Spill Way

When people ask me if cartel violence will find its way into Texas, I tell them it already has—and it’s going to get worse.

October 2010By Comments

Photograph by Bear Guerra

Today Mexico is in a depression and crippled by high rates of unemployment. Drugs, kidnapping, and protection have emerged as a source of wealth and opportunity in that country, and there is little reason to expect the violence to decrease in the near future. For Texans, that leads to an important question regarding border security, Will the violence stay in Mexico? The answer is that it will not. In fact, it is here already.

The Drug Enforcement Administration estimates that $50 billion of illegal drugs are sold in the United States each year. Significant portions of the money buy weapons, cars, status, and influence in Mexico—and in Texas. We now see competing Mexican cartels seeking to establish footholds in American cities and developing franchise-type arrangements with local street and prison gangs in places such as El Paso, San Antonio, and Houston. With almost nine thousand Mexican Nationals housed within the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, there is genuine concern about their connections to the Mexican cartels. There have been killings in Houston and Dallas between rival Mexican cartels. There are convictions of American youth from our border cities working as sicarios (hit men) in Mexico, and there is the arrest of Edgar Valdez Villarreal (known as “La Barbie”), a popular former high school football player from Laredo who held high office in one of the most notorious Mexican cartels. Kidnappings of Mexicans and Americans have occurred in Texas as well as other states. Both wealthy and upper-middle-class Mexicans are buying homes and starting businesses in Texas. In this migration are also cartel members that find they are safer in Texas than in Mexico. But there are already numerous occasions of violence between Mexican cartel members in Texas. Will it extend to American citizens as well? We expect it to.

The events in Mexico today are comparable to the 1910 Revolution. Initially Pancho Villa and his army hoped for support from the Americans. When it did not come, he replied with a raid on Columbus, New Mexico, in 1916. The American response was to send General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing into Mexico to capture and punish Villa. America built Fort Bliss, near El Paso, in the 1890’s. Even in the 1950’s some would suggest that Interstate 10 was part of a strategic resource to move troops and supplies across the length of the two-thousand-mile border with Mexico. But in those years, Mexican cities along the border were small, making it relatively easy to contain disorder trying to cross the Rio Grande. Today there are about two million Texans who live in cities along the border and about ten times that many in Mexico. It is far harder to contain the violence and the refugees now than in 1910.

What sense can we make of the events that we see across the Rio Grande? What meaning might be drawn from stray shots fired in Mexico that reached the campus of the University of Texas at Brownsville in late 2009? What do the bullets this past summer that hit the El Paso City Hall or Bell Hall at the University of Texas at El Paso mean? Can we place faith and trust in declarations that these are random events and presage no movement into Texas? Or are these statements of assurances that see no “spillover violence” much like trying to control one’s fear at night by whistling as one walks by a graveyard?

A two-year-old cartel war in Juárez has averaged about eleven murders a day this summer. More than 1,920 people have been killed in that city this year, and more than 6,160 have been slain since 2008. Under-equipped Juárez hospitals rush wounded persons across the border to El Paso’s Thomason General (recently named University Medical Center and affiliated with Texas Tech) and then El Paso police and DPS officers are deployed to protect the hospital from continuing violence from Mexican gunmen while wounded Mexicans are treated. Since Mexican president Felipe Calderón began a campaign against the drug cartels nearly four years ago, some 28,000 people have died throughout Mexico, and no area is untouched by the violence. Facts are increasingly hard to obtain as death threats, kidnappings, and killings have been directed against the news media in Mexico and often government reports are viewed with suspicion.

A Century-long Prologue

Since the winding down of the Mexican Revolution of 1910, the United States has largely ignored its neighbor to the south, but two events in the seventies triggered renewed interest. One was the discovery of extensive oil deposits in the Gulf of Mexico, not far from Veracruz in the Bay of Campeche. While Mexico had produced oil earlier in the century, this new find was said to rival that of Saudi Arabia’s. Americans had just endured the OPEC oil embargo and long gasoline lines, and Mexico was seen as a potential savior to the fickle and treacherous politicians and dictators of the Middle East. The second item was the growing success of the European Common Market, which improved global competitiveness of manufactured items through cheaper labor in Ireland, Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Greece. (Growing competition from Japanese manufacturers also leveraged cheap Asian labor in products such as electronics, appliances, autos, furniture, and industrial gear.) Here the suggestion for American companies was that inexpensive Mexican labor could serve the same purpose as cheap labor in the south of the European Common market or in countries like Korea, China, and Vietnam for Japanese exporters. By the time of the Clinton administration, this notion became the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and brought American and other world manufacturers to Mexico to create factories to feed inexpensive manufactured items to the American market.

