Tuesday, January 27, 2009

chicken little meets wolf boy

I hate posting half-baked posts -- especially those on big topics. And this post presents a true dilemma because I am not certain what is really happening in Mexico's drug war.

Whatever it is, something big is either on the horizon -- or it is already here. The problem is trying to find a sense of perspective and proportion.

We have all watched the various parts of the puzzle begin their concentric orbits:

  • The first piece arrived cloaked in the iconic incense of a "Pentagon report." The United States Joint Forces Command issued its 2008 Joint Operating Environment -- a fifty-one page report that contained one small paragraphs (three sentences on page 36) identifying Mexico, in a worst-case scenario, as a state weakened by "criminal gangs and drug cartels."

  • Then Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff piped up in The New York Times with news that he had ordered additional border security plans to respond to any kidnappings or killings that spilled over the US-Mexico border.

  • And then came the ever-pessimistic American drug czar, General Barry McCaffrey, warning that Mexico was on the verge of becoming a "narco-state" in the coming decade.

The political reaction from bloggers was predictable. The less-than-stable left immediately started cranking out conspiracies that the Pentagon was preparing a full-scale invasion of Mexico that would finish off the half-effort of President Polk.

Not to be outdone, the we-should-have-kept-the-canal right answered with hare-brained dares that if we were going to invade Mexico, we might as well take Canada, too. Uncover these stones, and you will guarantee plenty of skittering fauna.

Putting aside the loonies, what do those stories mean?

Probably not much. The infamous Pentagon report recommends no action. To the contrary, it is at best a think tank piece. Chertoff's comments included action only on the American side of the border. For all of his bluff, McCaffrey was proposing an increase in monetary security aid to Mexico -- not a reenactment of
Los Niños Heroes de Chapultepec.

The newspapers have really messed up this issue. Instead of offering level-headed analysis, the headlines have screamed disaster -- almost as if Chicken Little, Henny Penny, and The Boy Who Cried Wolf had taken over the editorial boards.

Having said that, most of us who live and wish to live in Mexico have minimized the dangers of the drug wars to our worried families and friends. It is time to at least reassess what all of this means.

After all, the acorn that bopped Chicken Little or Henny Penny (take your choice) on the noggin was real. It wasn't the sky, but it was a danger.

And, of course, the wolf that devoured the tricky little boy was a full-blown threat. I suspect the danger in Mexico is somewhere between the two for most Mexican residents.

President Calderón has challenged the livelihood -- and lives -- of some very powerful and nasty sectors of Mexican society. He has taken steps to root out corruption even in the political layers surrounding him. Such men do not go easily. The President is a heroic figure.

But the American government needs to be far more understanding of its Mexican neighbor. Even hints of American military intervention will be enough to undermine President Calderón's efforts. Money? Yes. Equipment? Yes. Training? Yes. Military forces in any form? Never. The thought of General Scott in Mexico City is not just a vague memory. History hangs like a Capulet carbuncle in the Mexican mind.

And that leaves me in the position of supporting a drug war that I believe will simply be a failure. At best, it will be a tool for the central government to actually take control of areas that have long been warlord fiefdoms. And when I say "long," I mean very long. There are areas in Mexico the center has never controlled.

We also need to remember that President Calderón is a reformer. While he fights the drug lords, he is proposing limited legalization of drugs. It is a policy far more sage than the American-Canadian approach of promoting some drugs (alcohol pops to mind) while criminalizing other drugs. Until that changes, we will continue to undermine President Calderón.

And this is the point where the soft center starts seeping through the post. None of this news changes my mind about moving to Mexico. It merely means, like every other resident of Mexico, I will need to be observant. And, as long as Article 33 is part of the Mexican Constitution, I will hold my peace.


Michael Dickson said...

The "less-than-stable left" is a redundancy.

Heroic president Calderón? Well, he is the best this country has ever had. And I voted for him!

Mexico has been run by criminal gangs from the get-go. The Aztez chiefs, the Spanish gangs and then the Mexican gangs. Ain´t nuttin´ new.

Yes, the U.S. saying the stuff they are saying does not play well down here, and I wish it would stop.

You may get your pocket picked in Mexico, but you will never, ever have a gun stuck in your face as you wait in line at the Burger King drive-through. With some halfwitted dude telling you to get outta de car.

Larry Lambert said...

Steve - After you arrive in your new home I think you will arrive at a whole new perspective.

Quite a lot of us, Mexican and expat, shake our heads when we see the American papers and look at each other in amazement. It's become something of a game in some circles to research the latest newspaper column to see how far back the information goes or how out of context it is.

No, it's not all rosey. But it's not near as extreme as many of the American newspapers would lead you to believe. Sadly, I'm afraid it's another case of pushing for circulation and ratings. And so much good is being ignored.

Would I live in a border town? No. But then I wouldn't have anyway.

I can't begin to tell you how happy I am to be out of the mess north of the border!!

Larry Lambert, Mazatlan

Steve Cotton said...

Michael -- I think you are correct that the chance of being a colltateral victim of the drug wars or being kidnapped is pretty small in my quaint little resort village. Cerainly far less than in a similar town in the United States. This week a young man in Potland killed himself and 9 others in a night club. The same news story out of Mexico would have carried a note of hysteria.

My sole point is that I have probably fallen into the camp of "crime isn't a problem in Mexico" in the past. Well, it is an issue, and I need to at least admit that. But certainly not as bad as the irresponsible press has portrayed it.

