Excerpt: Two Nations Indivisible

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Once a sleepy border town known best for creating the burrito, Ciudad Juárez is now one of Mexico’s fastest-growing cities. Hundreds of new buildings and factories fill the city’s streets, affixed with large signs announcing the presence of world-class companies: Boeing, Bosch, Lear, Delphi, and Siemens. Dozens of construction sites signal that the steady stream of maquila factories and jobseekers is not about to end. From the twelfth floor of the Torres Campestre building, you can see downtown El Paso, Texas, now the smaller of the two connected cities.

In 2008 Juárez was named the “City of the Future” by Foreign Direct Investment magazine, a trade journal of the Financial Times Group. Per capita incomes surpassed Mexico’s average, and Juárez’s expansion spurred the biggest housing boom in the nation. New cars filled the streets, dozens of stores and restaurants opened, and the city boasted eight universities.

On a normal day at the Juárez–El Paso border crossings, some eighty thousand people come and go. In the morning, children line up with backpacks, ready for school. Later on, drivers carry shopping lists or business leads as they pass through checkpoints to the other side. At night, couples, families, and friends visit relatives or head to bars and parties in the neighborhood (and often country) next door.

But open a newspaper or turn on the television, and a very different image of Juárez emerges. Each morning, numbed reporters recount the previous night’s murders. In 2009, Juárez’s death count topped 2500—the highest in Mexico. Juárez set another macabre record in 2010, surpassing 3000 drug-related killings, making it by many measures the most violent city in the world. The bloodshed of 2011 brought the cumulative five-year total to more than nine thousand souls. Teenagers, with little else to do, hang around gawking at bloodstained sidewalks. Close to half of Juárez’s youths do not work or attend school, setting themselves up for a life on the margins. Even in the strong midday sun, the unlawful menace is palpable, leading residents to scurry between their houses and work, to resist lingering in the open air, to duck when a car backfires. Whole neighborhoods have emptied out, as the residents, driven by fear, have made the heartbreaking decision to walk away from their homes. In 2009, the government sent in seven thousand military troops and federal police to patrol the streets in face masks and bulletproof vests, carrying automatic weapons at the ready. This only temporarily quelled some of the bloodshed.

The extent of today’s violence is unparalleled, but crime is hardly new to Ciudad Juárez. Drug-related violence first exploded in 1997 when the Juárez cartel leader died while undergoing plastic surgery to change his identity. What began as intracartel fighting escalated as the Tijuana and Sinaloa drug trafficking organizations entered the fray in an attempt to gain control of the city’s lucrative border crossings. Ciudad Juárez is also infamous for the violent deaths of hundreds of young women—most workers in the international maquila factories. Their murders remain unsolved, the law enforcement system being too weak, too incompetent, or too complicit to delve into the deep underworld of this burgeoning Mexican city.

Juárez today mirrors Mexico’s—and the United States’—larger dilemma. Can it realize its potential and become a hub of North American competitiveness and interconnectedness? Or will it succumb to inept government, weakened communities, and escalating violence, walled off rather than embraced by its neighbor next door?

Turn on U.S. cable news and story after story recounts gruesome beheadings, spectacular assassinations, and brazen prison-breaks, painting Mexico as a country overrun by drug lords and on the brink of collapse. More evenhanded news outlets aren’t far behind. The Los Angeles Times boasts a whole section entitled “Mexico under Siege.” If this threat was not enough, pundits and politicians alike conjure up images of vast waves of humanity pouring over the nearly two-thousand-mile border— illegal aliens flooding U.S. schools and hospitals and taking Americans’ jobs. Whether by lost jobs, illegal immigrants, or thugs and drugs, Mexico’s downward spiral is portrayed as imperiling the American way of life. But this conventional wisdom about Mexico is incomplete. Worse, the response—walling off the United States—is counterproductive and even harmful to U.S. national interests. Paradoxically, such efforts make the doomsday scenario next door that we so fear only more likely, directing billions of dollars away from policies that could actually improve U.S. security and prosperity.

