Mexico: Failed State or Failed System?

By Jim Cullen

Ciudad Juárez is a laboratory for free trade and was one of the fastest growing cities in the world before its murder rate also grew among the world’s highest.

US manufacturers seeking to take advantage of low-wage workers and relaxed regulations have been moving factories from the United States to Juárez, across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas, for 40 years, Charles Bowden said in a panel discussion on “The Drug Wars” at the Texas Book Festival Oct. 17. Now Juárez has plenty of jobs at poverty wages, little infrastructure, practically no reliable police and is swarming with street gangs. “So we’ve created a cage with at least a million people where there’s no protection, no services and there’s mass poverty and 500 to 900 street gangs operating. ... I suspect as of this morning there are 2,400 or 2,500 dead this year. And how do we try to address this problem? The US government gives half a billion dollars to the Mexican army to fix things ... which is crap. The Mexican army is just a huge gang.

“You want to fix Juárez, just pay decent wages in the Electrolux plants and the GM plants. They’ll build their own houses and do everything. What we’re getting is what we deserve, not what they deserve. Treat people like hell and things go to hell.”

Bowden, a magazine writer and resident of Tucson, Ariz., travelled to Juárez with a friend in January 2008 after reading that three local police commandantes had been “whacked” in a span of a few hours. After reporting for a month, he realized the murders were not going to stop.

In 2007, Juárez recorded 307 killings, which was the bloodiest year in the city’s history. In 2008, the toll had risen to 1,600. “It wasn’t simply a cartel war,” Bowden said. “There were too many things feeding it.” The only thing that was clear was that it was not going to end. Instead, it has spread through Mexico.

“The social fabric’s been torn and I don’t see anybody out there with a loom to weave it back together,” said Bowden, who has two books dealing with the embattled city, Murder City: Ciudad Juárez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields [Avalon Press] and Dreamland: The Way Out of Juárez [University of Texas Press]. The Charles Bowden Reader also was published this year by University of Texas Press, with excerpts from previous books as well as articles that appeared in Esquire, Harper’s, Mother Jones and other publications.

Ed Vulliamy, former correspondent for the British newspapers the Guardian and Observer, travelled 16,000 miles on both sides of the southern border reporting for his own book, Amexica: War Along the Borderline [Farrar, Straus and Giroux]. He wanted to write about the border trade before the latest phase of drug war started in 2005. Since then he has watched Juárez collapse into criminal anarchy, “a maelstrom of violence,” as it was caught up in “a hypermaterialist war ... where the only ideology is greed and money — the example set by the politicians and the banks and the corporations. The only opposition to it comes from the pre-political clergy.”

Malcolm Beith, who has covered the drug war based in Mexico City for Newsweek, wrote The Last Narco: Inside the Hunt for El Chapo, the World’s Most-Wanted Drug Lord [Grove/Atlantic]. Beith used Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman to look at the drug trade and organized crime. Guzman, a farmer from Sinaloa who rose through the drug trade to become one of the most powerful people in Mexico, has been in hiding since his 2001 escape from a Mexican prison, where he lived like a king for eight years, making deals and alliances and waging war as he led a cartel that is believed to have trafficked billions of dollars worth of cocaine to the United States in the last eight years.

Bowden and Vulliamy blame globaliztion for Mexico’s troubles. Asked whether Mexico is a “failed state,” Bowden said the term is absolutely useless. “What the US means when it uses the term ‘failed state’ is that they can’t find somebody there to do deals with. ‘Our corporations aren’t protected. Where’s your dictator, for Christ’s sake? Who do we talk to?’

“Right now the Mexican government’s power is receding and this has happened before in Mexico’s history and so the president of Mexico controls less and less of the country,” Bowden said. “And [Secretary of State] Clinton, bless her heart, said ‘I think there may be an insurgency.’ What the hell does that mean? There’s no political movement organized with violence that I know of,” Bowden said, adding, “Dust off the classrooms at the School of the Americas, our counterinsurgency war camp.”