Larry -- Crime has never been an issue for me -- either in Oregon or in Mexico. I have a very good friend from college with some very impressive credentials. He has been trying to talk me out of the move -- almost solely based on crime concerns. It hasn't worked. I will concede that the level of violence has increased around the border, and it will continue the more that the drug lords are hurt. But it will not affect my ultimate move. Less than three months to go now.

Theresa in Mèrida said...

I agree with Michael, except the voting part since I can't vote here, I woulda if I coulda!
The drug war is scary,and it's scariest in the border towns, but I have never wanted to live in those places.
News is a product and so the papers do what they think it takes to sell their product. Unfortunately they are acting more like snake oil peddlers than responsible merchants.

Babs said...

The saber rattling by the various agencies is a by-product to increase their agencies - DEA, Homeland Security and especially Border Patrol, according to an old friend who is way up in US Customs and used to be in charge of the drug interdiction force when that was under US Customs in the 80's and 90's. He smirked as he told me what a "dumbass" Chertoff is and that NONE of those men have been to Mexico!
That said, all those newspaper articles have caused extreme damage to the tourism industry. In my little world, and it's not that important because I don't do it for a living, but the tour group that was supposed to come next August isn't, because of a series in the Houston Chronicle.
Didn't someone once say, "We have nothing to fear but fear itself"?

Islagringo said...

All this talk of an invasion is not going over well around here. It is all just so ridiculous. The violence is indeed centered mostly around the border towns, but it doesn't stop there. Cancun has become a very dangerous city. Especially after dark. I would never live over there like CancunCanuck, Rivergirl and Lisa do. Never. The Z's and the Cartel of Sinola are battling for control and have issued a warning to the Cancun police to not get involved. Scary. And Mr Dickson, tell my Mexican friends who go to Cancun on business and end up standing in the street left only wearing their underwear while the police stand across the street and only watch. Or the cab drivers who have guns shoved in their faces that that sort of thing doesn't happen.

Steve Cotton said...

Theresa and Babs -- The press bears a lot of the responsibility for scaring people to death. But Wayne's comment indicates that there are areas in Mexico where tourists are exposed to more than just a bit of fear.

Islagringo -- I suppose that any place where there are choke points for transportation or consumption (and Cancun may be both), there will be drug violence. In your case, between two major cartel competitors. I am happy to see that the wholesale violence in the Morelia grenade attack has not been repeated, but the retail version is bad enough. Unfortunately, this issue is not going away soon.

Michael Dickson said...

Islagringo, I was talking about Mexico. Cancun is another thing altogether. Admittedly, I have never been to Cancun, and never will.

Billie said...

Steve, as usual a well thought through blog entry. The cartels create lawlessness which weakens the whole justice system in Mexico. That I think is the danger not a burglary or purse snatching.

Steve Cotton said...

Billie -- Great to hear from you. Like you, I am not as worried about the petty crime that plagues every society. (Petty, of course, unless it happens to you. I certainly do not want to minimize that effect.) The current drug corruption is something that even Mexico has not experienced in the past. My sources indicate that some of the Colombian drug lords are heading north to Mexico to avoid the squeeze in Colombia. If true, that is not good news.

Calypso said...

In terms of crime and violence I don't think Mexico can be classified as a whole - As Michael points out his part of Mexico is certainly different from the mainland in Islagringo's near turf.

In the Xalapa area of Veracruz on the east side of south central Mexico we feel much safer than we did living near Pueblo, Colorado or certainly where we were brought up in Southern California.

It seems ridiculous to try and encapsulate violent behavior measured in such generalities.

I wouldn't know a druglord if I saw one and doubt that there are many hanging around our area - but then how would I know?

I feel safe here in our part of Mexico which seems to be the bulk of the battle.

Steve Cotton said...

Calypso -- You are correct. By their nature all generalizations are too broad -- including this one. Each area of the country seems to have its own variety of crime. Last July in Mexico, I was a bit surprised to see how openly drugs -- and sex, for that matter -- were soild on the beach near my house. A Canadian friend was appalled. It didn't bother me. The big crime is theft -- copper wiring, pulled right out of the wall while the occupants were away for an hour or two. That would bother me.

In Melaque, my person is safe; my purse is not.

Anonymous said...

Mexico has a pretty significant crime problem. And many of the crimes are sadistically violent, something that is relatively rare north of the border. Does this make Mexico Iraq circa 2006? No. But it's foolish to deny that there is a serious crime problem, and that it is getting worse. And the whole plomo o plata threat by the drug cartels is a terribly corrupting influence.

There is also a significant kidnapping problem in DF that has nothing to do with the drug cartels. It's just hard-up criminals seeking cash. My guess is that as the global recession deepens, this type of crime will flourish.

Many Europeans look on the United States as a violent place with a serious crime problem. And in many ways they are right. Not everywhere, not all the time, but in plenty of places, plenty of the time. We're just used to it. But we are also careful. How many of us would wander around Detroit after dark? Atlanta? Houston? And unlike Europeans, Americans are armed to the teeth with rifles, handguns, and other dangerous equipment that leads to plenty of accidents as well as violent crimes.

Mexico is facing some serious challenges. Colombia did not become a hellhole over night. Mexico is moving down that road, and its right for everyone to be concerned and to take action to stop it. The deterioration in the economy will only make this challenge greater.

So as you do, Steve, let's not minimize the problem. But let's not let it prevent us from enjoying what Mexico has to offer either. Let's just be forewarned and forearmed.


Kim G
Boston, MA
Where we fortunately have very little violent crime, but plenty of pesky infractions

Steve Cotton said...

Kim -- As always, a very insightful comment. Not the least, because it agrees with my views. I am not above a few amens here and there.