Remember when Phoenix was being called the number two kidnapping capital of the world? And when former governor Jan Brewer claimed that beheaded bodies related to illegal border crossings had been found in the Arizona desert? Even if you don't, you might recall that the sorts of things that Donald Trump is saying about migrants were more acceptable not that long ago by many politicians who distance themselves from those remarks today in the interest of building a trade relationship with Mexico.
Even while the beheadings and the scale of the kidnappings were not true, gruesome violence does occur in Mexico, partially due to US policy. But with the new governor, Doug Ducey, hammering the idea via the press that the Arizona-Mexico trade relationship relies on Arizona repairing its reputation with Mexico after the disgrace of SB 1070—with no mention of violence in Mexico—it appears that not only is the fear-mongering no longer politically useful, but it is to be avoided in the interest of the image of Mexican security.
While the myths about spillover violence were used to sow fear of border-crossers, to pass laws like SB 1070 and to secure the border, they also had the effect of scaring away business and slowing movement of goods and impacting business trips and tourism. Considering Ducey has made no effort to make Arizona more safe for migrants, it becomes clear that he and others are more concerned about the business climate than with SB 1070 itself. A focus on what seems to almost be characterized as rudeness on the part of Arizona distracts from the real issues, most likely on purpose.
Let's be real here: the benefit of trade (and border enforcement) for US business is considerably related to access to cheap labor on both sides of the border. The competitive advantage sought by Arizona requires poverty, political stability and security, and infrastructure in Mexico, imposed upon the people through displacement, dispossession, and repression. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) played a major role in accomplishing this. The Mérida Initiative, supposedly meant to combat the drug trade, is a continuation of this effort.
A well-designed effort on the part of Mexico, especially with the latest president, has been made to direct attention away from what was and is happening in Mexico so rich men can benefit from (more) foreign investment. In the US, officials and the media have followed suit to initiate the trade corridor through Arizona, and to justify all the money spent on the drug war via the Mérida Initiative (over $2 billion since it began in 2008); for to acknowledge the continuing violence is to admit the failure of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, and the failure of the purported goals of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Mérida Initiative.
John McCain's recent announcements of the legislation that facilitates the Intermountain West Corridor/Interstate 11 trade corridor curiously reference Arizona's southern border while minimizing or avoiding direct mention of Mexico, which may speak to the public's current concerns about Mexico due to drug lord "El Chapo" Guzman's escape and the lesser-known murder of a journalist and activists from Veracruz in Mexico City.
Back in 2010, McCain was repeating the fear about Phoenix's alleged high rate of kidnappings. A few months ago, no such mention of the violence on either side of the border was included in his article promoting Arizona-Mexico trade that was printed just days after mass graves were found during the search for the missing students of Ayotzinapa; and in response, protesters, demanding to know where the students were, had set the Guerrero capitol statehouse on fire. While some, including parents of missing students, have posed the idea that the Mérida Initiative is related to what happened in Guerrero, McCain believes that “the Mérida Initiative may be more important than any agreement that we've made." Meanwhile, his proposals for Comprehensive Immigration Reform are heavy on border militarization.
Today, of the 129 bodies found in those mass graves, none of them have definitely been identified as any of the 43 disappeared students, which means the story the government told based on their "investigation" (using torture to gain confessions) is not true, and also leaves the mystery of those 129 bodies. There are many other examples that point to something being especially wrong in Mexico.
When references in Arizona media were made to the organized crime in Mexico and the potential of spillover, it was never acknowledged that in many ways free trade facilitated an increase in organized crime by shifting drug smuggling routes and creating a situation in which the drug trade was lucrative with fewer other means of income to survive on available. It definitely was never mentioned that the Mérida Initiative has been shown to increase homicides, torture, and other such violence. And it was most certainly never mentioned that many of the homicides and disappearances, such as those targeting activists and journalists, are actually the responsibility of law enforcement or military.
When Peña Nieto ended up on the cover of Time Magazine in February 2013 accompanied by the words "Saving Mexico," many Mexicans were dumbfounded and disgusted. A similar response was evoked when he appeared a couple months later among the list of the same magazine's 100 most influential people. Evidence shows that there has been a calculated—and costly—effort to paint a pretty picture of Mexico with a very proficient public relations campaign.
APCO World Wide, a pro-free trade global opinion research consultancy (he's also very much in favor of the Mérida Initiative). APCO Worldwide was enlisted through NODO Research for a public relations campaign for which Nieto paid around $50,000. Two payments were also made to Time Warner that year totaling approximately $43,000, which seems to be for a 14-page advertorial TIME had printed only two months before, of which, as Bill Conroy of Narco News pointed out, the "Saving Mexico" story generously echoed.
