The Mexican History and Geography Gap
By Kent Paterson
Mexico and the border are once again big news. Stories fill the press about Michele Obama and Hilary Clinton traveling south of the border to show their support for an embattled government. Report after report comes in about the latest atrocities in the so-called narco-war. Journalists rush to the border to check on the “spill-over” violence which, contrary to the assertions of Arizona Senator John McCain and others who contend the US’ southern border is “out of control,” has yet to materialize in a systematic way.
If my 6th grade geography lessons serve me, it would appear the violence McCain refers to is on the other side of the border line in a country called Mexico. Indeed, given the level of violence in places like Ciudad Juarez and Reynosa, it is quite noteworthy how El Paso and other places on the US side of the border are actually far less violent than many communities in the interior of the US. Is anyone proposing to send troops to Albuquerque or Oakland?
For the scary border, though, narratives are constructed, framed and then massaged into the popular consciousness. In this way, policies are shaped, sold to the public and charged to the deficit-wracked public till.
Lately, a story which has received wide exposure is the Associated Press’ piece about Chapo Guzman gaining the upper-hand over the Juarez Cartel in the battle over Ciudad Juarez. Although the story was based on an anonymous source, it was picked up by numerous news outlets and repeated as fact in recent days.
Since the story is shrouded in secrecy, it is almost impossible to judge whether or not it is accurate. How many times have Mexican and US authorities proclaimed the death of the Tijuana cartel?
Like Tijuana, however, events on the ground strongly suggest the violence in Ciudad Juarez is far from over. Scores of people have been killed in the city this month alone, including 14 just yesterday, and nobody really knows when or if the slaughter will subside.
Last week, NPR correspondent Ted Robbins reported on the US Border Patrol training Mexican police in Nogales. The report covered a vital issue and raised key questions, but it lacked historical depth. Robbins did not mention how US military, FBI, state and local police departments and other law enforcement agencies have long trained Mexican cops- in the thousands. This has been going on for decades.
The specific skills imparted include interview/interrogation techniques, hostage taking negotiations, crime scene investigations and counterterrorism.
A good follow-up piece might examine how many of the nearly 3400 complaints filed against Mexican soldiers with Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission since 2007 involve personnel trained by the US. A new story might look out how many of the 15,000 ex-soldiers detained during the so-called drug war, according to Mexican Defense Minister Guillermo Galvan, were trained by the US.
Will the latest round of training produce better behaved graduates?
All over the US airwaves and press these days, Tucson author Charles Bowden is a big source for Ciudad Juarez and Mexico news. Bowden provides valuable insights to a largely oblivious US public about the systemic roots and socio-economic context of the crisis raging south of the border, but he also makes some curious statements that deserve further scrutiny and comment.
For example, while speaking on Pacifica Radio this month, Bowden claimed it was difficult to find cocaine in Juarez in 1995, “because the cartels kept a lid on it.” Really? Anyone who knows the city might conclude that Bowden had arrived during a particularly bad dry spell. Cocaine has been readily available in Ciudad Juarez for decades, drug war notwithstanding.
Bowden is also quoted as saying that when he arrived in Ciudad Juarez back in the 1990s he thought he had landed in hell, but later realized it was the border city’s “Golden Age,” considering today’s slaughterhouse. Given Bowden’s experience, one must assume he was being facetious.
For scores of young women who were systematically kidnapped, raped and murdered during the 1990s, the era was anything but the Golden Age. Nor was it the Golden Age for hundreds of families which, to this day, do not know what happened to relatives, both men and women, whisked away by armed commandos only never to be seen again.
Such episodes and the government failure to curb them helped set the stage for the current mayhem.
Prone to the melodramatic, Bowden keeps repeating that “Ciudad Juarez is dying.” His declaration grabs the attention of radio listeners or television viewers, but is it true?
While observers will agree that Ciudad Juarez has been battered, bludgeoned and bloodied, it is quite another thing to say the city is dying. Juarenses are a tough lot, and many people are hunkering down and doing all they can to survive in and improve a place call they home.
I am thinking of the residents of Villas de Salvarcar, scene of the gruesome youth massacre last January, who are organizing a new community library, kitchen and music center for children. I am thinking of the annual Christmas Posada for the children of Lomas de Poleo. I am thinking of the young people who stood on the streets on a recent day collecting for the Red Cross. I am thinking of the young actor with the “Love Juarez” t-shirt who told director Miguel Sabido he wanted his city back.
From the numerous Juarenses who have fled to neighboring El Paso but are sticking close to home, one can observe how many people are making a long-term wager on the home base. And despite the exodus, more than one million people remain in the city.
This is not to pick on Bowden, whose contributions are duly noted, or other reporters for that matter. It’s just a reminder that is imperative for all journalists, this writer included, to scratch beyond the surface, dig into history and thoroughly probe the underbelly of the beast, so to speak.
Frontera NorteSur (FNS): on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news Center for Latin American and Border Studies New Mexico State University Las Cruces, New Mexico