Alas! The old cliches about Mexico are coming home again. Veteran New York Times newsman Scottie Reston once said that “Americans will do anything for Latin America — except read about it.” When four people connected with the U.S. consulate in Juarez were gunned down in March, three of them American citizens, it didn’t dominate the headlines here. The murders came on the heels of 79 Americans killed in Mexico in 2009.
How to account for this refusal to appreciate a primary security problem escalating along our 1,500-mile southern border? In the mid-1980s, when I was returning from decades in Asia, it didn’t take any special perspicacity to recognize the classic problems of “underdevelopment” were present right here, not in distant parts of Africa and Asia. Mexico and the U.S., then as now, shared the only land border between a modern industrialized economy and the Third World. The book I wrote then — the title hyped but certainly appropriate now, “Mexico: Chaos on Our Doorstep” — only needs statistical updating to apply to the situation today.
That other classic Mexico cliche also bears repeating just now. Porfirio Diaz, the late 19th-century dictator, observed, “Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States.” There is no denying that we provide the world’s largest market for “recreational drugs” — conservative estimates put Mexico’s total drug smuggling in 2009 at between $25 billion and $40 billion, more than the country’s No. 1 export, oil. There is evidence that smugglers also supply the illicit weaponry from the U.S. that fuels a hideous war among crime “cartels” battling for control of the traffic inside Mexico (and increasingly on this side of the border) and against the government.
The increase in violence — including kidnappings, beheadings, torture and the killing of innocent women and children — is feeding on and contributing to Mexico’s economic problems. With all the bad publicity and world recession, tourism fell by 15 percent in 2009, the first time in a decade, as violence spread out over the country. The benefits of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement have been eroded by competition for Mexican border factories from China, creating additional unemployment. And Mexico’s “escape valve” — the flow of illegal immigrants to the north, with their remittances sent back home — has been severely curtailed, not so much by border enforcement as by dwindling job prospects in the American economy.
One thing seems predictable: The violence targeting American citizens in Mexico will be followed by the next act, violence on an expanded scale spilling over into our own border cities. It has already happened in legendary Laredo. The exceptionally low major crime rate in El Paso, Juarez’s “norteno” twin, suggests that American border cities are increasingly seen as safe havens for higher-ups reaping drug profits.
Some Mexicans — the usual gaggle on the left, but even voices in his own conservative party — have faulted President Felipe Calderon for his all-out “war” on the drug barons. His critics see that as feeding the violence. But not to have moved against the increasingly sophisticated crime syndicates would have been to allow a further erosion of civil government, turning Mexico into a full-fledged narco-state. That Mr. Calderon’s campaign has been, at best, only partially successful is due in some measure to the fact that the problem had been allowed to drift for so long — corrupting the police, the military and even Mexico’s legal system.
Ten days after the Juarez bloodbath, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s “war Cabinet,” including senior U.S. military officers, swept into Mexico City for an elaborate restatement of Washington’s pledge to help Mr. Calderon. But for all the rhetoric, policing the border — for illegal entrants more and more intertwined with drug trafficking — has not been a high priority for the Obama administration nor for the prior administration of George W. Bush.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano says she is canceling out the whole high-tech “virtual” border surveillance project, which was intended to help an embattled, underfunded border patrol. That may be a correct decision; it wouldn’t be the first time Washington had been scammed by oversold expensive technical shortcuts. But it also could be seen as a signal that, once more, border security is being given short shrift. What makes for suspicion is that Ms. Napolitano, despite her border-state background as a former governor of Arizona, has made one gaffe after another about border security, once, for example, claiming the Canadian border had a higher priority for terrorism. Her latest misstep was to reveal publicly the participation of uniformed American military in Mexico, certain to incite nationalist sentiment there.
President Obama has a full plate, without doubt. Nevertheless, he apparently plans to begin a new push for immigration reform, tacking on the intractable problem of the 12 million to 15 million mostly Mexican illegals in the country. But the growing violence in Mexico, the violated border and the intimate U.S. domestic connections that feed both problems must begin to take a higher priority. If and when Congress takes on the immigration crisis, lawmakers must grapple at the same time with its Siamese twin, the growing drug violence on our southern border. Neither can stand alone in any solution.
• Sol Sanders, veteran foreign correspondent and analyst, writes weekly on the convergence of international politics, business and economics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org