Why Such Extreme Violence?
My seatmate on the Caravan to the South was a mature woman from Cuernavaca, the birthplace of the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity. I asked her why she was on the journey. She responded that her son was a school mate and close friend of Juan Francisco, the murdered son of Javier Sicilia, the leader of the Movement. Both she and her son are well aware that he could have been one of the friends who died with Juan Francisco.
So she joined the nascent Movement from its first vigil in Cuernavaca’s plaza. She had marched and traveled as part of each of its subsequent demonstrations – walking for three days and fifty miles over the mountains from Cuernavaca to Mexico City and then traveling with the first Caravan 1,500 miles north to Ciudad Juárez and the frontier with the United States. Now she was traveling 1,800 miles south from Cuernavaca to Acapulco, Oaxaca, Chiapas and the frontier with Guatemala. I was humbled to be her companion.
She is a lawyer by profession, specializing in human rights. Learning that I was a retired psychoanalyst, she asked me a most striking and profound question. “Why is the violence of the cartels so extreme?” I had to give it much thought for a day before daring to venture a response.
“Violence,” I said, “always erupts from extreme discrepancies in power, actual or perceived splits between the powerful and the powerless.” Between Mexico and the United States there are extreme differences of power, as well as within Mexico.”
The relationship between the two countries began with a violent imposition of the greater power of the U.S. upon Mexico, the invasion of the Mexican-American War. The outcome was the U.S.’s seizure of over half of Mexico’s territory and the drawing of an arbitrary border between the two nations. The border was drawn to take the best of the land, Texas and California, to raise slave-grown cotton and to give the U.S. seaports on the Pacific. The land in between, New Mexico and Arizona, was to provide a path for a railroad through the new territory.
After some Congressional debate about taking “all of Mexico,” the harsher land of mountains and desert to the south was left to the “poor, brown, Catholic people” on the other side. Only thirteen percent of the land is arable. Because of lack of water, most fields only produce one crop a year. The “line in the sand” between the two countries — marking and reinforcing the extremes of power and powerlessness between them — is now being further reinforced daily to defend the powerful against the threats of the powerless.
On one side of the divide, in the U.S., there is much wealth. The people of the U.S. live with the assumption — at least up until of late — that one has power over one’s own life. Anyone can become a finanacial success. Anything is possible; the future is open, always offering opportunity. One can have anything one wants, and — in this internet world, with the click of a finger and a credit card — virtually instantaneously. This is the Manifest Destiny felt to be deserved by an exceptional people.
In sharp contrast, Mexico has always had a clear, marked split between those with wealth and power and those without. For at least five hundred years, the people had no power in relation to authoritarian and corrupt governments — first under the Spanish, then under a series of virtual dictators and, lastly, under the seventy-year long, one-party hegemony of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).
The Spanish conquerors, the peninsulares, imposed an explicit caste system to define the difference between los de arriba y los de abajo, the haves and the have-nots. The ostensibly pure Spanish-blooded Mexicans, the criollos, and the Ladinos, hispanicized, mixed-race mestizos, continued this discriminatory split after Independence in spite of outlawing it in their constitutions. This split persists between the nouveau riche of the post-NAFTA, privatized, Mexico — the world of Carlos Slim — and el pueblo, the common people. According to a recent study by the World Bank, the bottom fifth of the country earns about 4 percent of the income while the top tenth controls 41 percent.
Nearly half of Mexicans are very poor, despite the acclaimed rise of the GDP since globalization. The public education system remains abysmal, stuck in traditonal methods of rote learning for students and a patronage system for teachers, who can sell their positions when they retire. Nearly fifty percent of workers are in the “informal economy,” earning a few pesos a day as laborers and vendors, without government health or pension benefits.
Corruption remains endemic among the police and courts, as well as other government agencies. Local and state police remain vestiges of the enforcement arms of corrupt, authoritarian politicians. They are poorly paid and educated, often having at best a junior high education and being functionally illiterate. They do not know how to collect evidence. They are accustomed to using torture to gain confessions. Those they arrest are frequently released for lack of evidence. As a result, less than two percent of reported crimes lead to convictions. In prison, the prisoners run the show. So there is, in reality, no rule of law, no real justice. There is only impunity.
