Ciudad Juarez: How We Got Here

by John Murray

By this river

As the violence in Mexico rages on, with murder totals recently surpassing 28,000 since the start of 2007, it’s easy for anyone watching or keeping up with the news to become desensitized. Daily stories of kidnappings and murder scenes, complete with photos of dismembered bodies piled in the backs of pickup trucks or lying bloody in the street, can make the whole scenario overwhelming and extremely hard to wrap your head around. Statistics, death counts, unsolved murders; all with seemingly no end, no beginning, and no point.

But occasionally an event or fact will strike that forces you to step back and consider the reality. The circus surrounding the arrest of Edgar “La Barbie” Valdez and the tale of his rise from American high school football player to ruthless cartel enforcer was one of those events. The mass murder of 72 migrants from Central America a few weeks ago was another. Kidnapped and brought to a remote ranch in Tamaulipas, they were reportedly given the choice to join the Zetas drug gang as mules and low-level soldiers or face immediate death. When they hesitated, they were unceremoniously gunned down on the spot.

These stories stand out against the endless tide of violence because, for a change, they are actually stories. Every day we hear of bodies found in mass graves. Grotesque beheadings and bodies dangled from bridges are commonplace. These go almost entirely unsolved and unexplained. And that’s part of what makes the Mexican drug war so impenetrable. But what gives one pause about the Tamaulipas mass murder and distinguishes it from the relentless tide of deaths is the fact that these victims had a distinct story, which is fairly uncommon in the reporting about Mexican drug war murders. Sketchy as it was, the idea of these people migrating from Salvador or Guatemala, over the border crossings in Chiapas and up through Veracruz, seeking less-than-minimum-wage work in the United States only to be derailed by sociopathic madmen, is much more detailed than one is used to reading. It’s their story that allows them to be humanized, a rarity in a campaign of terror that has the direct intention of dehumanizing its victims.

Who are these 28,000 dead? Where did they come from? And who are the countless others allowing the drug industry to keep existing, to flow virtually unabated, as if the war going on were not affecting it at all? These questions are taken by most press accounts, and by most reading them, to be foregone conclusions.

But there are macro trends that can illuminate why this situation might have developed as it has. We know that drug trafficking finds its roots in poverty. In Colombia, the ultimate source of cocaine is rural growers of coca who really have little to do with the actual trade itself. It’s the Colombian cartels and crime gangs who process and prepare the cocaine for shipment and international distribution. The same is true of Mexico. Farmers in rural areas have been the source of marijuana and opium derivatives that have been smuggled into the United States for the better part of a century.

It’s easy to say that poverty breeds an attraction to drug trafficking. People need money to survive, and they’ll get it any way they can. In many rural areas of Mexico, such as Sinaloa, Durango, Chihuahua, the economy and infrastructure just aren’t there to support survival by many other means.

But if the drug trade has grown and expanded to different parts of Mexico over the past few decades, so has the amount of people working in it and supporting it. And where have they come from?

The truth is that the rise of modern drug trafficking has in large part coincided with major changes in the Mexican economy that have displaced and altered the lives of many citizens. Looking at how events have unfolded, and considering widening income class disparity and slow job creation despite the promises of NAFTA, the past and future of drug trafficking in Mexico is in many ways linked directly to its economy and the ability of the government to provide social support for its citizens.

For decades prior to the 1980’s, Mexico’s economy grew under largely protectionist trade policies. While this caused Mexican companies to produce low-quality products with outdated technology at high prices, it also created millions of factory and industrial jobs and had a lot to do with Mexico’s economic growth over the middle part of the 20th century. With little to no foreign competition at the production and retail levels, nothing threatened Mexican businesses. However, the Latin American debt crisis of the 1970’s began to spur talks about moving Mexico further into the private sector and opening it up to international investment.

