Why Should We Care About Mexico?

The cold, hard numbers of the poor and the dead are familiar.

Instead we are told that we should care—or rather, worry—about Mexico for a very different reason. The State Department, the Pentagon, the press and members of Congress tell us, with increasing shrillness, that Mexico poses a major threat to U.S. national security.

It’s incredible how quickly this meme has taken over. I’ve lived in Mexico for 25 years and in just the last four, the relationship between my country of birth and the country where my children were born has gone from being a relationship of neighbors– not without its contradictions and tensions–to a relationship completely dominated by the logic of war.

Mexico is our closest Latin American neighbor, with a tight web of personal, cultural, economic and historical ties between the two nations.

What should be seen as a far more nuanced and complex bilateral relationship based on shared human, geographical and environmental linkages now hinges on threat assessments and a Bush-era national security framework. The U.S. Merida Initiative and the militarization of Mexico and the border are the direct outgrowth of imposing this framework.

From a neighbor and a trade partner, Mexico is now portrayed as a threat to U.S. national security. From the hype on spill-over violence from the drug war (statistically false), to warnings of a “failed state” (also inaccurate), to statements that Mexican drug cartels not only seek to take over the Mexican government but also infiltrate and undermine the United States (a complete invention), alarmist and economically motivated rants have supplanted policy-making based on facts.

An expression of this feigned urgency to ‘control Mexico’ came on Oct. 4 when House committees held a hearing entitled “Merida Part 2: Terrorism and Insurgency.” The name itself sounds like a sequel to a horror movie, and if U.S. policy proceeds in this direction, we’ll continue to see the horrors that have characterized the drug war since it began.

At the hearing, Rep. Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican bucking for the title of chief border warmonger, called drug cartels “terrorists” and requested they be classified as Foreign Terrorist Organizations. This would place Mexico squarely within the Bush counterterrorism paradign of unilateral intervention. Even at the height of their power, Colombian Drug Trafficking Organizations weren’t formally classified as “terrorist”.

“These terrorists both in Mexico and the United States are a threat to national security and should be treated as such.” McCaul said. He called for fighting them with “every means possible”.  He added ominously, “There’s a war along the border and the enemy is covertly infiltrating our cities.”

We have been analyzing these kinds of statements and their relation to militarization and aggressive–and often illegal– involvement in foreign countries for more than three decades. It’s known as an “exaggerated risk assessment” and is invariably a prelude to the escalation of involvement in foreign conflicts.

Recent history has shown us that these militarist campaigns–which begin with hysterical discourse, enter Congress as bills to divert enormous amounts of public resources to the defense industry, and end up in foreign deployments and domestic boondoggles—heighten, rather than reduce violence and public insecurity both here and abroad. They end up sucking ever scarcer public resources into falsely framed and unwinnable wars.

In the case of Mexican drug cartels, this assessment is not only exaggerated—it’s downright wrong. Anyone who has looked at the dynamic of the violence there knows that there is a difference between political terrorist organizations seeking to undermine a political system and drug cartels seeking to protect an illegal and highly lucrative business. Their logic is different, their tactics and motives are different, their actions are different and their relationship to governments is different.

This purposely mistaken description and the errant “defense”policies that go along with it lead to terrible consequences.

Four years into the Merida Inititiative, we can see the results of applying the war logic to organized crime in Mexico. Every study we have shows a direct correlation between the beginning of the drug war in December of 2006 and the explosion, rather than control, of violence in Mexico. Drug war-related deaths have skyrocketed from an average of 2,000 a year since before the U.S. and Mexican governments launched this policy, to 15,000 last year.

A new study by Eduardo Guerrero in Nexos documents how the drug war model promoted by the Merida initiative leads to fragmentation of drug cartels and huge increases in violence. Typically, the government takes out a major operative from a single cartel, which triggers turf wars among cartels often involving attacks on officials considered linked to rival cartels, and the death of citizens.

Mexico now faces a very serious dual threatfrom the illness and from the purported cure.

The illness: The illness we know all too well. The chain of transnational organized crime runs from the armed groups in Colombia–most paramilitaries formed under the counterinsurgency programs of the Uribe administration with U.S. support in the form of Plan Colombia–up through Central America, where street gangs join forces with drug traffickers, into Mexico, and throughout the United States.

Mexican cartels have become the major players in this scheme, as they have taken over not just the transit of cocaine, but also the link to retailers in the United States, along the traditional production and trafficking of marijuana and heroin, and more recently methamphetamines.

As their business has grown due to shifts in the globalization of the drug trade, these groups fight each other tooth and nail to maintain or gain control of drug trafficking routes and market shares. There is no question but that they are brutal and ruthless.

The cure: The drug war model is based on prohibition, criminalization and blocking supply of illicit substances to the U.S. market. This model, developed by Richard Nixon in 1971 has never worked—at all.

In Mexico, it has not reduced flows overall, U.S. consumption has gone up and public safety, in some regions, has eroded to the point of crisis.

In the United States it has diverted local police forces from control of violent crime to drug busts, and sent thousands of youth to prison for simple possession, mostly youth of color in a clear pattern of discrimination and repression.

The drug war is taking a huge toll on society, only to produce no positive results.

I take that back. There have in fact been positive results–for some very powerful people.

Those who win in the drug war by perpetuating it know very well who they are, although most of the rest of us do not. They are hawk politicians seeking to exploit public insecurity and draw federal funds to their districts by calling for hard-line policies. They are the mammoths of the defense industry. They are private security firms. Increasingly, they are also the producers of electronic surveillance and intelligence equipment that have joined as the newest members of this revised military-industrial complex.