Peña Nieto has made many efforts to improve Mexico's image in conjunction with his own. The Dallas News reports,
According to a recent report from the Observatory of Violence in the Media, an independent watchdog group, coverage of organized crime and violence in the Mexico City press took a dive during the first three months in office of President Enrique Peña Nieto: The use of the words homicide, narcotrafficking and cartel declined by half from the year before. Similar results were found for TV and radio.The Mexican government was claiming that crime has gone down in recent years, which many have said isn't true. Many crimes go unreported due to the growing distrust of the police. Even the way statistics on crime are gathered and interpreted has changed, making them appear more favorable. In some cases violence has become more isolated to certain areas in Mexico.
Peña Nieto's stature relied heavily on the 2014 capture of "El Chapo" Guzman, head of the Sinoloa Cartel, who had been on the run for over a decade. With "El Chapo's" second prison escape this July and the poor state of the economy, it's clear that Nieto is in a bad position.
The Washington Post discussed Nieto's ongoing scandals in relation to the recent escape of "El Chapo" Guzman.
But as [Jeremy] McDermott from InSight Crime pointed out, the jail break is just the latest in a string of high-profile problems for Peña Nieto.The president, his wife, and the finance minister were recently cleared by none other than a friend of Peña Nieto of any wrongdoing related to the conflict of interest allegations.
“He’s had some very severe setbacks,” McDermott said. “The killing of the 43 students. A series of accusations of human rights abuses against the military. And now the escape of El Chapo.” Add to the list a political scandal in which the first lady purchased a luxurious house on credit from a developer who received lucrative government contracts.
Accessing Cheap Labor
Officials and businessmen in Arizona are just as interested in portraying Mexico as a viable business partner mainly because they want that to be true. They are also interested in drawing businesses to Arizona by portraying Arizona as a good choice due to its proximity to Mexico and its infrastructure. Mexico's attractiveness for business has to do with cheap labor, and less strict environmental and labor laws. Even Mexico's ports are more attractive for these reasons than California ports for those businesses shipping between other countries such as China.
Central to the collaboration on Arizona-Mexico trade with Governor Ducey is one of the few beneficiaries of NAFTA-related privatization reforms, Carlos Slim, who made dozens of billions of dollars over the years since he gained access to the Mexican telecommunications industry monopoly. It almost seems that Slim is portrayed as proof of Mexico's economic development success, even while he made his money off the backs of millions of Mexicans. Slim, the second richest man in the world, visited Arizona in the spring, and then hosted Ducey and various Arizona officials and business people in Mexico City this past June.
After various media outlets approvingly covered the Arizona governor's visit to Mexico City, Ducey finally shared his own perspective in a July 4th op-ed.
Mexico is an important ally to advancing in the global economy — it is forecast to be the world's fifth-largest economy by 2050. The ascending and fast-growing Mexican economy will be good for both sides of the border, and it is not just all about GDP, job growth and investment.
As the Mexican people reap the benefits of free-market reforms taking place in Mexico today, and the resulting economic growth, we can expect to see a positive impact on security — specifically, border security. And that's something every Arizonan can get behind.The forecast of Mexico's economic growth is highly questionable. Accounts of whether or not NAFTA was beneficial to the average Mexican, how opening up PEMEX to privatization will affect the country, and to what degree Peña Nieto has been successful in curtailing homicides, kidnappings, the drug trade, and other organized crime, are all disputed. Nonetheless, this is not an argument over whether Mexico is a smart investment for Arizona. The point is that we are being sold lies — or guesses at best — about political and economic stability in Mexico so business and politicians can gain support for building trade infrastructure and continue the militarization through the Mérida Initiative, which comes at a high human cost with the use of our tax dollars.
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Even if there is a growing Mexican middle class as some claim, businesses involved are still looking to benefit from cheap labor and minimal environmental standards more than they're interested in a larger Mexican consumer base. Either way, oil prices are down and Mexico's economy is doing much more poorly than predicted. One of the reasons Mexico is expected to host more manufacturing facilities is that Chinese workers' wages have slowly increased, making Mexican labor more attractive.
As Albert Lannon of the Avra Valley Coalition pointed out, the I-11 Corridor Justification report use of certain projections to explain the benefits of the Interstate meant as a trade corridor is telling.
The planners predict that, as Chinese wages rise, Mexico will become more attractive to corporations. With U.S. manufacturing labor costs at 100 on an [Arizona Department of Transportation] index, China is 5 and Mexico 12. As “trade with Mexico expands,” the report argues, so will “the current trend of moving manufactured goods production … to Mexico... Mexico was the most popular choice for nearshoring, where hourly compensation costs are nearly as low as China.”
