Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Drug War Refugees

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Over the past couple of months, I have posted quite a few stories about the growing war on the northern edge of Mexico, within the borderlands region where I lived for the seven years prior to moving to Bridgewater, Massachusetts in 1997. We had spent four years in Tucson, in the middle of the Gadsden Purchase, followed by three years living in Pharr and working in McAllen and Brownsville. I mentioned my Brownsville teaching job last week, because of the cross-fire that had shut down my former campus. We lived on the U.S. side of the border, which remains remarkably safe (El Paso, for example, is on track to be the safest large city in the United States this year, and McAllen has a crime rate that is relatively low and declining), but our neighbors just across the border were part of a shared cultural landscape, and what is happening on the southern side of the border affects the community on both sides.

Recently I heard the most disturbing story yet, this one from about 50 miles up-river of our old home. The U.S. town of Roma is located just where the river -- and Route 83 -- takes a jog to the north towards Laredo. In other words, it is the last in the east-to-west string of towns, of which we were in the center. It is known as one of the locations in the 1952 film ¡Viva Zapata! and the excellent 2004 documentary Mojados: Through the Night. As the first title and many of the place names in the area suggest, it was in the thick of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) and as the second title suggests, it is one of many places that has for the past few decades been a pivotal stopping point in cross-border migration.

We had passed through Roma many times in our travels, but the town across the border -- Ciudad Miguel Alemán-- just once. We had visited on our way to see the Falcon Reservoir, where drought had exposed long-flooded places such as Guerrero. I remember Alemán as quite a quiet, dusty little town. I remember having a nice lunch at a restaurant that would have served very well as a revolution-era movie set.

"Cartel de Golfo" and a heart mark the territory of the
former town of Mier.

It was from Miguel Alemán that a most chilling is now emerging. In "An Entire Mexican Village Flees Mexican Drug Violence," veteran NPR reporter compares this tiny town to many he has seen in the aftermath of natural disasters. Violence in the nearby town of Mier has been so ghastly that most of its 6,500 residents have fled, as from a flood or fire, and many of them are now in Miguel Alemán. In a broader story on the perception that the Mexican Revolution has failed, the turmoil in Tamaulipas is cited as a reason that centennial celebrations have been suspended. The Revolution killed a million people, and though the numbers today are not at that level, with 28,000 dead, comparisons are starting to be made.

Although NPR and I are willing to use the term "refugee," it will be very interesting to see whether it is formally applied to those fleeing violence. As long as the refugees remain in Mexico, the formal term would be "internally displaced persons," a term that the United Nations Refugee Agency is not yet using anywhere in Mexico. If it does, the U.N. would be obligated to help them in Mexico, and the potential exists for them to seek asylum in the United States. I imagine all efforts will be made to avoid describing the situation in Ciudad Miguel Alemán with any kind of candor on the part of U.S. or U.N. officials.

It is difficult to know exactly why such intense violence has erupted in this particular part of the world, making it more dangerous than Baghdad or Kabul. Several factors clearly are at work, including very lax gun laws in the United States and the ever-higher prices people here are willing to pay for drugs. This combines with global race-to-the-bottom labor policies, "free trade" agreements that work against agriculture in Mexico, and the maquila program that brought millions to the border seeking employment. Endemic corruption in Mexico's public institutions is also certainly a part of the problem. No single explanation is satisfactory, because all of these things were true long before the violence reached this level. It is clear, though, that the greed and ruthlessness of the cartels exceeds their humanity.

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