimore’s drug problem creates a remarkable national security threat—right here at home—where robberies proliferate, and 200-plus bodies fall on city streets each year. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised how we so adeptly ignore Mexico’s drug war, given that we’re old pros at ignoring our own. A few years ago, the New York Times reported that the vast majority of Baltimore’s homicides involved people with criminal records—the result of the urban drug trade. The Baltimore city government very nearly took this as joyous news, as if to say that the gruesome murder toll merely afflicts a disenfranchised subset of the population, not the mainstream. Indeed, the majority of Baltimore’s murders are briefly noted deep within the recesses of the city paper; if a middle class innocent is killed, however, that’s instant front page news.

Drugs excuse the violence in Baltimore. They are our excuse to shove it to the shadows to be ignored. This is the tale across the country, and it is the tale once again with Mexico. We find it far easier to get worked up about vague threats far away, than face up to our national drug addiction, and the longstanding social and racial problems it stems from and exacerbates. We need to look courageously and honestly at our war on drugs. Embroiled in its misery, Mexico is doing just that; indeed, you might say, it has no choice. And Mexico is considering radical fixes, like legalizing drugs. The only thing is, Mexico is not the problem addict.

FIRMIN DeBRABANDER is Professor of Philosophy at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore.