The Grass is Not Always Greener: Tex-Mex Fears

16 Nov

The fierce yin and yang of America’s divergent relationship with its two borders is embodied in two provincial border cities: Buffalo in the north, and El Paso in the south. Here our concerns are greater engagement with Canada, the easing of border restrictions, developing an economic plan to build off bi-national trade. Here our elected officials (the incoming county executive, for instance) call for using the border as a business engine. Here we regularly cross north for weekends in Toronto and chinese food.

There, in El Paso, the prime concern is safety from Mexico, enforcing strict border restrictions, and shutting down the most profitable of cross border trades (mules carrying drugs, guns and workers). There elected officials call for ranchers to arm themselves from spillover violence among and between drug cartels and federales. There vacation cross border traffic stopped a long time ago.

The last time I wrote about El Paso after a visit, I said the smell of burning garbage, intense desert heat, and sounds of gunfire in the distance reminded me of Iraq. Last week I returned again, but as we stayed in a hotel north of the city and further from the border, I didn’t get any unwanted flashbacks this time.

While I was there I heard news of a poll, asking Texans to rank the top challenges for Texas and the country as a whole. Like much of the rest of the country, Texans rank “the economy” as the United States’ chief concern. But locally, they are more worried about “immigration.” While to us Blue State northerners this may conjure images of xenophobic Red State racists, talking to actual Texans (not surprisingly) yields a far more nuanced picture. New York may envy Texas’ economic engine, but certainly not the border issues. 

In places like El Paso and Laredo and Corpus Christi, large Latino populations predate the United States or State of Texas; the border moved, not the people. With families split by the river and an open relationship between the two countries, people and goods moved back and forth unofficially, under the radar, but mainly peacefully. A rancher I spoke to, who grew up in south west Texas, remembers fondly the days of mutually positive relationships between land owners and migrant workers; days that are now as far away as the old timer’s childhoods.

That less-than-legal but tacitly-accepted easy relationship has been replaced by fear and anger. Not fear of “immigrants,” and the jobs they may take or strain they put on social services (Texas is not California), but fear of violence: murders and kidnapping. The anger is almost exclusively reserved for the Obama administration, perceived as ineffectual at best, and purposely and dangerously ignorant at worst.

First, the situation. Some 40,000 odd people have died in Mexico since 2006 as a result of the war between various drug cartel factions and the Mexican government. In the last year, the violence has increased in both volume and scope: more deaths than ever, and more gruesome methods (car bombs, chainsaw beheadings (I’m not linking to it), targeting of social media reporters). To Texans, this violence is not academic – the majority is happening a couple of miles away, especially on the border town of Ciudad Juarez, and is crossing the border in under-reported ways. The reported murder rate for Americans in Mexico is up 300%, but that figure only includes voluntary reports to the State Department, not reports from Mexican officials. American gangs are increasingly linked to Mexican cartels. Locals will tell you that while the vast vast majority of bodies are found on the Mexican side of the border, the general suspicion is that at least some are killed here and dumped there.

In response to this trend, Texan and federal government officials have mostly squabbled. Texan politicians feel like the feds aren’t taking the situation seriously, as evidenced by President Obama denying a meeting on the issue with Governor Perry. In Washington, officials are uneasy about the scope of the response already: fences and border patrol and deployed national guard. When the Obama Administration does act, it does so incompetently – a major story down south (and mostly ignored this far north) is the bungling of FBI/ATF Operation Fast and Furious. That firearm sting operation sent 2000 functioning and untracked weapons to Mexico, 1400 of which are unaccounted for. When locals take efforts into their own hands, tragic mistakes inevitably follow.

Fear and anger. Beneath the failed Birther rhetoric that creeps into the vocal frustration is a basic human fear of violence. Fear for one’s family. Fear of a way of life taken, not by economic force but physical force. Anger that a Border Patrol agent was killed by an errant gun from the Fast and Furious operation, and no one in the federal government (especially AG Holder) has taken responsibility. Frustration that a war is happening a mile or two away and the rest of the country doesn’t know or care. STRATFOR, the Austin-based private global intel company, has declared Mexico is nearing failed state status. Is anyone paying attention?

20 Responses to “The Grass is Not Always Greener: Tex-Mex Fears”

  1. Jesse November 16, 2011 at 11:39 am #

    Mexico is a disaster, and increasingly it appears that it’s our fault.  Or rather, our federal government’s insistence than marijuana is bad, mmmkay?  Legalization would eliminate the vast profits the black market creates.  Bad people will always exist, but it seems like we’re stoking the fire.