Overlooked, underreported, and at times even blatantly ignored in the United States is the positive side of what is happening in Mexico. Yes, the Mexican government faces significant challenges—the most urgent being security. But as dismal as the current news is, Mexico stands on the cusp of a promising future. Mexico’s real story today is one of ongoing economic, political, and social transformation led by a rising middle class, increasingly demanding voters, and enterprising individuals and organizations working to change their country from the inside.

Mexico has come a long way. Three generations ago, the vast majority of Mexicans lived in semifeudal conditions, tied to the land and political bosses. Two generations ago, Mexican students were massacred for their political beliefs by the authoritarian PRI government. Today, Mexico is a consolidating democracy, an opening economy, and an urbanizing society. Mexico is less a problem and more an answer for the economic, security, and international diplomatic challenges the United States faces today.

This isn’t the first time that the United States has misunderstood its southern neighbor or that its misguided actions have exacerbated the problems plaguing both countries. What is different now is how important the outcomes in Mexico are for America’s future. Over the last few decades, through the movement and integration of companies, products, and people, Mexico and the United States have become indelibly intertwined in ways that most Americans do not see or understand. What happens in Mexico today has ramifications for towns, cities, and states across the United States; this reality has yet to sink in, at least on the northern side of the border.

Policies such as the border wall assume that the challenges both countries face can be solved unilaterally. This too is wrong. Instead of clinging to the myth of autonomy, we must find a better way to work with Mexico for our own well-being. If we don’t, the consequences will be far worse than we imagine.

Mexico’s Crossroads

After nearly three transformative decades, Mexico is still in the midst of change, still forging its global political, economic, and social identity. Pushed there by the challenges of massive emigration, political and economic opening, and widespread insecurity, it has come to a crossroads. Mexico can follow a path that makes the most of its opportunities, or it can be consumed by its problems. The country faces two extreme potential futures: it could evolve into a highly developed democracy such as Spain, or it could deteriorate into a weak and unreliable state, dependent on and hostage to a drug economy, an Afghanistan.

It is not fantasy to suggest that Mexico has the opportunity to become the Spain of the western hemisphere. Under the tight political reins of General Francisco Franco, Spain began its transformation in the late 1950s. Long the poor cousin to its northern European neighbors—with per capita income at the time on a par with Mexico, not France—Spain slowly emerged from its post–World War II shell. From a base in a new economic planning office, savvy technocrats wrestled back policy control from the Falangist old guard, laboring to reverse years of self-enforced economic isolation and lingering suspicions of its pro-Axis past.

Initially bypassed by the Marshall Plan, the country received substantial foreign aid and investment in the 1960s. Tourists returned to Mallorca’s beaches, Granada’s Moorish palaces, and Madrid’s cafés. Combined with the remittances of the million Spaniards abroad, the influx spurred a decade of unprecedented industrialization and economic growth, dubbed the “Spanish miracle.” It drove internal migration from the countryside to the cities and created a large new middle class. Just as these changes threatened Franco’s conservative reign, the Generalissimo died. A peaceful transition to democracy and Spain’s accession to the European Common Market followed. Flash forward three decades, and Spain—even with its current problems—is now an advanced economy, a middle class society (with per capita incomes averaging US$30,000 a year), a strong democracy, and a respected nation on the world stage.

Mexico could follow a similar path. It is already situated firmly in the top tiers of nearly every comparative international democracy index. Since NAFTA, Mexico has been a darling of the foreign direct investment crowd—receiving a quarter of all investment bound for Latin America—equal to and often surpassing Brazil’s share. Add in the billions in remittances from its migrants, and the test becomes turning Mexico’s resource base and its links to the world’s largest economy to true advantage. Sharing much more than a common language, Mexico today holds many of the same opportunities—and faces many of the same challenges—that its colonial forbearer confronted with such aplomb.

