For nearly 200 years the United States and Mexico coexisted as a series of antonyms separated by a desert. The United States was prosperous and free. Mexico was poor and despotic. For a time, the United States was the preeminent middle-class society. Mexico has been a society of extremes. For most Americans, Mexico was a place to score some peyote or escape from the law, and the only Mexicans seen were in movies directed by Sam Peckinpah and John Ford.
Today, Mexicans can be seen in every region of the United States, and together with other “Latinos” are now the largest ethnic minority in the country. Mexican nationals are cultivating marijuana plantations on national forest land in California and Colorado. They have driven down wages in Midwestern meatpacking plants. Mexican drug cartels have established a permanent presence within the United States and form the “perfect system” for distributing methamphetamine, cocaine, and heroin throughout the country. As Nick Reding writes in Methland, an American law-enforcement agent has admitted that “the DTOs [drug-trafficking organizations] hold Atlanta.” They “are as highly trained as we are in intelligence gathering, evasion techniques, and weapons. They watch us watching them.”
The United States has begun to fit the social and political profile of a Latin-American banana republic. We have a multicultural society now, fierce racial antagonisms, a weak sense of national identity, a class of superrich who live mostly apart from the rest of the people, a ruling oligarchy, imperial presidents who possess dictatorial powers, a corrupt congress bought and paid for by corporate wealth, a police-ridden surveillance state, and a vainglorious military that, despite its long record of lost wars, remains the only institution in society that commands respect.
William T. Vollmann, in his 2009 book Imperial, writes that Americans have believed too literally and uncritically in their national myths of abundance (unlimited space and resources), money (bringing happiness, success, and national cohesion), progress (everything is getting better) and meliorism (every problem can be solved), and innocence. There are also the conflicting immigration myths of assimilation and mosaic. The first assures us that Mexicans will become like us, and the second that Mexicans will enrich us because they are different. Yet America’s overly generous and undiscriminating immigration policy is driven also by ethnic resentments and politico-economic calculations. As Americans have turned against the policy, naked power has stepped forward to tell them that the policy will remain the same, whether they like it or not. And this is another way that we have become like Mexico: We have awakened to realize that our government is not our own, that we are ruled, essentially, by our enemies.
The neoliberal dream promises peace and prosperity if trade is free, borders are open, and labor is abundant. Yet the fruits of NAFTA have been lower wages, a drug war, a flood of illegals, and the spread of organized crime.
Fifteen years ago, George W. Bush and his Mexican counterpart, Vicente Fox, promised a “secure” and “modern” border that would be “closed to drugs and terrorists” but “open to trade and legitimate travel.” The promise cannot be fulfilled. Drugs are trade, and the freer the market, the greater the volume of sales. And what of illegals? Bush had no intention of keeping them out of the land of the free, for “migrants make a valuable contribution to America.” But what about criminals, gang members, and cartel hitmen? Upon crossing the border, migrants emerge as new Americans, clean and innocent, ready to be made into whatever the media think they should be. On the same visit to El Norte, President Fox told the California legislature that the border was “more a joining line than a dividing line.” We are building “an historic partnership,” Bush said. But the real partners are the ruling oligarchies of Mexico and the United States.
President Fox went on to address a meeting of La Raza, during which he praised Mexican emigrants as “national heroes.” Fleeing your country is a curious form of heroism, yet he was praising those whom he no longer wanted in his country (mestizos, indios, paisanos). Migration serves to strengthen the Mexican state both internally and externally. Without the U.S. pressure-release valve, the long-festering anger and frustration of the Mexican masses toward their corrupt and self-serving oligarchy might erupt in revolution. Instead, the Mexican masses can take the path of flight instead of a fight with the Mexican army, whose real purpose, Charles Bowden argues, is not to fight drugs but “to repress and terrorize the people of Mexico.” They can salvage their pride by redirecting their anger away from their own largely ethnic-European ruling class, which has bested them, to the white North American majority. Hence the cheering that greeted Fox when he addressed “The Race.” It was a clear demonstration that the members of La Raza regard their swelling presence here as a reconquista.
For the past ten years Americans who want legal immigration reduced and illegal immigration stopped have been told that they cannot do that, or even want that, without losing the Hispanic vote forever. This cedes the making of immigration policy to a small minority—only recently arrived—of the population. And why is it so important to Mexican political leaders to increase the numbers of Mexicans in the United States if their only desire is to work, raise a family, and live in safety?