Thus, for many Mexicans there is still no future, no opportunity to prosper. There is only the despair of powerlessness, lack of faith in the government and in the institutions of civil society, and fear of and disdain for the justice system. A recent poll found that political parties, congressional deputies, senators, the Supreme Court, governors and mayors maintain high levels of public disapproval and lack of confidence.
Three sources of economic power in the United States bridge — or offer to bridge — the chasm between the “land of opportunity,” the United States, and Mexico, partially equalizing the extreme discrepancies of wealth and power: the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), migration to find work and the drug market.
NAFTA was touted to bring economic opportunity to the average Mexican. Instead, it brought low-wage, assembly-line jobs in maquiladoras, factories south of the border which import car parts and components of other manufactured items in order to assemble cars, TV’s and the like for re-export to the U.S. International and Mexican owners make the profits. The workers make mimimum wages without protection of labor laws. NAFTA also brought U.S. corn into Mexico where, ironically, it originated. Mexican famers were forced out of the corn market and could turn only to one or the other of the two remaining economic bridges to the wealth of the U.S.
The second bridge is the market of mano de obra, the Mexican manual labor that supplies the needs of U.S. business in the fields of agriculture, construction, service industries and home care. Remittances, the money sent back to Mexico by these laborers, has been one of the largest sources of income in the country and kept many families from the depths of poverty. Border “security enforcement,” begun under the administration of Ronald Regean with the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), was continued by President Bill Clinton, and — with the creation of the Homeland Security Department in 2003 under George W. Bush — was raised to the level of a defense against a “national security threat“. The Obama administration has continued and accelerated this strategy. This “border security strategy” has made the flow of Mexican labor –and thus access to this source of economic opportunity and relative power — exceedingly difficult and dangerous.
This leaves the third bridge to money and power between the U.S. and Mexico: the drug market. People in the U.S. want their desires for mind-altering substances satisfied. Legal alcohol and cigarettes are not powerful enough. U.S. citizens are willing and able to spend billions of dollars a year to obtain what they seek. They have few qualms about the consequences — for themselves or anyone else — of doing so. U.S. laws prohibiting the sale and consumption of such drugs has not stopped its citizens from seeking what they want. They have only forced the market into the hands of people willing to risk jail in return for earning huge profits.
Through its drug market and its paradoxical prohibition laws, U.S. has created the only remaining access to the wealth of the “land of opportunity” for the hopeless of Mexico. This opportunity to overcome the discrepancy in power between the two worlds is so great that those in the drug market, the so-called cartels, are willing to commit murder and mayhem to gain and keep control of the largest amount of power possible.
Given the lack of a criminal justice system in Mexico — or rather, one that even works for the cartels — there are no actual limits placed upon them. The cartels can act with impunity, flaunting the efforts of the Mexican goverment to control them and terrifying the populace into silence. Their brutality — going beyond all human limits in their torture, massacres, beheadings and other heinous acts — speaks of their sociopathy, their complete sense of being beyond the formal law or human morality. They are acts of ultimate impunity in the face of both Mexican and U.S. governments’ impotent attempts to stop them. This violence is rooted in the chasms between wealth and poverty, power and powerlessness, both within Mexico and between Mexico and the United States.
The Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity is beginning to dispel the powerlessness of Mexicans. Victims of violence, injustice and impunity are speaking up, joining together to make the truth visible, to tell their stories and demand justice. They are discovering the power of united voices and common action.
However, the violence in Mexico will only be significantly reduced when the citizens and politicians of the United States recognize the split between the impotence of U.S. drug policy and the power of the drug market and also recognize how this split fuels the violence. Only with this recognition of the role of U.S. power in the destruction of Mexico will the U.S. take the action — legalizing the regulated sale and consumption of these drugs — that will lead to reduction in the violence. Under the current strategy of the U.S. and Mexican governments, the violence will only worsen.