Shannon K. O'Neil

Latin America's Moment

O'Neil analyzes developments in Latin America and U.S. relations in the region.

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Mexico: Countering Drug Violence

by Shannon K. O'Neil
March 16, 2010

Mex kidsThree weeks ago, Reynosa, Mexico–just across the Rio Grande from McAllen, Texas–exploded in violence. The Zetas and the Gulf cartels, once allies, began what may become a fight to the death. The turf war over a lucrative passageway to the United States reportedly claimed over one hundred lives, though no official headcount is available, as observers bemoan the lack of official presence–the local government as well as the army.

But what happened some eight hundred miles to the west on Saturday in Ciudad Juarez, when three U.S. consulate workers–two of them U.S. citizens–were killed in their cars in broad daylight wasn’t likely masterminded by drug cartel leaders. Such assassinations would be bad for cross-border business. Instead, this first case of serious violence against U.S. citizens in the “war on narcotraffickers” waged by President Felipe Calderon’s administration was probably committed by one of Ciudad Juarez’s gangs. Initial intelligence points to the Aztecas, a local gang of hitmen who have worked with “La Linea,” the enforcement arm of the Juarez cartel, which was also implicated in the January 31 massacre of sixteen youths at a birthday party.

In places like Ciudad Juarez, the prevalent depiction of a battle between highly organized and disciplined drug cartels is misleading. Instead, these “organizations” are sprawling networks full of freelancers who might work one day for a cartel, the next on their own or with a local gang. Some of the violence of recent years is between street toughs and gangs, often resolving local turf wars. This growing problem, while fueled by the money and guns associated with the drug trade, is distinct from the presence of multinational criminal drug-trafficking organizations.

Ciudad Juarez today presents a bleak picture. City infrastructure and manpower are overwhelmed; the dominant maquila factories offer only low-wage labor; and over 40 percent of the city’s youths are neither in school nor lawfully employed. Exclusion from the hope of joining Mexico’s developing middle class along with weak control mechanisms mean disaffected youth coalesce around an alternative source of social “status”–urban gangs.

In the aftermath of the shooting, President Obama vowed to continue to work with the Calderon government “to break the power of the drug trafficking organizations that operate in Mexico and far too often target and kill the innocent.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton vowed to “ensure that the perpetrators . . . are brought to justice,” reasserting that “this is a responsibility we must shoulder together, particularly in border communities where strong bonds of history, culture, and common interest bind the Mexican and the American people closely together.”

The United States should support Mexico during this moment–as the events of the past few weeks and this weekend show how closely tied Mexico’s stability and safety are to our own. Yes, weapons and equipment are needed for Mexico’s police forces–particularly at the local level where beat cops often patrol without bulletproof vests and in rundown squad cars. Many are even required to buy their own bullets.

But it is not just more gun power that Mexico needs. Instead, it is a functioning police and court system, a better and more open education system, and programs for early intervention, and professional development for at-risk youth. Partnerships between the United States and a wide range of agencies and stake holders at Mexico’s federal, state, and, most importantly, local levels will be vital for the coordination and pooling of resources and expertise.

This broader challenge of reknitting Mexico’s social fabric in places such as Ciudad Juarez is what Mexico struggles most with today. In light of the weekend violence, the United States should prioritize efforts that will assist Mexico in pushing through the changes that will actually matter, changing today’s violent dynamic for the long term.

Post a Comment 5 Comments

  • Posted by Anon

    Dear Shannon,

    You will have to forgive me as my field is US national security, not Latin American or Mexican studies, but it seems to me (after reading your latest post) that Mexico is heading for a crash and that we should help soften it. Wouldn’t it be better for Mexico if we were not the door out for the most ambitious among Mexico’s citizens. If we controlled the influx into the United States, those who want to get ahead would become a force of change within Mexico. Our desire for cheap labor hinders Mexico’s needed change. We are the safety valve for the narrow rich elite in that country. This is not good for Mexico nor the United States.

    Sincerely,

    H.

  • Posted by Shannon

    There are costs and benefits of migration for Mexico. While migration does draw away many of its most ambitious and entrepreneurial citizens, it also provides much needed resources to Mexican families, and has been one of the factors leading the increase in Mexico’s middle class in the last two decades. Circular migration – the flow of migrants for periods of time to the US and then back again to their home country – can bring the added benefit of allowing migrants to develop new skills that then they bring home. One thing the current US system does is discourage this return to Mexico – as it is too costly for migrants to come back.

    The Mexican government realizes the costs of migration, and hopes, in the long term, to stem these flows. And, if given the possibility to earn a living at home, a good number of migrants would do just that – stay home. But given the economic realities today, stopping Mexican migration today to the United States (whether legal or illegal) would create a large economic burden on the country, and perhaps lead even more workers into illicit parts of the economy, as they searched desperately for any means to make a living.

  • Posted by Harvey Sapolsky

    An open border (not quite our current situation but close to it)is bad in at least three ways.
    1) Mexico and other Latin American nations use migration North as a political safety valve. If US reduced illegal immigration, ambitious people in these countries would be a strong force for political and economic change. This change is vitally needed if these countries are to become democratic, prosperous societies less burdened by violence and corruption.
    2) The earnings of America’s poor would increase as the pool of cheap, illegal workers shrinks. It would cost Americans more to have their grass cut or dishes washed, but that would be the price. The benefits would be more of America’s poor working to improve their family situations. Truth be told both American political parties have given up on our own poor. Why else would we be importing another poor population?
    3) The rising cost of washing dishes or providing fast food service would also encourage technological change as we would work to eliminate the most boring, unpleasant tasks in society. Cheap wages discourages technological change.

  • Posted by Mike Charlton

    I think that the discussion about immigration largely misses the point; the US and Mexico have a largely symbiotic relationship that won’t change. Restricting immigration won’t change that. Simplistically, people will go where the jobs are and US businesses will continue to insist on low wage workers.

    Where I do take some issue is that your post seems to require that Mexico make the necessary reforms: remove corruption from the courts and police, institute education reforms, etc. I agree that all of those goals are desirable; my reservation lies solely in whether they are possible in light of US drug demand. Isn’t it our responsiblity to try to reduce that demand and remove from the Mexican economy as much drug profit as possible? Conversly, is it even possible for any government to undertake these reforms when their country is awash in so much illegal monies?

  • Posted by Bruce

    I think that the discussion about immigration largely misses the point; the US and Mexico have a largely symbiotic relationship that won’t change. Restricting immigration won’t change that. Simplistically, people will go where the jobs are and US businesses will continue to insist on low wage workers.

    Where I do take some issue is that your post seems to require that Mexico make the necessary reforms: remove corruption from the courts and police, institute education reforms, etc. I agree that all of those goals are desirable; my reservation lies solely in whether they are possible in light of US drug demand. Isn’t it our responsiblity to try to reduce that demand and remove from the Mexican economy as much drug profit as possible? Conversly, is it even possible for any government to undertake these reforms when their country is awash in so much illegal monies?

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