“The concept of revenge is part of the Mexican political system,” writes the late Charles Bowden in his bracing Murder City: Ciudad Juárez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields (2010). What is reconquista but a kind of collective revenge? Mexicans are taught from infancy that the North Americans stole half their country from them. Reconquista transforms unwanted migrants into avenging heroes.
The Mexican elite has long understood what is at stake in having an open border with America: namely, their triadic monopoly of power, privilege, and wealth. Closing the border to drugs and migrants would stop the Mexican economy in its tracks and bring on the long-deferred revolution. Jorge Castañeda, a blue-eyed, blond-haired creolo, and President Fox’s first minister of foreign affairs, wrote in The Atlantic in 1995 that North Americans had to choose between Mexican immigration and Mexican chaos. If they tried to stop the former, it would “make social peace in the barrios and pueblos of Mexico untenable” and “threaten the only true deterrent to the proverbial wave: Mexican stability.” Twenty years later, we have been inundated, but Mexico is more violent and unstable than it was when Castañeda promised us peace and stability in return for taking in more Mexicans.
Why does the U.S. government not stop the flow? The commentariat dismisses the task as impossible, while many officials claim the border is already secure. Yet an article in Men’s Journal (April 2012) on the state of the border in Santa Cruz County, Arizona, not only proves that the border is wide open, but inadvertently suggests the remedy. Of the 150 miles that the county shares with Mexico, only 2.8 miles is guarded by formidable fencing—“deeply anchored steel posts with concrete cores, 30 feet high.” The rest is either unfenced or guarded by low antivehicle barriers, which are easily surmounted by traffickers who use flatbed tow trucks to drop drug-filled vehicles on the American side, or who simply drive over them on portable, custom-built metal bridges. Jim Chilton’s 50,000-acre ranch borders Mexico for five unfenced miles. It is crisscrossed with “hundreds” of smuggler trails. Chilton sees groups moving across his property almost every day. Whether they are strings of porters carrying drugs or lines of migrants, they are guided by scouts and guarded by gunmen. The Border Patrol is all but useless. There is only one agent for every 21 square miles, and they “rarely get out of their vehicles—they patrol the roads.” Chilton stopped reporting the illegal activity on his land after a neighboring rancher who continued to complain was murdered. The Nogales to Phoenix smuggling corridor is controlled by the Sinaloa Cartel; cartel scouts are stationed in the hills and mountains for a hundred miles into the state. They monitor all activity that goes on in the valleys and roads below. They are equipped with night-vision goggles, infrared telescopes, military-grade two-way radios with rolling encryption, radio repeaters, and portable solar-powered batteries. They operate underneath camouflage tarps, hide in “spider holes” (small caves), and are virtually never caught. “They have mapped everything,” and know Border Patrol protocols and patrolling patterns.
The obvious remedy is to deploy the Army. A half-million infantry permanently stationed would do the job. Yet closing the border would represent a repudiation of the progressive paradigm of openness and inclusion. It would cut off the supply of cheap and expendable labor. It would set the unwelcome precedent that the U.S. Armed Forces should be defending the country, not engaged in social work overseas or acting like a global constabulary. But the most obvious reason for not carrying out the federal government’s constitutional duty to protect the states from invasion is that the U.S. and Mexican governments have a shared interest in an open border.
The U.S. government has long regarded narcotrafficking as a minor evil that could be controlled or even made use of. During the 1980’s, believing that communism was more dangerous than cocaine, the Reagan administration formed an alliance with the Cali and Medellín cartels of Colombia and the Mexican mafia to overthrow the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua. CIA contractors flew weapons to Contra bases in El Salvador, Honduras, and Costa Rica, flew on to Colombia to pick up cocaine, then flew back to the states. Mexico provided airbases for the drug flights and training facilities for the Contras. Mexican narcos provided the land; the Federal Security Directorate gave protection and cover.