In 2000 events were in full swing. Mexican manufacturing surged significantly, notably in the maquiladoras. The land port at Laredo became the world’s busiest, with eighteen-wheelers rolling around the clock between the two countries and more than 150 million border crossings into Texas. Oil was flowing from the Cantarell Field, and export earnings were filling government and private coffers in Mexico. Employment opportunities accelerated migration from rural regions to metropolitan areas; Mexico City grew to more than 25 million people and Juárez doubled every decade to well over a million. In these years Mexico changed from a largely rural nation with most people employed in small scale and often subsistence farming to an urban one. Rather than securing a living by farming most Mexicans sought to hold jobs in cities.

During most of the second half of the twentieth century, Mexico experienced rapid population growth. Even today its median population age is 26 as compared with 35 in the United States. The growth far outstripped schools’ capacity to provide basic literacy and needed technical/vocational skills, much less higher education. Part of the efforts to attract maquiladoras was the hope that Mexican workers could acquire desperately needed technical and engineering skills from the American, German, and Japanese companies that were dominant participants in creating those factories. The promise of such jobs drew rural Mexicans to the cities, but many of the social controls of family, church, and community were lost with these migrations. Mexico’s cities became youthful, crowded, and volatile.

Then something happened between 2005 and 2007. The loose money created by the Greenspan Federal Reserve to counter the economic downturn after 9/11 and the bust of the dot coms along with deficit spending began to unwind. Many Americans were speculating on the rising value of their homes, borrowing money from the inflated values and increasing spending for vacations, autos, and costly home additions. Then that pyramid started to collapse. Much of the housing in the U.S. proved to be a bursting bubble ending the demand for Mexican construction labor for new housing. As American economic problems deepened, the market for consumer goods that drove the Mexican maquiladoras shrunk—and so did employment. Declining American incomes meant fewer jobs for low and semi-skilled labor from Mexico in the United States as concerns increased that Mexicans were competing against American workers for jobs in areas like construction, food processing, and restaurants. In this economic vacuum, the billions available from the illegal drug trade provided jobs and aspirations for the unemployed rural and urban in Mexico, especially young males.

The Mexican Crisis

Mexico has moved in the past thirty years from a society largely self-contained, rural, and independent in its food and energy production. It has taken the path of globalization, seeking to participate more fully in a world economy and increase the material standards of its population. Yet this participation opens Mexico to the storms of economic forces in global capitalism.

How prepared is Mexico to deal with global economic decline, homelessness, and high unemployment? How well developed are the local, state, and federal public safety courts and prisons of Mexico to deal with social disorder and crime? How well does Mexico trust its public structures and how strong is its civic health? The answers are in the pages and videos of brutal murders not just in border cities but throughout Mexico. The wars among the cartels are a function of the breakdown of traditional partnerships of corruption between parts of law enforcement in Mexico, and in some cases involving government officials.

At its most fundamental level to avert a failing state, Mexicans must feel safety in their communities and trust in their public institutions. When the middle class flees Mexico, then the engines of economic growth freeze. Until Mexico finds ways to create millions of jobs, until it can find the means to educate its millions, until it can fund and ensure honest police and courts, until cartels can be hunted down and disbanded, and until Americans stop feeding the cartels with billions of dollars of dirty money and weapons, Mexico will not be safe. Nor will Texas. As Mexico fails in these immense challenges, Texas bears severe consequences.

On December 26, 2004, a portion of a mountain slid into a deep undersea trough near Indonesia. It trigged a tsunami that raced across the water producing little visible movement in the open sea. In some beachside villages the ocean slowly receded but the shore seemed calm, perfectly safe. Only if one looked to the horizon a great bulge of water, a massive wave, could be seen building and heading toward land. When the wave hit, great destruction occurred. Comparable deep forces have broken loose in Mexico. Many of the alert and wealthier Mexicans have fled to higher ground in Texas, but most of Mexico is poor and cannot readily come to the U.S. The forces of economic collapse and civic disorder will throw hundreds of thousands of those people across the border as violently as the Indonesian tsunami.

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