Leveraging these benefits and broader U.S. ties, per capita income could increase and Mexico could become a top-ten world economy. Supported by migrants residing in the United States and a growing middle class at home, Mexico’s democracy could thrive. Already afforded a prominent platform as a G-20 country, Mexico could emerge as an important diplomatic voice around the world.

A Spain next door would bring astonishing benefits for the United States. An established democratic rule of law would dispel many of today’s security worries. A strong Mexican economy would boost our own far into the future—as the flow of goods and people south could easily rival those headed north. Given our already close family, community, economic, and political ties, a thriving Mexico could be a much-needed ally at a time when the United States is in need of multilateral support. A Spanish-style transformation would finally fulfill a decades-long U.S. foreign policy goal of surrounding our nation with strong, stable, and prosperous democracies.

That scenario isn’t guaranteed, however. Mexico could also fall into a drug-driven downward spiral of violence and instability; there is a chance it could descend into a narco-state, where basic security and any semblance of the rule of law remain elusive outside the few larger cities. Drug cartels could overwhelm Mexico’s emerging democratic government, thoroughly corrupting state institutions at every level. The lack of basic public safety would send the legal economy into a tailspin, destroying the foundations of the country’s growing middle class. Mexico would become the subject of, rather than participant in, multilateral meetings, as other nations tried to limit the international fallout.

Mexico today is nowhere near this worst-case scenario, but traces of growing disorder are there. Criminal gangs cull the poorer neighborhoods for recruits, pulling in youth devoid of other opportunities or of hope. Drug lords leverage familial ties to build multinational illegal enterprises, supplying the vices of the West. These criminals are already testing the vulnerabilities of Mexico’s democratic politics—bribing some officials, threatening others, and weakening local political and social structures.

A descent into anarchy next door would come at a steep cost to the United States. A devastated Mexican economy and society would push waves of citizens north, searching for work and basic safety. The troops and resources required to secure the U.S.-Mexico border from drug traffickers, migrants, and terrorists would far outstrip those sent to Afghanistan or Iraq. More damaging, shutting the border would change our way of life. A sustained threat so close to home would militarize U.S. society, economy, and politics in ways unseen before. The costs in terms of treasure, manpower, and the U.S. national ethos would be enormous.

Yet as much as we fear this outcome, it isn’t inevitable. It is not even the most likely. Mexico has changed in recent years, largely for the better. For all the worry, the United States is lucky to have Mexico next door. There is likely no border between such economically asymmetrical nations that is as cooperative and peaceful.

What Mexico will never be is far away. And the ties today between the United States and Mexico go far beyond sheer geography. While the moniker “distant” may once have been apt, it is no longer the case. Bound by economic, environmental, cultural, familial, security, and diplomatic bonds, perhaps no other country is as intertwined with the United States as Mexico.

Building an impenetrable wall—if that were even possible—won’t solve the problems, as U.S. ties to Mexico will not stop with a line on the map. Mexico’s future is permanently linked to our own. The deepening of business, personal, and community relations has drawn the United States and Mexico much closer than ever.

Mexican migration, always part of the bilateral relationship, skyrocketed over the last three decades as, each year, hundreds of thousands of Mexican citizens headed north. Some twelve million Mexicans and over thirty million Mexican Americans now call the United States home and are a permanent part of America’s social fabric. Less visible is the fact that a million Americans have moved south, creating the largest U.S. community abroad in the world. Mexico’s workers fueled the U.S. economy during years of record low unemployment rates. And they hold the promise of mitigating the next economic challenge on the horizon: the retirement of the oversized baby boomer generation.

