My colleague Malak Behrouznami recently returned from Juarez Mexico where she grew up as a child. She has a wonderful heritage – her father is Iranian and her Mother is Mexican. Malak went to Juarez for family and journalistic reasons. One of her objectives was to find out why Juarez has become a terrorized center for drug wars. She wrote the following report, which I share with you.
In spite of the ever-increasing number of casualties being seen in Juarez, Mexico, the American “War on Drugs” has to profess a victor on the physical front. The United States’ efforts to contain and prevent drug production, redistribution and consumption are becoming as ambiguous as the war’s proclaimed enemy. What is perplexing is the US’ indifference to the genuine drug war ongoing in Juarez, Mexico. Why is the US not acting when its pronounced enemy is in such close proximity?
It is preposterous to deny a connection between the US government and what is going on in Mexico, when evidence has proven an economic interconnectedness between the two actors as Mexico suffers the backlash of the American recession. While it is true that throughout the years there has been a constant presence of corruption and violence in Juarez, what is currently being witnessed is unprecedented. Streets that once thrived with people, street vendors, mariachis and tourists have morphed into virtual ghost towns inhabited by soldiers and federales. As safety decreases, Mexican citizens are in a constant state of agitation and distress feeling sympathy as they reminisce of the days when Juarez was a beacon of opportunity, rather than a death sentence.
So what happened? How did the once renowned industrial hot spot of Mexico become a vortex of violence? Why is its northern neighbour sitting by passively allowing the massacres to continue?
The situation in Juarez became more serious as the recession in the United States worsened. Over half of the maquiladoras in Juarez are dedicated to the production of components shipped for assembly to US automobile companies. Unemployment rates, which had previously been near non-existent, began to rise and rattle the economy. In 2009 alone, this industrial sector’s production was cut in half from its levels the previous year. What also became apparent was the lack of any type of social net to aid the struggling population and help the Mexican economy absorb the unexpected shock.
When Mexico joined NAFTA several things occurred. Primarily, Mexico set out to compete in the international market by extending an invitation to foreign investors for inexpensive, tariff free labor. Secondly, the American agriculture sector reaped benefits from government subsidies and had a new consumer market across the border.
The American economy, particularly the automobile industry, also benefited from the treaty; the “Big Three” automobile companies in the states now had access to cheap labor in its own backyard.
Additionally, Juarez opened its doors to thousands of Mexican citizens, particularly peasants and farmers who were knocked out of the agriculture sector as ‘dumping’ practices by the United States offered Mexican citizens with cheaper and better produce for consumption. Employment within agriculture was already suffering as
the invention of nylon aggravated the demand of cotton production from Mexico. As a result, thousands flocked to the economic haven of Juarez, as it was the only city where jobs and wages could be guaranteed.
Approximately one third of the population of Juarez was made up of non-natives. Maquiladoras lured citizens with $15 a day wages, meals, transportation to work, health care and even schooling opportunities.
More often than not, the wages were just enough to get by, but it was better than what they had left behind. As Juarez thrived economically it expanded immensely, unfortunately, none of the revenues were invested into building a social infrastructure to accommodate the large influx of people now dwelling within the city.
Furthermore, through its participation in NAFTA, Mexico experienced an increase of goods traveling across the border. Due to its geographical position as border town, Juarez functioned as a bridge for trade between the US and Mexico. Though, being a frontier town can be considered a double-edged sword, due to the fact that Juarez is susceptible to both Mexican and American National Policies. What was a blessing in during the initial NAFTA years, has become a curse in the present drug wars.
During this time Juarez flourished, crime was present but nowhere near the extent or intensity with which it navigates today. The reason for this can be attributed to the government’s role. At this point, the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional-Institutional Revolutionary Party) had President Zedillo developing a close relationship with the drug cartels in Mexico. The government served as a regulator amongst the different cartels in power, whilst simultaneously benefiting economically from collaboration efforts. The relationship between the two can be best described as a bittersweet entanglement. The drug cartels were the spoiled children of the government who were allowed to do as they wish, but eventually they began to overpower the government and grow in size.
In 2000, something extraordinary occurred; after 70 years, the PAN (Partido Accion Nacional- National Action Party) party with Vicente Fox as its leader defeated the PRI. Fox came into office with an anti-corruption campaign seeking to dissolve the ties between the government and the cartels.
Despite the rapidly increasing number of cartels and the corruption at play, the PRI years are seen as an economically viable period due to the fact that all formal, informal, legal and illegal sectors of the population were benefiting and prospering. People had money to spend and this helped the economy. Unfortunately, Juarez grew outwards rather than upwards, which helped the city temporarily, but caused more harm in the long run.
However, the new PAN government would no longer be the referee for the different drug cartels. The government’s anti-corruption campaign was in fact an apathetic approach to the cartel problem, thus leaving a vacuum of regulatory power resulting in the upsurge of territorial battles amongst the cartels. The violence continuously escalated until the end of Fox’s term in 2006. It was during this time that Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, head of the Sinaloa Cartel, escaped from prison and began to conquer the territory of the other cartels, resulting in the endless bloodshed seen today.
The Sinaloa cartel seeks complete power over the border zone. This explains its mission to destroy any remnants of the previous Juarez border cartel known as La Linea. The government has deployed militant troops and federal soldiers to Juarez; however, there is an unspoken support for the Sinaloa cartel on the government’s behalf. It is similar to the unacknowledged relationship between US policies and the current situation in Juarez. Some speculate the reason for this being that both governments would largely benefit from having a single head monopolizing the drug trade in Mexico.
Due to the fact that Mexico is now an actor in the realm of international trade, the presence of increasing violence served as a deterrent to foreign investors. In order for the remaining maquiladoras to continue producing goods and maintain foreign interest, employees’ benefits were partially cut or removed altogether. Some investors preferred to spend in areas where labor could be acquired at a low cost, as well as in a safe environment. As certain investors withdrew from the region, an entire jobless population was created. Many were forced to stay in Juarez because some had nothing to go back to in their respective towns; some were unable to immigrate to the US, while others had already established their families in Juarez.
As the economy suffered, desperation surged and what manifested was a target population from which the cartels were able to recruit members. People would have not been inclined to involve themselves with the cartels previously, were now more prone to join out of economic necessity. A drug dealer or hired assassin can make more in an hour than a factory worker earns in a day. Local gangs are now “free-riding” off the fear of others as they extort, kidnap, or threaten local business owners and citizens under the auspices of drug lords. As the economy suffers, and border controls and customs tighten, less people are able to leave the country, legally or illegally, and are engaging in crime and violence out of necessity rather than choice.
Despite its participation in the industrial sector of Mexico, for some unknown reason, the US has yet to take serious action in regards to the Mexican drug war. Paradoxically, as Juarez continues to be one of the most dangerous cities in the world, its Northern neighbor, El Paso,Tx, has yet to suffer from violence spilling over the border. As a matter of fact, El Paso has been deemed one of the safest cities in the country. Furthermore, as the US has suffered from the economic and real estate crises, the El Paso economy and real estate sector have been prospering as people and businesses from Juarez migrate to El Paso for safety.