Border Insecurity

In the last two years, President Barack Obama has introduced border-enforcement policies that are stricter than those of his predecessors, leading to record numbers of deportations and massive spending on security resources. In this month's issue of The American Prospect, Adam Serwer recounts the crackdown's effects on the Democrats' support among Hispanic voters. The stricter policies are also having a tremendous impact on life along the U.S.-Mexico border, where drug- and human-trafficking networks are evolving in new and violent ways.

To get a better picture of the changing nature of life along the border, TAP talked to Ed Vulliamy, author of Amexica: War Along the Borderline, which recounts his experiences traveling the length of the U.S.' Southern border in 2009. America can step up security, he says, but crime will only increase if underlying social problems in Mexico aren't addressed.

Your book talks about how Obama's election has changed U.S.-Mexico relations significantly. How is that playing out along the border?

What Obama has done is interesting because it strikes me as a two-pronged approach -- some would say complementary and mutually impossible to achieve. On the one hand, we have continued the fortification of the border -- which began really in response to migration under the Clinton administration -- with these three operations: Gatekeeper in San Diego, Hold the Line in El Paso and the third [Secure Communities] in the Rio Grande Valley. That was the first recent serious mounting of the stockade. Bush intensified that after 9/11, but it was a sort of blanket intensification all about borders and as much to do with terrorism as migration. And [it] didn't have much to do with narcos [drug traffickers]. What President Obama has done is, on the one hand, continued that fortification of the stockade. ... We've seen reinforcements of National Guard; we've seen extension of contracts for people like Boeing and mobilization of the National Guard in August.

On the other hand, what we have seen ... is the introduction of this buzzword "co-responsibility," and this is huge. I can't say that it's impacted the everyday life on the border. What it has done is changed the lexicon, in as much as the lexicon affects things, which is not greatly.

But there are complications to all this. For instance, take one of these main things about the border: Yes it's a stockade, but it's also the busiest commercial border in the world; people cross it every day to go to school, see families, go to jobs, and all that. That feeling of commonality, adhesion, living astride the line, is being threatened by this.

Do you think the crackdowns on drug trafficking in Mexico and here might be the cause of the increasingly sensational violence along the border now?

Yes, this is crucial. I hate to sound defeatist, but while the Mexican authorities, as typified by the PRI [The Institutional Revolutionary Party], did little or nothing -- which was why all the narco infrastructure was completely entwined with government -- what you had was an appalling maturation which admittedly they called the pax Mafioso whereby everyone knows their place, the cartel knows their place.

In this new development, the relationships are all much smaller and the end of the pax is the opening-up. As Mexico opened, it became more modern and Catholic, and you have these new opportunities to reach new markets, and the narcos and cartels take full advantage of these new opportunities. They had themselves outsourced; they had themselves disintegrated. I think that the Mexican authorities and the [Drug Enforcement Administration], with some reason, would like to think that if it's fragmented, it's easier to snap off, easier to throttle, to smash. But in a place like Ciudad Juarez, that turned out not to be the case. It became completely uncontrollable. Who would want to control this? Who would want to control a situation like Juarez, which is becoming the most dangerous city in the world?

So it's a choice between corruption or a war between cartels and the army? You don't see any kind of middle ground?

There seems to be no left-wing opposition to the cartels in Mexican society, a sort of union or Zapatista-type opposition. They're either trying to get on with their own things, or they're just like rabbits looking in the headlights. There also isn't a sort of right-wing, Mussolini, law-and-order thing, either. What there is ... is this extraordinary courage of priests, pastors, women. It's a crass, materialist war about nothing. It's all about brands and T-shirts and SUVs that get you this chica or that chica. Sounds banal, but that's what it's about. It took me a very long time in this materialism to find that the church, the clergy, the pastors, and the priests are the strongest opposition. And it's a very male war; it's to do with what an anthropologist would call a crisis of masculinity, and you can see that in things like mass murders of women.

One of the main barriers to controlling the drug trade has been corruption in law enforcement. Has that gotten better since Mexico's long-ruling PRI Party lost control of the presidency to The National Action Party [PAN] in 2000?

I think there are decent people, but the system is thoroughly infiltrated. If there is any idea that the PRI was corrupt and the PAN is clean -- it doesn't work at all. In the old days, the narco dealt for the politician. Nowadays, the narco is the boss of the politician, so it's a new generation of narcos.

On the U.S. side, there is contamination of the law-enforcement agencies; obviously, it just doesn't show up in the Washington briefing papers. At the highest level there is the question of the money. There was a case in Miami where the Wachovia Bank settled with the federal government for $160 million for failing to monitor swaths of money coming in from the cartels. And what's happening to all the money? What are the regulators of the banks doing to stop these hundreds of billions of dollars swimming around the banking system?

It is estimated that fewer people are crossing the border illegally right now. How does that affect the border, to have fewer people crossing? How does that affect people on either side of the border?

The cartels seem to be taking over the migration business. And it's very interesting talking to the people on the ground -- migrants and people who are working in Texas --because a lot of them are saying [that migration] being taken over by the cartels is making it safer -- there are fewer rapes, it's more efficient, and there are fewer banded attacks on migrants by all sorts of people including their own coyotes. It's more organized. And I guess it's much more expensive because the extortion has increased. But just recently, we had the famous case of the 72 people who refused to pay the extortion fee and were murdered by, it is believed, the Zetas. If fewer people are crossing, I think the violence won't increase on the U.S. side, but it will increase on the Mexican side because you're going to end up with a real bottleneck from the combination of the maquiladoras [manufacturing plants that export to the U.S.] deindustrializing the Mexican side of the border, [migrants] having to try three times to get across the border, and increasing numbers of people being deported. You've got a larger, looser population, which is the labor pool for the narco cartels and for the street gangs. And this is why the deep causes of this are society, not drug-taking.