The failed state next door

Mexico is descending into violent chaos

we have ourselves to blame

October 17, 2010|By Firmin DeBrabander

Back in June, after a particularly deadly day in his country's current drug war, Mexican President Felipe Calderon addressed his nation to soothe nerves, predict success and apportion blame. And blame he did. He notified his countrymen that their plight stems from the fact that they live next door to the biggest drug user on the planet.

This astonishing claim was confirmed by Joseph Califano in an NPR interview shortly thereafter. The United States' former Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare explained that though the U.S. comprises only 5 percent of the world's population, it uses fully two thirds of the world's illegal drugs. Mexican drug cartels rake in $30-40 billion annually from our national drug habit.

The origins of Mexico's misery are here, in places like Baltimore, where nearly 10 percent of the urban population is addicted, according to the Open Society Institute. I'm always amazed how we are so successful at ignoring this shameful social problem in our midst. A few years ago, the New York Times reported that the vast majority of Baltimore's homicides involved people with criminal records — largely due to the drug trade. This was nearly taken as joyous news around town, as if to say the obscene murder toll merely afflicted an alien, disenfranchised subset of the population, not the mainstream. This opinion is certainly perpetuated by the Sunpapers, where the majority of Baltimore's murders receive brief notice in the recesses of the newspaper, but if a middle class innocent is killed, that's instant front page news.

Drugs excuse the violence in Baltimore. They are our excuse to shove it to the shadows and get on with business (and the Ravens). But this is the tale across the country, and now our willful ignorance crosses national boundaries, so that we do not admit the growing national security threat in Mexico: Our populous and rich neighbor, an important trade partner and source of much needed labor, and a homeland to millions in this country, is very nearly a failed state. I'm afraid there's no other way to put it. Consider the gruesome evidence:

Ciudad Juarez, a city of 1.5 million across the Rio Grande river from El Paso — once safer than most U.S. cities of comparable size — now knows 2,000 murders per year. By comparison, the 30-year long "Troubles" in Northern Ireland claimed 3,000 lives in all. Throughout northern Mexico, mayors have been assassinated (one was recently stoned to death), and a former presidential candidate was kidnapped in May (he's still missing). Open air gun battles and car bombings are becoming increasingly common occurrences. Headless corpses appear alongside highways, and last month a mass grave of 70 Central American migrants was uncovered, purported victims of the Zetas, one of Mexico's most vicious cartels.

The Mexican cartels operate — and massacre — with utter impunity. They think nothing of descending the whole nation into war in their struggle to control the lucrative drug routes to the US. The Mexican government has deployed the military to patrol the streets, but since this move, the violence has only escalated. That the army has been deployed and the cartels respond with car bombs and mass graves spells deep trouble. As Rousseau pointed out, the government should be very careful in resorting to violence; if it is met with ever bolder reprisals (car bombs and mass graves, for example), it risks delegitimizing its authority.

So we see in Mexico open lawlessness, shocking violence and increasingly impotent government. And yet, Mexico's plight is almost entirely absent from debates in our current electoral cycle. Mexico only enters the discussion when it comes to illegal immigrants, whom some would rather toss back into the cauldron below. In truth, our national drug addiction has nearly ruined the country next door, and all we can think to do is erect a wall along the border between us. Perhaps this wall can repel some migrant workers, but it cannot contain our demand for drugs, which incessantly seeps southward.

Mexico's carnage is a national security threat entirely of our own making. For that matter, so is Baltimore's, if only we would see it as it really is. We are perennially resolute in ignoring our drug problem — but Mexico, pushed to the brink, is not, and we should take notice. Mexico is currently considering radical fixes, like legalizing drugs. The only thing is, Mexico is not the problem addict.

Firmin DeBrabander is chairman of the Department of Humanistic Studies at the Maryland Institute College of Art. His e-mail is fdebrabander@mica.edu.

Editor's note: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this article gave the wrong nationality and misspelled the first name of Joseph Califano. The Sun regrets the errors.

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