Saturday, November 26, 2011

Response to Increased Violence in Guadalajara

The recent discovery of several dozen bodies in Guadalajara – one of Mexico's wealthiest, largest, and most culturally important cities – is indeed disconcerting. However, I disagree that the recent increases in violence in formerly calm cities signifies an increased threat to the US or Mexican security. An article in this week's Economist sumarizes recent research from David Shirk at the Trans-Border Institute which argues that drug violence may have actually plateaued. While violence may be increasing in Guadalajara and Monterrey, the once ravaged cities of Tijuana and Ciudad Jarez are experiencing less violence than they have in the past. One theory is that the Sinaloa cartel has eliminated its competition in Tijuana and has essentially consolidated its control over Juarez. The increased violence in Monterrey and Guadalajara is likely indicative of a new battlefield for the Sinaloa-Zeta rivalry.

Sharee argues that Mexico's drug violence poses two primary risks to the US: increased illegal immigration and a weak Mexican government and economy. While I agree with Sharee's explanation of the logic of violence between the cartels and the government, I believe the risks he/she highlights are largely overstated. First, although drug violence has been increasing for several years, illegal immigration from Mexico has actually declined over that time. Some of this is due to the recession which crippled the US economy and reduced job opportunities for immigrants. Increased border security may have also played a role. However, some of the decline is due to the heightened danger of crossing the border illegally. Mexican criminal organizations now control the major border crossings, making illegal immigration much more treacherous. Immigrants from Mexico and Central America now cite the border violence as a deterrent from crossing the border. Although asylum requests from Mexico have increased over the last few years, illegal immigration has not.

Second, the threats to Mexico's economy and political stability are real, but we should be careful not to overstate them. While Mexico's tourism industry has suffered due to the grisly headlines coming out of the country, the overall Mexican economy is pretty healthy. FDI in Mexico has not decreased significantly since the drug war began, and its economy has been projected to grow over 5% this year. The real problem with Mexico's economy is that it does not provide enough opportunities to young men who have not succeeded in school. In Mexico these young men are called ninis, because they neither work nor go to school. The Economist notes that there are now over 100 criminal organizations operating within Mexico, a tenfold increase since 2007. Many of the members of these gangs are ninis who have no schooling, no job opportunities, and no hope. As far as governance is concerned, Mexico has a strong central government that is able to provide most basic goods and services to its people in most areas of the country. Although some criminal organizations have tried to influence recent elections, their primary interest is to be left alone. There really isn't any threat that the government will collapse because of drug violence. A larger concern is that the government could lose legitimacy. Already, citizens are tiring of the drug war; some worry that a younger generation of voters who do not remember the worst aspects of PRI leadership could fall for the party's illusion of stability and vote it back into power. The return of the vintage PRI would be a step back for democracy. Only time will tell if the PRI has changed since 2000.

Now, just because I believe we tend to inflate the risks Mexican criminal organizations pose to the US government, it doesn't mean that I think we should ignore the problem. Indeed, the US has helped fuel the violence in Mexico with its massive demand for narcotics and its inability to stem the flow of weapons into Mexican territory. Our own government even knowingly let guns cross into Mexico! As such, I agree with Sharee that the US should work with the Mexican government to address its drug violence. While the Merida Initiative and other "militarized" forms of assistance may be necessary, there is room for real progress on two fronts: cracking down on the financial support for the cartels, and helping Mexico reform it's justice system. In my opinion, the US needs to be more active in closing off the cartels' financial networks. Additionally, DOJ and civil society groups within the US should partner with Mexican organizations to help foster more rapid reforms of the Mexican judicial system. Ultimately, as long as criminals can operate within Mexico with impunity, crime will always pay.

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