In 1986, the Mexican economy did just that, under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). Tariff barriers were dropped, the market was flooded not only with American goods but cheap goods from Asia that were produced for a far lower cost, and Mexican companies were ultimately unable to compete. The aim of GATT was ostensibly to lower the price of goods and bring Mexican industry up to speed with the rest of the world technologically and in terms of productivity. In many ways it was an inevitable change. But the suddenness of the decision was resounding, and the immediate cost was millions of factory jobs lost over the next few years throughout Mexico.

Around this same time, as the Caribbean and Miami became increasingly policed and harder to navigate for smugglers, the cocaine trade was shifting out of its traditional routes and into Mexico. With cocaine came cocaine profits, which were astronomically higher than the marijuana and opium profits the Mexican smugglers mainly relied on. So, at the same time that millions of jobs were lost in Mexico, a multibillion dollar industry flush with liquid cash arrived.

The presidency of Carlos Salinas in began 1988, two years after GATT. Salinas emphasized fewer government expenditures on social programs, and effectively put an end to the revolution-era agrarian land reform programs that had been limping along unsuccessfully for the previous 50 years. Salinas forwarded the initiative to change the Mexican constitution to allow the privatization of peasant agrarian lands, and they became available to large agricultural companies both national and international.

This increased a migration of rural Mexicans to cities that had already begun with the end of subsidies intended to help them maintain their plots of land. Huge slums grew bigger on the outskirts of Mexico City and other major industrial cities. In these places, poverty and hopelessness festered. It was the perfect breeding grounds for gangs and unrest. The US owned maquiladoras that sprung up in Juarez in the wake of NAFTA created another migration, as Mexicans and Central Americans flocked to the factories in search of jobs. The city’s population skyrocketed, but the low wages and high turnover didn’t provide any lasting benefit for the workers, and the city’s outskirts also became migrant slums, where to this day gangs like Barrio Aztecas and the Artistic Assassins (gangs affiliated with the Juarez and Sinaloa cartels, respectively) flourish.

Another symptom of the fallout from the loss of domestic manufacturing jobs was the rise of the informal economy. This consists of people operating outside the jurisdiction of government or business oversight; they don’t pay taxes, they don’t own stores, they don’t participate in the larger economy. This is the sort of business that people in dire straits resort to in order to survive, and Mexico’s informal economy is thriving. Of course, one sector of the informal economy is the black market for contraband, which in the case of Mexico is dominated by a huge volume of illegal drugs. Just as people resort to the tamer informal economy by selling bootleg CDs or fruit and vegetables, people certainly resort to the better-paying drug trade.

These events are not meant to be portrayed as directly causal. But they are facts. It’s significant that the timeline along which the Mexican economy underwent dramatic changes, including job loss and growing concentrations of poverty, coincided with the rise of the modern major Mexican drug smuggling operations. Fortified with cocaine profits, drug smuggling was a growth industry in Mexico throughout the 90’s, and provided the liquid cash injections that the economy needed as more money in Mexico was leeched away by foreign companies and domestic jobs disappeared. Indeed, it’s been reported that much of the corruption by the drug cartels of government officials in the Salinas administration and before came with the understanding that cartel activity would be overlooked provided they kept the money in Mexico. This was also a key part of Amado Carrillo’s pitch to be left alone in exchange for forfeiting half of his holdings to the government.

These are the background stories that help us make sense of how we got to where we are, and where some of the nameless dead in Mexico’s drug war might have come from, and for what reasons. Illegal immigration to the United States also skyrocketed in the years following the passage of NAFTA as a result of many of these same events, including the crash of the Mexican economy in 1994. Many of those dying in Juarez and other border cities probably aren’t even affiliated with cartels in their own right. They’re hired as sicarios from all over Mexico, and they kill for dollars a day. A great deal of killings are contracted down to street gangs, as are muling jobs and other low-tier responsibilities. Essentially replaceable, these people are used and disposed of. They are never afforded a real narrative. They speak only as the dead.

John Murray is a lover of obscurity. He lives and writes in Arizona.