    I’ve also read pro-immigration people claiming that El Paso is extraordinarily safe compared to other cities.  I wonder where the facts lie.

  2. Brian Castner November 16, 2011 at 12:14 pm #

    Locals will tell you its not about “immigration” (pro or againt), but about the war raging next door. Stats say El Paso is one of the safer cities in America, but I am sympathetic that stats aren’t very reassuring when you can hear gunfire regularly over the border.

  3. jimd November 16, 2011 at 3:31 pm #

    NPR did a show on the “war on drugs” today. Not only is legalization becoming less likely, the government is significantly ramping up the fight. Drones are already patrolling the border. As we stand down “over there”, we seem to be “standing up” over here.

  4. STEEL November 16, 2011 at 4:11 pm #

    It would be interesting to know how much of the Texas Obama hate is purely partisan hate. Under Obama deportations are up and illegal immigration is down. Immigration rhetoric on the right wing media propaganda outlets is way up however and none of it points out these actual facts. Not sure what they expect Obama to do in Mexico – Invade?

    NPR did recently have a long story on the Fast and Furious thing. It was kind of hard to follow though.

  5. Eisenbart November 16, 2011 at 6:09 pm #

    Okay, but what to do? I think if anything after Iraq and Afghanistan it has left a bitter taste in our mouths for meddling with other countries. Besides the US has been paying much closer attention to what is happening in Asia by allying itself with Chinas neighbors through relief efforts and giving even more of Americas economy away through “free trade.”

  6. Brian Castner November 16, 2011 at 7:05 pm #

    @ STEEL: Again, I think you are confusing immigration with broder security. This isn’t about deporting illegal immigrants or undocumented workers or the entire Tyson chicken factory in Fort Wayne, Indiana. What do you do about Mexico? The wall is unfinished, and large portions unpatrolled – I think locals would recommend you start there (not to put words in their mouth).

    @ Eisenbart – Personally, I find what to do tough as well. But 40K dead in a couple years next door, plus a 300% increase in reported violence against US citizens, must be relevant to our national interest at least as much as a pact with Australia.

  7. EG November 16, 2011 at 8:01 pm #

    There are two New York Times articles from the last few months that seem to highlight the rapid and expansive increase in the role the U.S. is playing in helping Mexico fight these criminal organizations.

    The articles talk about the historic distrust between Mexican and U.S. officials that has led, in part, to a lack of cooperation until now.
    I get that if you’re frustrated and scared, you want to blame someone, but can you seriously pin that all on an administration that seems to have gained the trust of the Mexican government to allow U.S. law enforcement to step up its role in-country? Short of invasion, I’m not sure how else the U.S. could contribute to reducing the violence from an enforcement angle. What evidence is there that building more fences or walls will prevent the violence from spilling over the border or prevent American lives from being lost in Mexico? I’m not sure what conclusion this post is trying to draw – it’s based on incomplete policy analysis and anecdotes. For that matter, are you proposing any specific policies or actions?

  8. STEEL November 17, 2011 at 12:19 am #

    Yes but Brian, I have just shown that the boarder is more secure under Obama than it has been in the past and you even stated that El Paso is a relatively safe city.  How much of the blame Obama mentality is based solely on right wing hyperbole.  Why is illegal immigration such a right wing hot button issue now that illegal immigration is down, now that enforcemnt of immigration laws is up?  

    I understand that living next to an increasingly unstable Mexico can be unsettling but how many Texans were all for us wasting our efforts in Iraq a few years back rather than focusing on a problem that was truly important to national security.  By the way Americans still flock to Mexico for their vacations.  There are parts of American cities which are pretty scary to live nect to as well. 

  9. Brian Castner November 17, 2011 at 8:28 am #

    @ EG – I have run a series of articles on this site for the last couple years called “The Grass is Not Always Greener” (you can click on a tag of the article and see more versions). Buffalonians sometimes have the mistaken idea that our problems are unique, or worse, or unsolvable, and so in my travels I try to draw parallels between Buffalo and El Paso, Colorado Springs, Tacoma, etc etc. I’m not trying to solve the policy troubles of each city – just note border parallels in El Paso, tax issues in the Springs, and so on. The information is anecdotal because I talked to people. I tell the story of what I see. STEEL likes to argue, so we do some of that too.

