Humvees in Tijuana: The US and the Mexican Narco-Wars

How worried should Americans be about the drug wars being fought just across the border? Under the Merida Initiative, the Bush administration committed $1.4 billion in military assistance to Mexico and the Senate is now considering a House move to increase this year’s figure by $410 million. This seems as foolhardy to me as the billions spent through Plan Colombia which failed to decrease the availability of cocaine while devastating the lives of millions of Colombians. But I don’t live in Tijuana so I decided to ask someone who does, architect and urban design guru Rene Peralta who was in LA last week.

Rene Peralta loves Tijuana. He is co-author of Here Is Tijuana, a dazzling hybrid of photography, anthropology, and urban studies. He loves his hometown’s unique blend of cultures, a place where he grew up with the American jazz his father played and where the government in the 70s rebuilt parts of Tijuana to look more like Mexico City, erecting heroic statues of Mexican heroes so that the children would grow up knowing as much about Benito Juárez as George Washington. He’s seen the changes on the main tourist drag, Avenida Revolución, a place that has always catered to American desires and where the casinos and cantinas have in recent years been replaced with stores selling drugs-legal pharmaceuticals available for a fraction of the US price.

A little more than a year ago, when I was lucky enough to be guided by him around the city, he readily admitted that many middleclass residents had moved their families across the border to San Diego County to escape drug cartel violence and the threat of kidnapping. Most middle and upperclass residents of the city–about 50% of the population–have documents allowing them to enter the US legally and their money has always been eagerly sought by US merchants. It’s the poor and the recent arrivals who are kept out by the border fence which has been reinforced, incidentally, with metal sheets that once served as landing strips during Operation Desert Storm.

If you didn’t have papers prior to 9/11, they are much harder to get these days which would explain why hundreds of substantial citizens — professionals, business people, journalists and law enforcement personnel who’ve received death threats — have crossed into US border cities requesting asylum and preferring confinement in our immigration prisons to the risks at home.

Rene Peralta has papers. He even has a university teaching job right now in San Diego and so there’s nothing to stand in his way of relocating to the US. Except for love. He has chosen to live in Tijuana and commute to work. There’s more to the city than narco-culture, he says. “Narco-culture will not stop the city. The city will continue.”

He cautions, “I’m not an expert on this,” but he sees drugs as a binational problem in which both countries share responsibility. As for the Merida Initiative, Peralta says he doesn’t want to sound too quick to criticize the US, but “it seems it’s the American way to throw money at a problem.” Instead of providing military assistance, he believes that US could do more to control demand for drugs here at home and to control the sale of arms to the cartels.

Approximately 90% of the weapons used by organized crime in Mexico is obtained through US citizens who buy large supplies of weapons legally and then resell illegally to the cartels at a handsome profit. In a recent interview with the French newspaper Le Monde, Mexican President Felipe Calderón said that in the last two years his government had seized 33,000 weapons including US Army materiel and assault weapons of the type that became available on the market after 2004 when the Bush administration lifted the prohibition on their sale. Providing still more US-manufactured weapons to the Mexican Army and police-two entities with long histories of corruption-hardly seems the way to quell violence south of the border.

Another man who knows Tijuana well spoke to me on the condition that, out of fear for himself and his family, his identity not be revealed. “There’s another factor to the violence,” he said. “The ICE raids.” The vast majority of Mexicans and Central Americans deported by the US have no criminal records. They crossed the border without documents in order to work, to join families, or fleeing violence, but along with them, the busloads dumped by the US into Tijuana every day carry hundreds of gang members and other violent offenders. They land in a city reeling with unemployment, poverty, and chaos.

“The US is exporting gang members with cell phones,” he says.

This man sees a greater danger from militarization, the main policy of the Calderón administration with the support of the US. He says the war between rival traffickers has ended after a summit that carved out territories. Then how to account for the three beheaded bodies-including an American citizen with trafficking ties-just found in Tijuana? “Old contracts remain effect,” he says. “The truce is only starting now.” But with militarization, he fears the law-abiding civilian population will suffer. “The cartels have said they will kidnap a child for every one of us who is killed by the Army or police. And what you see on the streets of Tijuana is soldiers in Humvees, you see commandos wearing masks and dressed in desert camouflage. They’re just scaring the good people. If you really wanted to break the cartels, you would go covert. What good is this display of force?” He believes, “They are getting in place for civil unrest.”

And he’s convinced that unrest will come absent significant reform. Under successive conservative governments and since the implementation of NAFTA and a government policy of privatization, a few Mexicans became fabulously wealthy, much of the middle class benefited, and the poor became even more impoverished. But even the middle class is now disillusioned, hit hard by criminal violence, decreased tourism, and a world economy that has crashed. When you add this population to the desperate poor, it’s clear the Calderón government has its very legitimacy to worry about.


In response to demonstrations and civil disobedience in border cities, my informant tells me, “The government says protesters are being paid by the cartels.” Indeed the phrase “narco-protest” is being repeated over and over through official channels, demonizing protesters, making them likely targets of repression. Human rights complaints are mounting against the military. People have been disappeared. The Mexican government has already paid compensation to families for illegal killings that have been acknowledged.

diane_lefer.gifAs someone with longstanding ties to Mexico and a great love for that country, I am indeed concerned about the violence that Mexican people now endure. But I have to question our government’s response. Maybe we need to clean up our own act before intervening in Mexico. Even under Obama we look too quickly to the military “solution” which turns out again and again to be part of the problem and no solution at all.

Diane Lefer

Diane Lefer is an author, playwright, and activist whose most recent book, California Transit, was awarded the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction. Her stories, novels, and nonfiction often address social issues and draw on such experiences as going to jail for civil disobedience and her volunteer work as a legal assistant/interpreter for immigrants in detention. She collaborated with exiled Colombian theatre artist Hector Aristizábal on “Nightwind,” about his arrest and torture by the US-supported military in Colombia, a play that has toured theatres, campuses, conferences, and houses of worship throughout the US and Canada. Other recent work for the stage includes “Majikan,” a Ciona Taylor Production in New York’s Central Park, about an orangutan and the War on Terror. She has picked potatoes, typed autopsy reports, surveyed parolees and drug addicts about their sex lives, and taught creative writing to gangbangers as well as, for twenty years, to graduate students in the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College. She received the 2006-07 COLA (City of Los Angeles) literary arts fellowship in support of Phantom Heart, her novel-in-progress set in and around a beautiful Southern California nuclear waste site. She lives in Los Angeles and has never written a screenplay.

From 1998 to 2007, immigration officials deported at least 108,434 parents with children who are U.S. citizens. Deportations continue. Please support Family Reunification–not to mention Love and Marriage. Ask Congress to make it possible for unfairly deported immigrants to come home to their US-citizen spouses and children. Waive inadmissibility for foreign spouses of US citizens. Soon! Please!


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