NAFTA-led economic integration has been a success not just for Mexico, but for the United States. Trade between the nations has tripled, as Mexico rose from middling partner to the second-largest export market after Canada for U.S. goods. Each month, Texas exports over US$7 billion and California over US$2 billion in products to their neighbor. But this bonanza isn’t limited just to border states. The economies of states such as South Dakota, Nebraska, and New Hampshire now send roughly a quarter of their total exports to Mexico as well. Products range from electronic equipment, motor vehicle parts, chemicals, and household appliances to paper products, red meat, pears, and grapes. Many of the United States’ flagship industries depend on Mexico for their survival and success. Integration with Mexico has allowed giants such as General Motors, Johnson & Johnson, General Electric, and Hewlett Packard to lower costs and compete in global markets where they would otherwise be excluded—creating more exports and jobs for both the United States and Mexico in the process.

All of these links mean that the impact of Mexico’s collapse would reach far into the heartland. Decimated trading ties would threaten millions of U.S. (not to mention Mexican) jobs. And it would tear apart U.S. families and communities.

The exchange isn’t always positive. It is the U.S. demand for drugs that has funded and U.S. guns that have armed Mexico’s drug cartels. These increasingly sophisticated criminal organizations now operate in over one thousand U.S. cities. Closing the border will not end their dominance in Phoenix, Atlanta, or Stark County, Ohio. Instead, it would limit the intelligence gathering and international law enforcement cooperation necessary to take the cartels down and to protect America’s streets in the process.

U.S. and Mexican diplomacy and policies lag far behind these deepened ties, based as they are on an understanding of our southern neighbor that is increasingly disconnected from reality. This gap has become not just unfortunate, but downright dangerous. Our misperceptions and misguided policies have and will have real consequences as Mexico faces its future.

Creating a New Partnership

Working with Mexico—for the good of both countries—will require not just a new set of policies (though these too are needed), but a larger conceptual shift toward forging a true partnership. We can work with Mexico to form this connection only if we know the forces that shape it. It is vital that the United States understands the post-PRI, post-NAFTA, post-9/11 global Mexico to strengthen the good and limit the bad in such a close, but still unequal relationship. By continuing to misunderstand or ignore the goings-on south of our border, we are leaving America’s fate in part in Mexican hands. I argue that we should determine it ourselves, but that we can do so only through active efforts based not on conflict but on cooperation.

A new partnership should start by creating an environment that understands how highly interconnected the two nations are and supports rather than shuns the binational people, families, and communities already existing in and between us. This means rethinking immigration and border policies to encourage, not hinder, the legal movement of Mexican workers and their families.

Upending the current thinking, Americans may soon come to see immigration as the answer to—not the cause of—many of the United States’ woes. Under the current radar are ineluctable demographic shifts happening on both sides of the border. Changed family patterns mean that fewer Mexicans will be coming of age and needing jobs. In the United States, the eighty-million-strong baby-boomer generation is beginning to retire, leaving more openings than the smaller “Generation X” could hope to fill. This combination may lead to a rapid turnaround on this hot-button issue: desperate to close the gaps in America’s workforce, in the next decade we may be urging Mexicans to come to the United States.

Diplomatically, we also need to rethink the United States’ approach in light of Mexico’s ongoing political transformation. A stronger partnership provides the best platform for a prominent U.S. twenty-first century foreign policy priority: democracy promotion. Despite frequent misunderstandings our long shared history, intertwined economies, and strong personal and community links provide the constant multilayered interaction necessary to work together toward the complex goal of strengthening democracy. Joint economic development initiatives, support for local citizen organizations, and efforts to increase transparency and strengthen courts and police forces will all benefit from the strong links that already exist between our two nations.

Mexico, not the Middle East, should be the test case for solidifying market-based democracy. It is not only much more likely to succeed, but also arguably much more likely to hurt the United States if it fails. Mexico’s success is more probable because it has already taken many tough steps, all on its own. After seventy years of one-party rule, Mexicans used their votes to usher in an opposition party president. Abandoning a long history of ballot-box stuffing, Mexico’s parties now compete in quite clean and transparent elections. The country’s over 100 million citizens dream of—and are already working hard to create—a vibrant and prosperous political system where their voices can be heard and their hard work rewarded. If successful, Mexico would provide a positive example of a newly consolidated democracy, offering lessons for others worldwide.