Today, U.S. aid and assistance to the Mexican government in its phony war on drugs strengthens the Mexican state by eradicating all criminal organizations that are not in alliance with it. The vicious war that convulsed Mexico during the administration of Felipe Calderón (2006-12) pitted a criminal alliance known as the Federation against rogue cartels (Tijuana, the Arellano-Félix brothers, the Gulf Cartel, the Juárez Cartel, Los Zetas, the Beltran Levyas) that refused to join or later left. American-trained Mexican marines and the federal police fought on the side of the Federation, while the municipal and state police sided with whichever organization was the most powerful in their area. Far from not knowing, the U.S. government was privy to the policy, which was formulated in 2001 with the rise to power of Vicente Fox and his “party of change” (PAN). Fox’s first presidential act was to accept a $40 million bribe to facilitate the escape of Chapo Guzmán from the Puente Grande maximum-security prison, and thereafter to provide political protection and military support for his Sinaloa Cartel. To this day, media accounts have Guzmán escaping in a laundry cart through a back door. El Chapo actually walked out the front door wearing a police uniform and surrounded by officers of the Federal Preventive Police.
Since that time Guzmán has performed a useful service as the villainous face of Mexican organized crime. His repeated arrests (February 2014, January 2016) are trumpeted as vital victories in the war on drugs, while his escapes (January 2001, July 2015) are treated as humiliating setbacks that require redoubled efforts to suppress a “criminal insurgency” that threatens the integrity of the Mexican state. Yet that state has no integrity, and no real existence apart from the criminal oligarchy that forms it. In Mexico, there is no line of separation between organized crime and organized government. That is the theme of both Charles Bowden’s Murder City and Anabel Hernández’s Narcoland. A Mexican reporter whose bravery, intelligence, and integrity are above reproach, Hernández demonstrates conclusively that “corruption in Mexico is pyramidal. From the presidency it permeates other institutions.” Everything that suggests otherwise—high-profile arrests, elections, new training programs, special units to combat traffickers—she dismisses as “part of a great deception by the Mexican government.”
Guzmán is not the most powerful drug lord in Mexico. That distinction belongs to Ismael Zambada Garcia (“El Mayo”), who has headed the Federation since 2001. El Chapo has been his loyal lieutenant, whose greatest virtue is his willingness to take the fall for the crimes of others. He was first arrested in June 1993 for the killing of Juan Jesús Cardinal Posadas Ocampo, who was gunned down at the Guadalajara airport on May 24 (supposedly in crossfire between Guzmán and his archenemies, the Arellano-Félix gang). Hernández believes that the cardinal was murdered by a commando unit under the command of Rodolfo León Aragón, then head of the Federal Judicial Police, and that the assassination was sanctioned by President Salinas himself (now living in exile in Ireland), through his chief of staff. The motive remains unclear, but the slaying appears to have been a warning to the Catholic Church not to give moral support to rebels in Chiapas. To this day, Guzmán has never been charged with the crime.
Under the $1.6 billion Merida Initiative of 2006, the U.S. government has provided “unprecedented” levels of aid, assistance, and training to Mexican law-enforcement and security forces. It has also earmarked $73.5 million for “judicial reform, institution building, human rights and rule-of-law issues.” Mexican military and intelligence officers have studied American “counterterrorism operations” at the U.S. Northern Command in Colorado. The stated aim is “to teach Mexican security forces how to hunt drug cartels the same way special operation teams hunt al Qaida.”
Bowden calls Merida “a piece of black humor.” It’s an obvious deception aimed at the American press and politicians. Yet the training, equipment, and weaponry are real. If the Mexican state structure is essentially the public face of Mexican organized crime, as Bowden and Hernández both argue, it follows that Washington is empowering the very drug cartels it claims to be fighting. Hernández has no doubt that Washington knows what it is doing. She believes that the Mexican government is thoroughly penetrated by the CIA.
The U.S. government has provided refuge to the most corrupt members of the Mexican government, including former President Calderón (teaching today at the John F. Kennedy School of Government) and his feared Secretary of Public Security Genaro García Luna, who lives like a king in Miami. Hernández believes Luna passed on the names of protected witnesses to the cartels to be killed, and that Calderón regularly met with cartel leaders. This past February, on CNBC, Calderón denounced Donald Trump’s proposed border wall as “stupid” and “useless,” and claimed that the “Mexican people” would not pay a “single cent” for its construction. Calderón’s tone betrayed wounded pride (nobody wants to be unwanted), but it’s clear whom he is speaking for, and it’s not the “Mexican people.” It is our own oligarchy, which shelters him and provides him with a sinecure at Harvard.