If you saw some of the latest headlines in Latin America featured in Friday’s edition of the BBC on-line, you might have noticed that Mexican President Felipe Calderón announced that at least part of Mexico’s woes related to the on-going war on the drug cartels might be due to the United States’ insistence on dumping Mexican citizens, who may or may not be “criminals,” on the southern side of the international line. I’ll be the first to agree that during the course of the twentieth century, ninety-five percent of Latin America’s problems, social, political and economic, could definitely be blamed on the hovering giant to the north. In this case, however, (never mind the addiction issue in the United States) it is important to understand the longer historical trajectory of the relationship between Mexico and the United States when it comes to diplomacy, internal security, and military intelligence. It is my firm belief that, contrary to an entire body of scholarship on twentieth-century Mexican history produced in the 1970s and 80s, that a strong state has never really developed in Mexico. My purpose here is not to make judgments as to whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. It just is. Such a discussion obscures the point altogether. To make the argument that refusing to make the expenditure of funds and time to judge pretty crimes (whatever they are) committed by Mexican citizens while residing (legally or otherwise) in the United States, is the cause for the expansion in the ranks of the drug cartels, upon which Calderón has unleashed the full force of the Mexican Army, would suggest that the Mexican state is too weak to deal with the two problems at the same time. Again, my purpose here is not to judge, but to propose that the expectation regarding the attitude that United States authorities should take toward individuals who could potentially pose a threat to the stability of the Mexican state has changed little in the last ninety years.
In the wake of the first decade of revolutionary violence throngs of Mexicans flooded across the border into the US Southwest. In the decade that followed, the violence continued in the form of regional popular and military rebellions. Instead of dealing with Mexican dissidents within the national territory, President Plutarco Elías Calles simply dumped his government’s opponents on the other side of the border. The idea was that the Department of Justice would do the work of policing the threats to the Mexican state under the banner of upholding United States neutrality laws. Mexican consular officials all along the border were determined to see that DOJ agents investigated every single individual that they deemed a threat. In one case in May 1927, the Mexican Consul in Tucson, AZ requested that thirty Yaqui Indians suspected of seditious activities (they were actually working on a nearby ranch) be detained indefinitely, making the case that the Mexican government was picking up the tab for their detention. The Consul suspected that the Yaquis had hidden a stash of arms and ammunition in a remote location on the Mexican side of the border, and if released they would then pick up the stash and enter into relations with other rebel groups in the north. Consular officials regularly requested that the Department of Justice arrest exiles they suspected of seditious activities, at times based on mere rumor or flimsy evidence. Department of Justice Agents denied many of these requests pending evidence deemed substantial by said Agents.
Of all the problems that Mexico has encountered over the past six years, far from being the most serious, the US policy of deporting Mexican citizens, after time served, pales in comparison to the fiasco associated with the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms’ Operation “Fast and Furious.” That’s right, folks. The operation was called “Fast and Furious.” Look it up. The operation was a sort of sting devised to introduce some 2,000 guns into Mexico from the United States between 2009 and 2010. If you’re confused, I’ll repeat. Under Operation “Fast and Furious” the ATF introduced some 2,000 guns into Mexico between 2009 and 2010 in order to trace the weapons to their final destination, which it was believed would be various drug cartels under surveillance. I’ll leave it to the reader to pour over the sordid details. Suffice it to say that a mere 600 of those weapons have been recovered and one was used in the murder of a US Border Patrol Officer. I think introducing Mexican citizens convicted of “criminal” acts in the United States back into Mexican territory is far more benign than introducing the weapons with which the cartels are threatening the stability of the Mexican state. And, it baffles me that Calderón would choose to make the claim that US immigration policy is to blame for “criminal” elements in the ranks of the cartels, rather than arguing that introducing 2,000 guns into Mexico might not have really helped the situation very much. It would be baffling, that is, if it were understood as nothing more than a last-ditch effort to save face for Calderón’s party, the PAN (National Action Party), creaking under the weight of a failed militaristic approach to fighting the cartels, as well as a resurgence of the PRI, with just less than a year on the countdown to the next election.
I’ve been thinking long and hard about the potential topics I might broach with this, my initial post on the Americas, North and South blog. I am presently “in the field” and I have been treading the streets of the Distrito Federal (Mexico City) with some unease, but mostly excitement for the next three and a half months of archival research that lay ahead. Although I’ve been sure that my research on cross-border rebellions in the 1920s held some relevance to the present woes experienced by residents of the borderlands separating (and uniting) the United States and Mexico, it was not readily apparent until my first plunge into the deep waters of the Acervo Historico de la Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores (Archive of the Secretariat of Foreign Relations). As I turned page after page of Consular reports throughout the 1920s regarding the movement of contraband materials, not only arms and munitions, but also liquor and some illicit drugs, it became clear that there are some real continuities to consider when it comes to making sense of the conflicted history of the US-Mexico border. Small border towns such as Villa Ahumada, Chihuahua, were favored in the 1920s by arms smugglers because of their relative distance from more heavily guarded points of entry, such as Ciudad Juárez. Consular officials from San Diego to Nogales, AZ, to El Paso regularly reported on attempts to smuggle arms and ammunition to counterrevolutionary forces waiting just across the border, at times with the help of local law enforcement officers. On 31 May 2008 the New York Times reported on the drug violence in Villa Ahumada, in which a local drug cartel murdered the local Chief of Police, two of his officers and three bystanders. Subsequently, the entire police force of Villa Ahumada resigned. As recently as 14 April 2009 the New York Times uncovered a cross-border trade in automatic weapons rooted in perfectly legal purchases from local border-town gun dealers in Arizona and Texas. The US Department of State has a running month-by-month accounting of assorted atrocities along the international boundary. If the news from the US side of the border gives the reader a sense of futility regarding the Mexican state’s current war against the cartels, reports on the trade in arms from the 1920s were not much better. While the number of homicides associated with counterrevolutionary activities in the 1920s weren’t even comparable to the 35,000 dead since 2006, the unstoppable arms trade suggests the same level of problems regarding the governablility of the border across the decades. Arms trafficking, much like drug trafficking was lucrative and the lack of control on the border made it possible. Oh sure, automatic weapons, grenades, and lots of money help as well. On a related note, on my way back to my apartment after a hard day at the archive, I noticed an interesting ad above the door of the metro car. It was an ad for the new “Fuerza Civil de Nuevo León.” It invited young people to enlist in the new police force for monthly wages starting at 14,000 pesos (roughly 1,080 USD). The state of Nuevo León has been one of the worst hit by the drug violence of the past 5 years. The ad had all of the emotion and valor wrapped up in the ad campaigns we’re all familiar with for the US Marine Corp. “Be all You Can Be!” the ad screamed, but at 14,000 pesos per month, I’d be shocked if Mexico City’s youth were clamoring for a position. As educators, at times we cringe at the inevitable opening sentence of the HIST 101 student essay: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” But, I’m having a hard time ignoring the similarities between the ungovernable state of the US-Mexico border of the 1920s and that very same state of affairs in 2011.