Mexico’s Great Leap Backwards

The Mexican government’s war with organized crime groups that are trying to consolidate control of the cross-border drug trade has cost more than 25,000 lives — and government forces are not necessarily winning.

By Kent Paterson

El Paso, Texas/Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua

Circulating in Mexico, an e-mail urges a boycott of the annual Sept. 16 Independence Day celebration to protest the public security crisis. While the appeal would raise eyebrows in normal years, it is all the more noteworthy during Mexico’s double anniversaries of the 1810 uprising against Spain and the 1910 Revolution.

“For the first time in the history of this country, let the Cry of Freedom and Independence be one of great silence, inconformity and disgust,” the message reads. “Let the principal leaders and rulers of this country feel that we too can turn our backs…”

Across the country, killings and pitched battles involving drug cartels and public security forces grow in intensity. In a Balkans-like campaign of population removal, bands of gunmen operating under the noses of Mexican soldiers and federal police burn down homes in the Juárez Valley across from Texas. Regularly, bodies are recovered from secret cemeteries carved out by the grave-diggers of organized crime.

Neighboring El Paso, Texas, Ciudad Juárez is ground zero of Mexico’s bicentennial crisis. A 32-month-old war between organized crime groups has claimed more than 6,000 lives, according to local press accounts, and an undetermined number of people — quite possibly running in the tens of thousands-have fled across the Rio Grande to El Paso or south to Mexican refuges. Numerous businesses are shuttered and many streets eerily quiet. Residents are frightened, frustrated and fed-up.

Since 2008, the list of homicide victims in a city of slightly more than one million people surpasses the total number of US soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq. Symbolized by the mass murders of women beginning more than 20 years ago, the catastrophe has been a long time coming.

“Nobody could or would stop it,” writes local human rights activist and essayist Juan Carlos Martinez. “Some feared ending up with a gunshot in the head, just another (victim) of the border party, while others chose to safeguard their interests because they were secretly involved.”

Worsened by the first-ever explosion of a car bomb, the public safety situation is so precarious that a recent outdoor concert and festival was an extraordinary event.

“This is a cry to say that Juárez is alive, that young people are alive and standing up and wanting to make positive noise to show that there are also many good things in Juárez, not only bad things,” said Carlos Uranga, Ciudad Juárez Youth Network activist.

Strikingly, the violence largely has not spilled over to the US side. El Paso recalls the 1910 Mexican Revolution, when affluent Mexicans fled to the city and fueled its growth. All over El Paso, mirror images of Ciudad Juárez enterprises are open for business, boosting the US city’s economy.

In Mexico, however, the death toll from President Calderon’s so-called drug war tops 25,000 and is rising. With the army at the helm, the offensive has taken out several drug lords including Arturo Beltran Leyva and Nacho Coronel, but it has also resulted in human rights complaints against soldiers for illegal search and seizure, robbery, torture and murder. Hundreds of innocents have perished in cross-fire, and tens of thousands of children are now orphaned.

According to the Mexico City-based press advocacy group CEPET, eight journalists have been killed this year alone. Last year, CEPET documented 13 slayings of journalists and 183 overall acts of aggression against communicators. In a climate of violence, social movement leaders including anti-mining leader Mariano Abarca, Oaxaca activist Beatriz Cariño and legendary land invader Margarito Montes have been murdered within the past year.

The prospects for democracy exhibit other signs of collapse. During this year’s state and local election campaigns, several candidates or their supporters were assassinated — most notably Tamaulipas gubernatorial candidate Rodolfo Torre. Old-school practices of vote-buying and tying government assistance to votes were reported alive and well in many regions.

President Calderon has defined the objective of his drug war as not ending drug consumption or trafficking per se, but as an obligatory task to restore the hegemony of a state challenged by powerful organized crime groups. Seeking to push the shadow state back into the basement, the official government policy amounts to a kind of court-ordered corporate break-up.

Coinciding with the neo-liberal inspired downsizing of the old state, the end of one-party rule in 1997-2000 created power vacuums which were filled by both legal and illegal private enterprises. Widely quoted in Mexican media, former United Nations organized crime consultant and expert Eduardo Buscaglia speaks about the “feudalization” and “Afghanization” of Mexico. Of course, the two nations harbor very different societies, but certain parallels are evident.

In both countries, a central government which is unpopular with large sections of the population but backed by Washington struggles to control unruly provinces where feudal-like warlords and political bosses reign. An illicit drug business, especially in opium poppies, dominates some rural economies.

Contemporary Mexico is starkly different from the 21st-century wonder predicted by US and Mexican leaders in their sales pitch for the North American Free Trade Agreement. Free trade’s cheerleaders predicted that a closer economic partnership would enhance mutual prosperity, reduce undocumented immigration and lead to greater standards of living on both sides of the border. Mexico, it was said, was on the road to democracy. If anything, nearly two decades later, the model has simply imploded.

Kent Paterson is a freelance journalist who divides his time between Mexico and the US Southwest.

From The Progressive Populist, September 1, 2010

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