La frontera como zona de batalla
Jorge Luis Sierra/Revista Contralinea
The current government’s drug policy has transformed the United States-Mexico border into a war zone. The battles are bloody, the weapons are military grade, casualties number in the tens of thousands. The number of innocent victims, noncombatants, have multiplied.
The number of Mexicans involved in this armed conflict is enormous. Nearly one million people are engaged in armed hostilities. About 550,000 constitute the military and federal, state and municipal police forces, the remainder are people who work for drug traffickers.
Despite the force used to reduce or eliminate the drug cartels, the war seems to have no end or victory. Drug kingpins and important “sicarios” have been arrested or killed but these losses have been quickly replaced. The illegal drug trade is essentially undisturbed, with no major changes in supply and demand.
How do we make sense of a war which multiplies the casualties on both sides, affecting large sectors of the population and, moreover, lacks a clear sense of victory? This question does not seem to be echoed by the government, whose leaders have decided to fight the war using the armed forces against organized criminal groups. This violence affects at least 11 of the 14 sister cities located in this approximately 1,900 mile border.
Most of the more than 34,000 people killed in this conflict have fallen in this area, disrupting the lives of a population that, paradoxically, is growing rapidly and in a few years could reach up to 24 million people on both sides of the border.
The scale of violence has led to a heightened state of alert by the U.S. government and state authorities in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas who fear the spread of this violence into their territory and the corruption of their own police agencies. The United States has deployed National Guard troops and small units of special forces have arrived in a discreet manner to the border towns most affected by violence.
On the Mexican side, state and municipal police forces in Baja California, Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo Leon and Tamaulipas are severely infiltrated by the drug cartels, which prevents any rapid demilitarization of the conflict. The Mexican Army's traditional presence in the border area has been bolstered by large contingents of soldiers and sailors intermittently deployed to points where incidents of violence erupt.
The dimension of armed hostilities is also proportional to the strategic nature of the border’s economic and commercial infrastructure. There are 350 million border crossings each year from Mexico and, according to U.S. authorities, the number of trucks crossing from Mexico annually to the United States exceeds 4.5 million.
The most important point is the Laredo-Nuevo Laredo crossing. Just to give an example of the amount of commercial traffic, legal or illegal, which occurs at that specific point on the border: each day 4,800 trucks crossed the international bridges between these sister cities located in the southern part of the Texas-Tamaulipas border. This crossing accounts for 60 percent of total freight traffic between Mexico and the United States.
For organized crime the geographic and economic importance of this border crossing is very high because in spite of the modernization of U.S. and Mexican customs there is apparently not enough capacity, human or technological, to check all the cargo crossing each day.
For that reason, Laredo-Nuevo Laredo is a strategic site for the business of organized crime and an area where the big cartels that are changing the life of this border region have confronted each other: the Gulf cartel, the Sinaloa cartel, La Familia and Los Zetas. A similar situation occurs with two other principal points on the border: Tijuana-San Diego and Ciudad Juárez-El Paso.
The rest of the desert border is practically a no man's land. There is the Sonora macrodesert which covers 139,000 square miles of Sonora, California and Arizona. The harsh climate in the region has been lethal as more than 5,000 immigrants have died of dehydration while trying to cross the border illegally. To wage the battle against illegal immigration under better odds, the U.S. decided to wall off the urban areas around the border crossings and divert illegal immigration to the deserts of Arizona and the arid mountains of New Mexico. Drug traficking was not diminished, of course, but conditions for the undocumented immigrant reached its most dangerous point.
Government neglect on both sides of the border has made this a region conducive to the recruitment of hired assassins and drug traffickers. The border population on both sides is predominantly poor. Their income level is similar to the poorest regions of Latin America and parts of the border economic map show a per capita income of less than 7,800 dollars annually.
Although the common border is a priority in national security for both countries, spending on social infrastructure does not match that level of importance. The population on the U.S. side of the border receives the least federal financial aid and is the region with the highest incidence of death from tuberculosis and hepatitis.
The most disadvantaged people on the U.S. side live in about 1,200 “colonias” in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, which are unincorporated subdivisions without municipal governments in rural areas at high risk of flooding and no drainage or potable water. About 300,000 people live in these colonias, exposed to pressure from gangs and drug dealers who have established safe houses, drug warehouses and illegal immigrant staging areas there.
What has been the social and economic impact of this conflict? There is still no credible and effective evaluation. Some evidence suggests an increasing detrimental impact. In Ciudad Juarez, authorities reported the closure of 10,000 businesses in recent months and the loss of 100,000 jobs and the diversion of 450 million pesos of investment. International groups for the protection of the displaced say that about 250,000 Mexicans have been displaced by the violence. Half of them found refuge in the United States and the other half migrated to other parts of Mexico.
Do we know what the limits will be in human casualties and economic, social and material damages? The current government insists that the strategy is adequate and that military and police operations against drug traffickers is not the cause of the violence. This position will lead to even more years of armed conflict in Mexico because this is a war in all its dimensions, despite the government’s assurances to the contrary.