But Bowden added that US intervention in Mexico is probably the only thing that would unite the country. “Every Mexican would unite to shoot us,” he said.

Vulliamy said Mexico is a failed economic system more than a failed state. “If you build a necklace of sweatshop factories across the Rio Grande, thereby creating Third World [conditions] 20 minutes walk away from El Paso or McAllen, Texas, and these cities burgeon, as Charles said, without infrastructure, and then you think we can save a few cents by shipping these jobs off to Asia, well the people aren’t going to go off to Asia. So in that sense, the US already has intervened in Mexico by creating this nightmare.”

Beith noted that Mexico was widely seen as a failed state for 71 years under the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), supported by the United States, before the conservative National Action Party won the presidency in 2000 with Vicente Fox and again in 2006 with Felipe Calderón. Beith sees signs of democracy. In Sinaloa, PRI was voted out of the governorship for first time in modern history by a coalition of the right-wing PAN and progressive Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). “It seems like that is some sort of progress,” he said.

Bowden said Mexico’s leading export isn’t drugs or factory products. It is people — 10% of its population already has left for the US and that exodus is going to grow. “The reason they’re here is because they can’t survive there. We’re looking at a migration of the poor and they’re going to keep coming because what’s driving them is getting worse.”

Walls won’t stop them, he added. The US built a wall near his home in southern Arizona and five days later Mexicans using laser torches carved a gate to let cars through. “And what I really liked was they put hinges on the Mexican side,” he added.

Panel moderator Ricardo Ainslie, a writer and filmmaker, noted that on a trip to Juárez about a year ago, noted 15 different stories in the Juárez newspaper about the violence, including 17 executions. When he crossed back into Texas, there was not a mention of the violence in the El Paso Times.

Bowden said US press coverage of the deterioration on the border was “absolutely gutless,” and he never saw a US reporter in Juárez. “I decided to create a record because the US press was absent without leave.”

When the army arrived in late March 2008, Bowden said, the murders dropped for about four weeks, but then they started increasing again. By August 2008 a bunch of guys showed up at a drug treatment clinic with a bunch of machine guns and shot everybody at a prayer meeting while soldiers sat outside and did nothing. Now, he noted, the army has been accused in hundreds of cases of kidnapping, torturing and murdering people. “They’ve basically run out of criminal gangs to send in. The city is unpoliced.”

Bowden noted that El Paso’s population is overwhelmingly of Mexican heritage, many with relatives across the river. Yet while Juárez is crime-ridden with less than 2% of murder cases solved, El Paso has one of the lowest crime rates in America and a 96% solution rate for homicides.

“If you take a lower-class Mexican and put him in a city where the police aren’t corrupt, the electricity works, the water comes through a pipe and he gets a decent job, you get one of the lowest crime rates in the United States, which is El Paso. If you put him in Juárez, where police are corrupt, American factories pay slave wages and the government is corrupt and you’re terrorized, you get the highest murder rate on earth, with the same goddamned families. So I don’t see any big mystery here and I don’t blame them for leaving.” He noted that as many as 60,000 of the wealthiest citizens of Juárez have moved to El Paso. The poor can’t follow them (legally).

“We’ve created a system where money can move but labor can’t,” Bowden said.

If the United States does away with drug laws, he believes Mexico will see more violence, as hundreds of thousands of people in the drug trade lose their livelihoods. “They’re not going to become street sweepers. They’re going to start stealing and robbing. We had the same thing here after Prohibition in the 1930s.”

Vulliamy said he does not think decriminalization of drug use in the United States is going to make any difference in Mexico, which already has decriminalized possession of most drugs.

In many parts of Mexico, Beith noted, you’re more likely to see narcos than military or police patrolling.

“Mexican people don’t have a clue who to trust,” Beith said. “They trust their family and that’s about it. That’s the grassroots thing that really needs to change.” But he added that Tijuana has tried to clean up its police force seven times since 1973.

“There is US money that’s going to these reforms. I hope to God it’s going to the right people,” he said.

From The Progressive Populist, November 15, 2010

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