Wars on the U.S.-Mexico Border Divide and Conquer

U.S. drug and trade policies still do more to create instability than fight it.

By Michelle Chen Mar 21, 2011

Washington has quietly deployed another set of military drones to patrol the skies. This time, reports the New York Times, they’re not hovering over the Afghanistan borderlands, but rather trolling for drug traffickers over our own. The brainless, robot aircraft reflects Washington’s standard attitude toward border politics: two governments partnering mindlessly to keep communities divided and hostile. 

On his tour of Latin America this week, President Obama will stress opportunities for economic and political partnership. But the bruised lower lip of America’s border exposes a hard truth about the hemispheric balance of power: important partners don’t always make good neighbors. The Obama administration continues to fixate on militarizing law enforcement to stem transnational flows of narcotics and labor. The collateral damage of that choice has come in the form of economic turmoil, the slaughter of civilians and constant fear.

The war on drugs is just one of the gears driving a massive humanitarian crisis stretching over the U.S.-Mexico border. News reports give us only fractured images of Mexico–a land of warring drug cartels, with grisly and escalating violence. Behind the headlines, though, Washington’s policies have steered Mexico’s tragic narrative of displacement, poverty and violence.

Addicted to the Drug War

As the White House pushes to renew funding for the Merida Initiative, human rights advocates point out that the shootings and murders have shown no signs of abating under the new administration. Rights abuses by U.S.-backed government forces remain rampant, and the drug war body count has approached 35,000 over four years. Meanwhile, ideas for alternative investments in social infrastructure and efforts to reduce demand are practically dead on arrival.

The State Department raised hopes for a more enlightened approach last year when it touted a new direction for the Merida Initiative that focuses more on social development rather than punishment and prosecution.

But a Government Accountability Office audit of the program found it still lacks clear goals, with few mechanisms for oversight. Freshly leaked diplomatic documents further revealed tension and incoherence in the two governments’ attempts at cooperation. Criticism of bilateral drug policy has come from all corners, in fact, as more evidence surfaces of its corruption and strategic shortsightedness, its neglect of human rights standards; and the immeasurable social cost for Mexican and American communities.

Laura Carlsen of the Americas Policy Program said that despite the Obama administration’s claims that it would boost development aid for Mexico, its budget proposal seeks "minimal" humanitarian assistance and maintains support for hardline policing tactics. "It doesn’t … look at the root causes of why organized crime has been able to grow so much," Carlsen said. It certainly fails to consider Americans’ demand for drugs–a direct product of domestic policies focused on prohibition and punishment.

Inequity Keeps Drugs and People Moving

Not all the casualties of the drug war are directly in the line of fire. The embattled bodies of border-crossers in the desert are a testament to the human cost of failed foreign policy.

The border isn’t just a gateway for drugs, but an artery for labor flows that shuttle between two vastly unequal worlds. And as the North American Free Trade Agreement widens the development gap between the U.S. and Mexico, drugs and people inevitably move toward the gravitational pull of underground markets.

Anti-immigrant groups tag undocumented migrants as "illegals," but their so-called crime is a product of the global marketplace’s laws. NAFTA got rid of trade protections, and so helped cripple Mexico’s indigenous farm sector while failing to deliver industrial investment.  "The vacuum produced by the destruction of the rural social tissue generated a fertile ground for drug traffickers," said Manuel Perez Rocha of Institute for Policy Studies, "both in terms of gaining territories and as scores of people, particularly young people, have had no option or have been obliged at gun point to join the ranks of criminal organizations."

The other option for frustrated workers is to seek refuge across the border. At the height of the immigration reform debates in 2006, sociologist Alejandro Portes wrote:

They are dubbed "law-breakers" and accused of "taking jobs away from Americans." But this is just another exercise in victim-blaming. Those truly responsible for the situation are the authorities who embraced free markets as a cure for all economic and social ills.

Perversely, federal drug and immigration policies actually push the two issues closer together by turning the bodies of migrants into just another illicit commodity to be trafficked.

"What you have then is a situation where they beef up the border [enforcement] to treat human beings as contraband, essentially … the same way we would treat illegal drug shipments," said Carlsen. Years ago, she said, migrants would rely on help from relatives and others who knew the routes. But since military-style enforcement has grown, without altering the reasons people move, migrants are "forced to hire human smugglers, members of organized crime…. That’s created a huge human rights crisis on all levels."

Catalina Nieto of Witness for Peace summed up the net effect of the Merida Initiative from the perspective of a Colombian who has lived in the trenches of the drug war in Latin America:

Military aid won’t end drug violence. While there’s no easy fix to Mexico’s violence, the U.S. government should ensure that our taxpayer dollars aren’t used to violate human rights. Instead, the United States should attack the root causes of drug trafficking: high demand for drugs in the U.S., increased rates of poverty and unemployment, and the lack of opportunities for Latin American farmers and youth.

Meanwhile, drug violence helps build the dehumanizing gauntlet through which migrants cross–subjecting themselves to exploitation by predatory smugglers, by profiteering employers and by jingoistic Washington politicians. But what if the resources that now finance police equipment were channeled instead toward bilateral development programs for Mexico? What if, instead of exporting America’s zero-tolerance policies, the White House focused on revamping civil society and public education for disaffected youth in both countries? What if policymakers envisioned a border policy that embraced the globalization of humanity just as it has fostered the globalization of factories and corn crops?

None of those questions are asked, perhaps because no one in Washington wants to hear the answer.