The Mexico Question

Mar 27, 2011 No Comments

By Ariel Boone

Discourse on Mexico runs into the same paradoxes that Mexico’s image presents:  Mexico is simultaneously represented as an exotic tourist destination and a deadly, crime-ridden nation.  How do students stay safe in Mexico without heeding xenophobic warnings that traveling south of Chula Vista is wild and dangerous?  The closest most UC Berkeley students come to experiencing cartel violence is watching Weeds or Fast and the Furious 4.  Fanciful images of drug smuggling tunnels# fall short of illuminating the violence against women perpetrated in Ciudad Juarez, for example.

But there is a problem with framing Mexico as a developmentally backward, violent place.  In 2009, 13% of Mexican households reported experiencing some type of crime. Mexico’s criminal justice system, for example, allows states to determine the minimum sentencing laws for rape.  In Tijuana in particular, these sentences include a fine and/or fewer than 24 hours in jail.  Mexico needs U.S. tourism revenues, yet the State Department consistently issues travel warnings in response to each incidence of drug cartel violence against Americans.  Two Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers were shot on a road near the border in February 2011, further inciting fear of Mexico.

Yet, the entirety of Mexico must not be labeled as dangerous.   Of the 31 Mexican states and one federal district, the U.S. State Department flags just five non-border areas as worry-worthy for U.S. travelers: Nuevo Leon, Guerrero, Sinaloa, Michoacán, and Durango.  UC San Diego provides helpful “What to do when visiting Mexico” posters in their freshman dorms.  But instructing tourists only to go to the “safest” parts of Mexico is akin to advising Berkeley students to stay North of Dwight Way and East of San Pablo Ave—stigmatizing geographic regions as “unsafe” cuts them off from the service economy, and forces them to become more reliant on informal economic exchange—and by informal exchange, I mean drug sales.

Mexico is one of the top suppliers of marijuana to the United States.#  Demand for weed in the United States created Mexican structures of agriculture and transportation to supply it., but it is inappropriate for rich Americans to expect to buy Mexican-grown marijuana during the semester, and then safely spend their break road-tripping South to party in a border town. Still, students want to visit Mexico.  Beautiful beaches, sunshine, and bargain pharmaceuticals beckon Berkeley undergraduates for Spring Break.

There are two ways to win the $39 billion war on drugs: the first is to completely eradicate all drug sales. The second is to emphasize licit trade, and decrease the relative profits made from illicit trade.  Basically: make it worth a worker’s time and money to have formal employment in Mexico.

Eradicating drug sales has clearly failed, and in the absence of a large-scale production of marijuana in the United States, it is impossible to kill the Mexican cartel system by out-producing it.  Pouring U.S. aid into boosted security and police presence has clearly also failed, as indicated by increased deaths and decreased Mexican citizen confidence in security.  Putting pressure on licit trade can encompass entrepreneurship and the creation of small businesses, or even more favorable prices for Mexican exports.

So what does this look like for your Spring Break and for the future of U.S.-Mexico relations? The chance of getting in trouble in Mexico is a legitimate possibility—so please do not get yourself arrested or hurt on a trip there. However, lumping all Mexicans into one label just creates a vicious cycle of stereotypes and stigmas. Mexico needs good policy, not more charity from the U.S. via important treaties, such as NAFTA, and the transfer of U.S aid money from military programs to social programs.

The U.S.-Mexico relationship can be summarized in economic terms: Mexico is dependent on its strong financial relationship with the U.S. via trade, aid, and tourism.  So what has the drug war changed? Surprisingly, U.S. foreign aid to Mexico has hardly budged since the 1970s.  In inflation-adjusted US$, Mexican citizens received $1.20 per person in aid from the United States, within $0.10 of the per-person aid disbursements of 1976. Meanwhile, life expectancy rose steadily over the past 34 years. #

The new 2012 budget request from the State Department asked for $335 million in assistance to Mexico, which is $250 million less than the 2010 budget.  $282 million of this goes to the Merida initiative, a law enforcement equipment and training program designed to fight organized crime in Mexico.  Thus, the supermajority of aid from America goes toward military training, aid, and police to dissolve the cartels.  But 11% of Mexican citizens reported being the victims of crime in 2009, a number that has remained fairly constant since.  Clearly, investing in security has failed.

Trade with Mexico remains important, via agreements like NAFTA.  In November 2010, surface transportation trade between the U.S. and Mexico totaled $26.8 billion.#  Considering that 52% of Mexicans who are “concerned” about crime report feeling worried about their personal security on highways, transporting $26.8 billion worth of goods on Mexico’s roads seems like a gargantuan risk.

Spring 2011 For. Pol. Issue

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