They are also Pentagon agencies, especially the Northern Command, and other U.S. agencies. The Pentagon has long dreamed of gaining greater access to Mexico´s intelligence services and security apparatus. The Bush expansion of NAFTA into security had at its core the goal of creating a Pentagon-run regional security system by subsuming Mexico’s national defense system. The so-called “Security and Prosperity Partnership” placed the cornerstone of this ambitious expansion. Today U.S. agencies operate on Mexican soil–planning, equipping, directing and, according to numerous on-the-ground reports, executing operations throughout the country.

The private and public sector promoters of war reap hundreds of millions of dollars in public funds. They grow stronger as their lobbyists buy off politicians with campaign donations and the Defense Department assures itself a lion’s share of taxpayer dollars.

Peace is their enemy.

That means that when we call for non-violent solutions to the drug war, we are their enemy. We have to understand, that to work for peaceful alternatives and against militarization places us squarely in their sights.

In a recent article on the winners and losers in the war on terrorism, Gareth Porter put it succinctly,

“Aggressive U.S. wars are not merely the result of mistaken policies, but of the national security institutions pursuing their own interests at the expense of the interests of the American people. The ‘war on terror’ is a means for those institutions to maintain the present allocation of national resources and power to the national security sector for the indefinite future.”

I would add that the “war on drugs” serves the same purpose and that the national security sector not only seeks to to maintain its present enormous allocation of resources, but to constantly expand it.

The Merida Initiative’s drug war offensive can only really be understood in light of the additional $3.6 trillion dollars lavished on the national security sector over the past decade. Today even with the budget cuts, the security sector has major plans for expansion and Mexico is the new frontier.

Our research has affirmed this dynamic. While basic human needs are not being met in the world’s wealthiest nation, efforts to fatten the war economy are in overdrive. We’ve seen active lobbying in Washington to continue and intensify the Merida Initiative by the defense sector and private security firms hungry for contracts in a fresh war. According to a  study by the Center for international Policy and Common Cause, the U.S. arms industry has more than 1,000 lobbyists and spent $22.6 million dollars on campaigns in the 2009/2010 elections. Although exact figures are hard to come by, given that the Merida Initiative forbids giving cash to Mexico for contracting, and State Department currently outsources much of its work, this means that a huge chunk of the $1.6 billion so far in Merida money goes to the military-industrial complex.

But there is another sinister reason behind Mexico’s drug war. Militarizing Mexico by putting the armed forces in communities to fight the drug war, also puts them in a position to put down grassroots rebellions, especially and strategically local battles over natural resources, such as anti-mining campaigns, water, land and oil conflicts.

We’re seeing a future taking shape in an age of scarcity and environmental crisis where it won’t be survival of the fittest, but survival of those who were most conniving and ruthless in gaining control of the natural resources we need to continue on this planet. What’s going on in with the land and water grabs, biopiracy, mining and oil concessions is much more than privatization of the commons—it’s the massive relocation of resources from communities to a small number of elites for a day when, if the current system continues, both cannot survive. Mexico is and will be a major stage for this battle. Local communities are fighting back and militarization provides a way of controlling them.

In talks on U.S.-Mexico relations around the country, I’ve met thousands of U.S. citizens who are watching the deterioration of binational relations with grave concern, and others who ask honestly—Why should we care?

* For those of you who live on the border, you care because just beyond this building–across the line, the river, the fence–live your relatives, your friends and your neighbors. We can’t stand by and watch as their lives are destroyed by fear, violence and repression, and young people are robbed of a real future.

* We should also care because our government has promoted, funded and sustained the drug war that is at the root of the violence and it is time to say NO MORE.

* We should care because if we work together we can find non-violent solutions on both sides of the border: drug policy reform, serious operations against financial crimes, community development, anti-poverty and education programs, jobs creation, regulation and mechanisms for the fair distribution of weath, citizen involvement, anti-corruption campaigns, and each country improving its own justice public safety systems on all levels.

We must stop the drug war and call on Congress to stop funding the Merida Initiative immediately and fund these other options.

It’s true that there’s a lot to be worried about now, especially for young people just starting out in a world of threats and uncertainty. But we all have but two choices: we can turn away from what feels threatening to us, or we can turn into it, and ask ourselves what can be done, and find others who asking the same questions and building local and global responses.

The Occupy Wall Street movement is a source of inspiration in this sense. Our work here fits in among those demands by demanding that the $1.6 billion in Merida funding go to human needs and public safety in the country and development aid to Mexico, instead of war. In a globalized world we have to end the false division between foreign policy and domestic policy. Foreign policy defines who we are in the world and policies like the Merida Initiative rob us of resources we need for schools and hospitals, even as they threaten and kill innocent people in foreign countries.

We’ve been told that foreign policy is the terrain of experts. But as responsible members of a democracy we have to believe in our own power to understand and confront threats like the new drug wars, and stop military build-ups before the sheer momentum of the weapons and cash consortium runs us over.

I have a tremendous amount of confidence in our ability to do that. I’ve seen the concern of you all, students and other border residents, here and around the country.

If we pool our knowledge and commitment here and reaching across the border, we can stop this bloodshed and begin to rebuild our crossborder community, and strengthen a relationship of respect between sovereign nations that has been ripped asunder by this war.

Laura Carlsen is the director of the CIP Americas Program www.cipamericas.org

Laura Carlsen is the director of the Americas Program in Mexico City and advisor to Just Associates (JASS) .