Mexican violence in perspective
Pitched battles between Mexican security forces and drug cartels in cities Mexican cities along the US border and the cowing of state institutions by narcotraficantes have been making headlines in both countries. A number of developments highlight the sense of peril:
• As has been widely reported, the police chief in Ciudad Juarez recently resigned after drug gangs, who had murdered his deputy, threatened to kill one of his officers every 48 hours until he quit.
• Colleges and universities have been cautioning students against spending spring break in Mexico, while a Feb. 20 US State Department travel advisory responsibly notes that most of the violence is concentrated near the border rather than the resorts to the south. • Defense Secretary Robert Gates told “Meet the Press” on Sunday that the United States would be in a position to help Mexico “more than we have in the past,” including training and intelligence support to enhance the Mexican military’s reconnaissance and surveillance abilities. Some perspective is in order: Mexico is a country of 110 million people with a variety of realities, some of them brutal and some of them magical. Staggering poverty, vast income inequality and legendary corruption notwithstanding, it’s also a place where people at all levels of society tend to be more courteous than their American counterparts. A YES! Weekly correspondent who recently spent 10 days in the country found Mexico City to be safe after dark: a two-block walk to the local bar across a street known to be frequented by prostitutes posed little problem. First-class bus travel across the country was likewise safe and comfortable. And indigenous communities in the southern state of Oaxaca that send their members to northward to work at North Carolina restaurants, construction sites and fields demonstrate hospitality that is certainly not returned in kind. That aside, the violence in Mexico is escalating, with upwards of 6,000 deaths attributed to drug cartels last year. A critical majority of the federal police are perceived to be on the take from the cartels, and security forces are considered outgunned. The cartels resort to increasingly gruesome methods of making their point, including dismembering bodies and corroding them in acid. Something clearly needs to be done, but the present track of militarization seems likely to reap more sorrow. Congress released $400 million last year as part of the Merida Initiative, a relic of Bush administration foreign policy, to fight crime in Mexico through military cooperation. The problem with this strategy is manifold: How do you ensure that those on the receiving end of this cash assistance program aren’t part of the problem? What is the likelihood that bigger guns and faster helicopters will dissuade crime bosses and their soldiers in a country that would be teetering on the brink of financial collapse without drug profits and remittances? And what about the handful incidents detailed in the US State Department’s Feb. 25 human rights report on Mexico in which armed forces opened fire on vehicles at checkpoints and killed people who had nothing to do with drug trafficking? It’s easy to allocate more money in the US budget for weaponry, but we can expect the same disappointing result. The reasonable solution to this challenge will take far more political will. It will require some kind of legalization and government regulation paired with funding for treatment to curb our insatiable appetite for drugs in the United States. We also need a serious tightening of US gun laws to halt the flow of weapons from small-time dealers in Arizona, Texas and other border states through straw buyers to the cartels in Chihuahua and Sinaloa. Ninety percent of the weapons recovered in Mexico are estimated to come from dealers north of the border. Are we ready to get serious yet?
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