    @ STEEL – Juarez, a city roughly the size of Buffalo, had over 3000 murders in 2010. No American city is that scary. And ignoring the border now because Texans supported the Iraq war is the worst kind of partsian faux-punishment – we don’t purposely build extra-polluting businesses in Ohio just because people there complain about jobs. Bush started building a wall and deploying the national guard because border security was a big issue then too – the jump in violence really took off after 2006.

    But to your first point. A rise in deportations (I’ll asume that’s right) doesn’t mean the border is more secure. A drop in total illegal immigration doesn’t mean the border is more secure – I’ve read fewer people are trying to cross, as there is less economic opportunity. A rise in the percentage caught would mean the border is more secure, and I don’t have those statistics. But do Texans (overall) just not like Obama? Probably. When he snubs their governor on their #1 issue it doesn’t help.

  10. STEEL November 17, 2011 at 11:05 am #

    Did he snub their governor or did he snub a grand standing presidential candidate. There is a difference. You will also find vehement and irrational Obama hate in other right wing states that has noting to do with a perceived snub of their Governor. Has crime risen in Texas as the Mexican violence has risen? Is building a wall really the right wing solution to this? Really? Once the wall is up will all cross boarder arms and drug trafficking really come to a halt? You don’t really believe that.

  11. Brian Castner November 17, 2011 at 11:21 am #

    The snub happened in mid-2010, before the mid-terms and long before Presidential grandstanding. Even if Perry wanted a meeting now, should not the President meet in private with governors on issues important in their state? This article isn’t about irrational Obama hate across the country, its about the fear of spillover violence at the southern border, and anger that the Obama admin screwed up a weapon sting and won’t apologize for it. Its specific, not a general blur easily explained away as extreme right wing rhetoric not worth the time of day. I don’t know if walls and drone overflights and cameras and more agents will “halt” the arms and drug trafficking. What do you think the right solution is?

    • Alan Bedenko November 17, 2011 at 11:25 am #

      I’m sure President Cain/Romney/Gingrich/Perry will solve the problem, and do so with constitutional intelligence and fortitude.

  12. Brian Castner November 17, 2011 at 11:47 am #

    Ah yes, My Guy Sucks But Your Guy Is Worse – the heart of modern Presidential campaigning. This is the first year I don’t have a guy at all – that’ll probbaly make me intolerable.

    PS – the Ron Paul crowd will be mad you didn’t include him in your list. He’s always given the media blackout, I hear.

    • Alan Bedenko November 17, 2011 at 12:08 pm #

      No, I’m dead serious. What on earth is anyone – Perry, Obama – anyone supposed to do domestically to halt open drug cartel warfare from spilling over onto American soil? Short of legalizing narcotics, you can build a replica of the Berlin Wall from the Gulf to the Pacific, and it won’t do a damn thing.

  13. Ismaeal November 17, 2011 at 12:20 pm #

    most of the Drug Wars’ porous border holes are down in Loredo or to the west in New Mexico, however living here in El Paso I am so shocked that so little of the violence next door has spilled on over to the Sun City

  14. Brian Castner November 17, 2011 at 12:44 pm #

    @ Alan – Other countries the world over have to deal with wars, refugees, disease migration and host of other problems seeping over their borders. Why is it insurmountable for us? Only 5 years in, I’m not yet willing to declare it an unsolvable problem. If I had an easy answer, I’d give it (though legalizing pot and seizing weapons heading south, not distributing them, would be a start).

  15. Eisenbart November 17, 2011 at 3:46 pm #

    Let’s take a European approach then.

    1.) Kill NAFTA, eliminating any reason to be there.

    2.) Tighten immigration laws making it impossible to live in America unless you have a PHD with a job lined up and waiting for you.

    3.) Prosecute the fullest extent of your newly improved immigration laws for people who are there who aren’t supposed to be.

  16. Ismaeal November 17, 2011 at 5:51 pm #

    @2 how many of “our own” are actually pursuing a PHD, crying about JOBS? well go out there and pick some vegetables then wait you’ll complain that you’re not getting benefits, a fair wage, and are working 7 days a week, you want to complain to your union ste….oh wait you can’t because the folks on the right were so hell-bent on dissolving all unions

  17. Starbuck November 17, 2011 at 8:34 pm #

    Without even getting into whether those three ideas are good or bad, what would make any or all of them a European approach?

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