Two Nations Indivisible (part 3)

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Fears that Mexican immigration and free trade are costing U.S. citizens jobs and good wages appear exaggerated. Some losses do occur, but the studies cited by Shannon O’Neil indicate that they are offset by economic gains due mainly to the expansion of Mexican and Mexican-American markets for U.S. goods and services. However, another fear helps sustain divisions between the two countries–fear of lawlessness arising from drug-related violence and political corruption south of the border. While the violence and corruption are real, O’Neil reports a general movement toward democracy and the rule of law in Mexico. She believes that trying to maintain walls between the countries will impede rather than assist this movement.


The Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional or PRI) held power in Mexico for the last 71 years of the twentieth century, maintaining its one-party rule through a patronage system that traded economic benefits for loyalty. Opposition to the PRI developed after the 1982 debt crisis and 1985 Mexico City earthquake overwhelmed its ability to provide economic security. The party managed to cling to power for a time, with the help of some electoral irregularities, a temporarily improved economy and support from the United States. Then another financial crisis in 1995 forced the devaluation of the peso, resulting in runaway inflation and high unemployment. The PRI suffered large losses in the 1997 midterm elections, and lost the presidency in 2000 to Vicente Fox of the National Action Party (PAN). The 1996 electoral reform had already created a more independent Federal Electoral Institute. Now other reforms followed, especially a freedom of information law and some police and judicial reforms. “By the second decade of the twenty-first century, Mexico’s electoral democracy was firmly established. On nearly every comparative international measure of democracy, Mexico ranks in the upper tiers.” The country has moved to a competitive three-party system with an independent judiciary and press.

Mexican democracy is not without its limitations. Some local states and municipalities still have entrenched political leaders with limited accountability, sometimes using their offices for their own enrichment. The distribution of economic rewards is extremely unequal, with monopolies and oligopolies controlling many sectors, and wealthy individuals and corporations paying very low taxes by international standards. “Perhaps the greatest challenge to Mexico’s democracy today is its weak rule of law. Mexico suffers still from the twin evils of corruption and impunity. These benefit not only hardened criminals, but also Mexico’s connected families and prominent politicians–as might often overcomes right.”

Drugs and violence

O’Neil calls Mexico’s rising insecurity “a real illness with the wrong prescription.” Violence is all too common, but its causes and remedies are often misunderstood. Much of it is confined to specific cities south of the border and related to the drug trade–not just to the drug trade in general but to some particular directions it has taken in recent years.

One thing that happened was that crackdowns on the drug trade elsewhere created new opportunities for Mexican criminals:

During the 1980s and 1990s,…the United States poured billions into securing the southeastern seaboard through the Caribbean. It also began working more closely with Colombia— going after well-known drug kingpins and dismantling the large cartels on their home turf. And so the trade and transit shifted to Mexico.

In addition, Mexican political reforms upset the cozy relationships that sometimes existed between PRI officials and drug dealers, creating opportunities for new dealers to fight for their piece of the action. The results were an intensification of drug-related violence and the emergence of new Mexican drug cartels that now dominate the flow of drugs to the U.S.  In 2006, President Calderon launched a military crackdown that may ultimately reduce the traffic, but in the short run added to the violence. Gradual police and judicial reform will also help, but so far the rule of law remains relatively weak, and major crimes are often prosecuted less vigorously than petty crimes.

O’Neil sees the United States as part of the problem as well as part of the ultimate solution. Surveys of drug use establish the U.S. as the world’s largest consumer of marijuana and cocaine. Most of what the country spends to combat drugs goes to curb the supply, although studies show that reducing demand through treatment programs is more cost-effective. Drug traffickers rely heavily on businesses north of the border to launder their drug proceeds, as well as on U.S. arms merchants to provide them with guns. About 70% of Mexico’s illegal guns come from the U.S.

Mexico needs the cooperation and assistance of the United States to investigate criminal activity, curb drug demand as well as supply, regulate the flow of weapons, and continue to foster mutual economic development so that disadvantaged youth have alternatives to participation in the drug business.

O’Neil’s Two Nations Indivisible encourages us to see beyond the latest sensational headlines to the deeper economic and political changes that may be creating a strong new democracy on our border. Someday we may have no more reason to fear the Mexicans to the south than the Canadians to the north.

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