The report suggests “industry clusters” and “integrative manufacturing” to house the making of parts in the U.S., with assembly in Mexico...
The report discusses planned improvements at the Mexican port of Guaymas for container traffic. That impacts high-paying jobs in the West Coast stevedoring, trucking and warehouse industries. The report discusses receiving even more goods from Asia as another “alternative future scenario.
In their discussion of marketing I-11 to the public, the pitch is “enhancing economic vitality” and “commercial opportunities.” I-11 is being sold as a way for corporations to make more money. Period. There is no expressed interest in workers except as cheap labor across the border.Interstate 11 is the primary project Arizona is attempting to accomplish in order to facilitate trade with Mexico. Despite the fact that many people in both Arizona and Mexico lost jobs due to the free market reforms, Arizona officials and businessmen are looking to extend NAFTA trade, with the participation of the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT).
Ducey implies that trade with Mexico will slow migration, that economic development will improve security by increasing incentives for Mexicans to stay in Mexico (and presumably also not get involved in criminal activity). The pro-NAFTA crowd likes to pretend that free trade doesn't rely on forces that make labor cheap in Mexico, which is a primary causal factor of migration. Migrant labor is kept cheap mainly through criminalization.
The public relations strategy of the governor essentially involves apologizing for the disrepute SB 1070 caused for Arizona, although this isn't quite the misdeed Arizona should make up for. (Not to mention that criminalization of migrants is not decreasing and border militarization is only increasing.)
While Arizona is unlikely to broach the subject of the corruption of the Mexican government, considering Arizona was rated the most corrupt state in the US by a Harvard study last year, the state can hardly take the moral high ground in comparison to Mexico anyway. The real harm Arizona is perpetrating is through pushing trade (which encourages the neoliberal reforms on the part of the Mexican government, such as austerity measures), and its promotion and/or use of the Mérida Initiative and other intervention to support this trade, via the federal government.
Free trade policy means accumulation: cheap labor, privatization, and resource extraction. Through the support of NAFTA, NAFTA-related infrastructure such as Canamex/Interstate 11, and the Mérida Initiative, Arizonans and other U.S. officials have made things far worse in Mexico. The Mérida Initiative as an extension of NAFTA has largely benefited the capitalist class and transnational companies (many US-owned).
The Mérida Initiative, also called Plan Mexico, has its emphasis, like Plan Columbia, on the supply-side rather than largely US demand for drugs, but does not even seem to be intended to stop the drug trade. It is a "drug war" aid package costing more than $2 billion, involving training and military hardware provided to the Mexican military. It not only increases US political power and control in Mexico, it provides the US military industrial complex with further profits.
Dawn Paley, author of Drug War Capitalism, laid out in her book many examples of militarization related to the Mérida Initiative occurring in places of interest to transnational corporations and leading to increases in homicides. "Without a drug war, Mexico would have continued to implement neoliberal reforms, but there is little doubt that the fear, distraction, and terror created by the war, as well as the special funding provided through it, helped speed up the reform process."
Many have linked what happened to the disappeared 43 students to the Mérida Initiative. Chicago-based group Semillas Autónomas (Seeds of Autonomy) wrote,
Ayotzinapa students and their parents, as well as the National Indigenous Congress, have always insisted that the violence that has engulfed Mexico over the past decades is not simply a matter of narco-trafficking and a few “corrupt” officials. They accuse that governing through violence and terror is the nature of the colonial state, and that the so-called “War on Drugs” — sponsored by the US and carried out on both sides of the border — is actually a war against the poor, campesinxs, indigenous, and resistant peoples of the Americas."El Chapo" Guzman's prison break is a major blow to the assertion that the Mexican government is no longer colluding in the drug trade on a massive scale. But it would be a mistake to portray the problems in Mexico as due to some natural tendency towards corruption and violence. The US government, partly through the Mérida Initiative, described as "arming NAFTA," has played an immense role in contributing to these problems, with the participation of the Mexican ruling elite. These consequences of arming NAFTA do not outweigh the governmental gains made through militarization.