Nevertheless, it still faces considerable challenges. Many in fact worry that Mexico’s democratic gains may be lost, overcome by political bosses, special interests, and drug-related violence. And Mexico’s failure would lead to disastrous consequences for U.S. foreign policy, not to mention America’s economic, political, and social well-being at home. The United States’ focus elsewhere—particularly in Asia and the Middle East—has distracted us from the game-changing importance of political choices being made just next door.

A better partnership also requires rethinking U.S.-Mexico economic relations—in particular moving beyond the prejudices and misinformation that have grown up around NAFTA. In the United States, the great sucking sound of American jobs going south didn’t happen. Instead, with nearly half a trillion dollars’ worth of goods flowing back and forth each year, Mexican consumers and companies support over two million U.S. workers directly and four million more indirectly—as the earnings from exports cascade down into local economies. Though the benefits spread unevenly, by spurring and reinforcing economic opening NAFTA transformed Mexico and helped secure the economic underpinnings of today’s broadening middle class. It also encouraged (albeit unintentionally) Mexico’s democratization.

But for all this, the agreement itself and more importantly the concept of a North American economic platform has fallen into disfavor. Few in Des Moines, St. Louis, or Atlanta, much less in Washington, see Mexico as part of the solution to the United States’ current struggle to become more economically competitive. Recognizing the benefits of cross-border production is an uphill but necessary battle if the United States wants to boost exports, jobs, and overall economic growth.

Partnership, too, is the only way to stop the current bloodshed since the cause—drug-fed organized crime—thrives on both sides of the border. Given increasingly sophisticated criminal networks spanning the globe, intelligence gathering, analysis, and operations cannot stop with a line (or wall) in the sand. What Mexico needs is to firmly establish a democratic rule of law. Without clean cops and clean courts, the insecurity will never end. And the United States needs to grapple with its own role in supplying the money and the guns that fuel the violence. Together, the two nations can be more successful taking on the corruption and impunity that permit and perpetuate violence.

Increased cooperation means leaving behind the isolationist tendencies of both nations. But this more ambitious framework will be the best (and perhaps only) way to ensure a safe, stable, and prosperous future on both sides of the border.

Despite today’s resounding negativity, transforming U.S.-Mexico relations is not only important but also possible. Economic, demographic, and security developments in both countries are providing and will provide opportunities to push for new and better approaches. Those most closely tied to Mexico—U.S. companies and their workers, border communities, Mexican American voters—have yet to make their quite powerful voices heard. An opening for debate and the opportunity to change the United States’ approach is coming. For our own sake the shift needs to be for the better.

This book provides a roadmap for understanding and addressing the biggest overlooked foreign policy challenge of our time—U.S. relations with its southern neighbor. Overturning the conventional wisdom and condemning the efforts to try and wall ourselves off (literally and figuratively) from our neighbor, it argues for prioritizing and expanding bilateral ties.

Presenting a picture of a very different Mexico than most Americans see and read about, the following chapters trace the complex and intertwined issues of immigration, political change, economic opening, and rising violence, illuminating how much Mexico has changed over the last thirty years, and how these transformations influence how Mexico—and the United States—will navigate the current crossroads.

Mexico today boasts a vibrant (if imperfect) democracy and a growing middle class, and it is on the verge of becoming an important international player and an easy ally for the United States. Mexico can be a solution, rather than a problem, for its northern neighbor. But this positive outcome cannot be taken for granted. Mexico still faces stark challenges on the road to democratic stability and prosperity.

In the end, Mexico’s path, of course, depends on Mexicans. No other nation can decide its future. But, through our actions or inactions, the United States can either support Mexico or throw further obstacles in its way. And whichever path Mexico takes will have far-reaching repercussions for the United States.