September 28, 2010

Border Warrior

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When I accepted a summer internship at the Narcotics Affairs Section of the U.S. Embassy in Mexico I was naively underestimating the magnitude of Mexico’s precarious issue with organized crime. During my first day of work, as I walked into my office, I observed the amount of American personnel and resources devoted to narcotics issues in Mexico. It took me no time to realize that I was about to work in one of the most relevant divisions within the embassy. The motif of headlines in Mexican newspapers everyday revolved around findings of mass graves, assassinated politicians, corruption scandals and cartel feuds over territory. But what is this “drug war” really all about? And what are the U.S. and Mexico actually doing to deal with this issue? These questions remained trapped in my head during my three-month stay in Mexico, and the unique experiences I was exposed to slowly peeled away at the systemic and entrenched drug issue in Mexico. During my second week as an intern, a co-worker told me, “You should start packing because you are going to Ciudad Juarez in two days.” I did not know how to reply to this unappealing invitation. Ciudad Juarez is considered to be the most dangerous city in the world. In this year alone, more than 2,100 people have been killed — a figure that might surpass last year’s death toll of 2,700. As I arrived at Juarez under the burning sun and got into the armored Suburban, I could observe dozens of trucks carrying masked policemen with AK-47s and sub-machine guns. As soon as the voyage began, it became unavoidable to see teenagers standing in the corners of streets with walkie-talkies, and many suspicious cars driving around with pitch-black windows and no license plates. A month later, I had the opportunity to work for one week along the U.S.-Mexico border in Yuma, Arizona and San Luis Rio, Colorado in the state of Sonora. During my stay between the walls built by President George W. Bush, I was alarmed by the severity of drug, weapon and human trafficking.For instance, I heard the story of a border patrol agent who saw a car whose passenger’s seat seemed somewhat uneven and shaky. His intuition told him that something was wrong, but the driver at the border checkpoint assured everything was all right. After scanning the vehicle, it was made visible that there was a man knitted inside the car’s seat, a clear victim of human trafficking.Another story told by a general in the Mexican Army involved a group of unknown men committing killing raids against members of drug cartels. Initially, neither participants of the drug business nor the authorities could guess who was behind these brutal massacres. When the truth came out, it ended up being a group of prisoners who would buy off the guards, use their equipment for their deadly business and return to hide in jail so no one would suspect them. I did not only become aware of the severity of violence through all of these stories, but also through personal experiences. One night under the pouring rain, I had to get into a cab in order to get home. As soon as I got in, my driver made some phone calls and specified his location and his intended destination. After looking at the taxi’s permit with the driver’s name and photo, I realized that the person driving me was not the person in the ID, and that if I stayed in that cab I was probably going to get kidnapped or assaulted. I quickly told him to drop me off and he showed reluctance to stop the car. Therefore, on the next red light I had to jump out of the cab and sprint as fast as I could.After all of these experiences, I progressively acquired a thorough understanding of this complex issue and the ways in which it might be tackled. As both presidents Calderon and Obama have stressed, this is a shared problem between the United States of America and the United Mexican States. The U.S., which has a high demand for illicit drugs, and Mexico, which has a high capacity for drug production, are equally guilty in this illicit enterprise. While the U.S. needs to work exceptionally hard in reducing demand at home and controlling arms movement along the border, the U.S. government is also trying to help out Mexico with a strategic plan called the Merida Initiative. This policy includes donating billions of dollars in order to dismantle criminal organizations, institutionalize the rule of law, develop 21st-century border facilities and building strong and resilient communities.In a Sept. 10 Sun op-ed, a columnist labeled the Merida Initiative as “the biggest insult the U.S. has thrown Mexico’s way in years.” While I understand this author’s concerns and frustrations with the situation, her comment is highly misinformed, since she did not seem to express, in detail, about what the Merida Initiative is all about. What the U.S. is trying to do is supplement and guide Mexico in serious institutional changes that need to be put in place if we want permanent change. Institutional and structural issues such as corruption, a weak judiciary system and unemployment are Mexico’s problems, and no matter how much aid they get from the U.S., it is a change that Mexicans need to undertake within their great sovereign territory. For instance, if someone commits a crime in Ciudad Juarez, that person has approximately a 90-percent chance of going unpunished. If the law enforcement and judiciary institutions in the state of Chihuahua were not as corrupt and inefficient, this alarming statistic would be much lower. The problem is that the police and judges are corrupt or fear retaliation from the cartels, as killing DA’s, judges and mayors are now common occurrences. Not without justification, the Merida Initiative is often criticized because its social component is the last priority and it has not shown a commitment with improving the social aspects that are visible to the public. While this policy should be enhanced by allocating more funds to social and educational programs that will reduce demand for drugs, Mexico needs to play its part as well and improve its mediocre public education system and provide more job opportunities in order to reduce the supply of labor for the drug market.On Sept. 16 Mexico celebrated its 200 years of independence. These massive celebrations were met with different responses, but the most predominant attitudes were pride, joy and optimism. These are the attitudes that one hopes Mexico adopts on a daily basis if it wishes to effectively face these complex issues. After observing how much Mexicans love and care about their country, I am convinced that they will not allow organized crime to completely plague their republic, and that they will resist, just as Colombians did for more than 20 years. When it comes to Americans, we must not show ignorance, indifference or unresponsiveness. We must be as committed as Mexicans should be; if not this issue which no wall (no matter how high) can stop will progressively permeate the 1,969 miles that make up our border.Juan Clar is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be contacted at jac478@cornell.edu. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.

Original Author: Juan Clar