Explaining the context behind the Mérida Initiative, Dawn Paley described in a journal article about how an earlier phase of the drug war in Latin America relates to the current context,
What are the primary insights from Plan Colombia from the perspective of the U.S. government? First, that the war on drugs can be used as a mechanism to promote business-friendly policies and, second, that the paramilitarism that results from militarizing drug trafficking and drug production can assist in the maintenance of control over territories and populations. A refined version of the comprehensive U.S.-backed “drug war” strategy is what has been applied in Mexico, beginning in 2007. Seen through this lens, the war on drugs appears to be a bloody fix to the United States’ economic woes. The drug war, as embodied in Plan Colombia, Plan Mérida, and [Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI)], combines terror with policy making in a neoliberal mix, cracking open social worlds and territories previously unavailable to globalized capitalism.One of the main advantages of the Mérida Initiative for corporations is that "The violence deployed by the state and justified with claims of combating trafficking can lead to urban and rural populations being displaced, clearing territory for corporations to extract natural resources, and impacting land ownership and property values," wrote Paley in her book Drug War Capitalism. The violence of the "drug war" can also undermine labor organizing, journalism, and other forms of resistance.
The US government (not innocent of corruption itself) likely took into account the risks involved with providing this aid to a government with a reputation for its high level of corruption, but found it worth it anyway. The Mérida Initiative seems meant to manage violence and other crime, to create a sort of political stability that is favorable to foreign investment but that functions to facilitate control and access via violence or the threat of it.
Aside from the infrastructure such as roads, ports, and rail to support trade, Arizona has more of a role in relation to the Mérida Initiative, besides just McCain's support for it. Arizona has connections to people and policy relating to other interventions in Latin America. Discussed elsewhere on this blog is how one of the main proponents of NAFTA and the CANAMEX trade corridor in Arizona, Jim Kolbe and colleagues of his were also involved in the creation of NAFTA. One of whom, John Negroponte as Ambassador to Honduras, also played a role in the Iran/Contra Affair. The other, Henry Kissinger, was complicit in the military coup against Allende in Chile. Negroponte was also involved with promoting the Mérida Initiative.
Arranged in meetings between Arizonan and Mexican officials, the Querobabi military checkpoint along Route 15 between Hermosillo and Nogales is currently being "improved" upon with $6.8 million from the US government in Mérida Initiative funds (plus funding from the Mexican government). It is too soon to say what the consequences of this will be. It could be that Ducey is not as concerned about border security at the border because some of it is being taken care of via the Mérida Initiative on the other side of the border. That some of the equipment provided to the military at this checkpoint so close to Arizona will be used in the drug trade is a concern, however.
The significance of the corridor south from Arizona stretching to the coast or to Mexico City will rise if trade increases. Fortunately, Sonora has not faced a large amount of violence, but has seen NAFTA-related growth of a mining industry and expansion of the hydraulic society to serve agribusiness. The water wars there could just be the beginning, especially as Arizona (which is cutting back on agriculture to maintain urban water supplies) becomes dependent on produce imported from Mexico.
While those of us in Arizona do not have to contend with the same kind of force when it comes to resisting megaprojects such as Interstate 11 or the Resolution Copper mine, Sonora and other areas along Route 15 might be affected.
Abel Barrera, director of a human rights group in Guerrero was quoted in Drug War Capitalism,
What we've seen up until now is that the militarization is not only a way to enter into the territories, but that it serves to impose megaprojects. [The police and army] are the offensive front that goes and enters into territories in order to guarantee that transnational capital can be established there, and install itself via mines, megaprojects, dams, and ecotourism projects. Regardless of the fact that they are in their own lands, a village cannot go against a mine or a multinational company. Companies need a guarantee that capital is worth more than the lives of the peasants that are blocking it.more than favored by Peña Nieto) plans to build a road connecting Mexico City to a nearby airport to the west would be more significant as part of an official trade corridor. Even without involving the drug war, the indigenous people's resistance is met with worsening force.
Arizona is being plundered as well. Destruction, displacement, and desecration happens or would happen in the name of economic development in Arizona, especially affecting many indigenous people. The border militarization and the wall, the South Mountain Freeway, Resolution Copper's land grab of the Oak Flat area, the coal and uranium mining up north—all are justified in the name of economic development, when really it is a few who gain profits at the expense of the people and the land.
In the same way that immigration enforcement is not meant to stop migration but to render migrants a permanent underclass, US intervention in Mexico is meant not to stop, but to manage, the movement of drugs, organized crime, and the associated violence. The US certainly is not interested in curtailing the demand for drugs north of the border (for which they could put more resources towards public health and treatment), nor the movement of arms southward. Although the violence has consequences for business, in broader terms it also has its benefits. As long as it is isolated and it can be mostly ignored, it is beneficial to business interests.
Are Donald Trump's racist comments about migrants worse in comparison to all of this? The bi-partisan effort to gain access to Mexican resources is portrayed as a friendly transaction while Trump plays an extremist role that makes anything else seem reasonable. It is necessary to cut through the smokescreen and see how the projects in Arizona are connected to the plunder of Mexico.
Read Part 3 here.
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