April 24, 2009

Obama Leaves Mexico Dry

By José Luis Sierra
New America Media

JUAREZ, Mexico — Presidents Barack Obama and Felipe Calderón met April 16 in Mexico City to announce a “new era” of cooperation. But here at the border, skepticism lingers over their series of announcements that seemed to do little for any hope of real change.

The meeting made headlines in local mainstream media, with photos, videos and details of every step of the encounter. But for most residents of this border town, the meeting of the two presidents was a non-event.

“I’m glad that a black president is visiting Mexico,” said Raquel Ornelas, a self-described “middle-class housewife” who stopped briefly to watch the two leaders on a widescreen TV for sale at Sanborn’s, a popular boutique and restaurant in the middle-class east side of Juarez. “To me, it’s a sign that times are changing,” added Ornelas as she continued window-shopping.

“It’s like a visit from your rich cousin from the United States,” said Gustavo de la Rosa, a local lawyer in charge of investigating human rights violations. “You show him around, parade him, and he buys you an ice-cream. Then he leaves, and you end up with his old shirts that are too big for you, because he is too tall and you are too short.”

And while most residents of this border town, strewn by violence and heavy military and police vigilance, may not express it in such a colorful way, most see this first official presidential meeting as one for the photo albums and nothing else.

Obama’s trip to Mexico has been carefully orchestrated to signal an apparent new policy toward Latin America — by announcing a series of policies that range from opening old restrictions on travel to Cuba, to winking an eye to possible changes to immigration policy, and presenting a new perspective on drug trafficking. But for most people in Juarez, nothing has changed.

“Nothing is expected to come out of this meeting. As much as we might like Obama, he is here to represent the interests of the big corporations of his country. And even though we might consider him a liberal, the United States policy towards Mexico and Latin America remains one that still looks at us as the backyard of their house,” explains De la Rosa. Behind all of Obama’s promises to cooperate in the war against the drug cartels and to confront issues of illegal migration, the environment and the economy of both countries, he is still seen as following the old policies of past administrations. These policies view Mexico and the rest of the continent not as partners, but as sources of cheap labor, raw material and an opportunity for a large return on investments.

Mexican President Calderón has garnered international media attention for taking on the drug cartels. But in Mexico, he is widely seen as a weak president who won a very narrow victory – some still believe with fraudulent votes – and resorted to the war on drugs in order to consolidate his position, just as some say former president George W. Bush used the war on terrorism.

Critics say that in following the conservative line of his party, the PAN (National Action Party), Calderón missed the point. He staged an ill-prepared strategy against a powerful enemy that was deeply entrenched for decades in the ranks of power, instead of focusing on more urgent needs like education, health care, and Mexican farmers.

“It was not a priority,” said Luis Herrera, a scholar at the University of Chihuahua in Juarez. “The narcos are a problem, but they are also a substantial source of income for a lot of depressed communities in this country. Yes, they were involved in criminal activities, but it was the government that not only gave them protection but benefited from them, at all levels.”

Local estimates indicate that the drug industry generates revenues of $40 billion a year for the country’s economy. This is almost double the $25 billion U.S. Mexicans sent home last year as remittances, according to Mexico’s Central Bank, and almost triple the country’s $16 billion revenue from last year’s oil exports.

And the impact is palpable. Many shopping centers, restaurants and nightclubs, which represent a large part of the local economic engine in Juarez, are now empty. Tourism, another source of income, is also down.

“We are not getting half the customers we got last year. And last year was already bad,” said Leopoldo Muniz, a local bartender at a once popular local sports bar. Still, he considers himself lucky to have a job.

“Calderon and the government know that just to keep pace with the population growth they need to create at least a million jobs a year, but they are not even creating a tenth of that,” said Herrera, a lawyer who teaches at the local university because his clients aren’t able to pay his legal fees.

However they look at it, Mexicans believe that Calderon´s strategy to solve the country’s problems by embarking on a war against drug traffickers has failed.

The only ones who defend his strategy are members of his own party.

“Thanks to the joint operation, Juarez is a safer city,” Mayor Jose Reyes Ferriz told the press this week. Reyes Ferriz faces a tough job ahead of him. The army will begin evacuating the area as soon as September, and most of his municipal police force will have to be revamped since half of the force was fired for not passing a so-called “confidence test.”

Reyes Ferriz, just like Calderón, claims that the joint operation between soldiers, federal and municipal police, has been able to reduce local violence by about 80 percent. However, most locals believe that as soon as the operation is over, the drug cartels will resume their activities.

“What we saw with this operation was that all the ‘capos’ ran away. But this operation was designed to grab headlines and go after the small-time dealers. It has cut down on violence, that’s true, but it has also increased civil rights violations because the army isn’t trained to deal with this type of situation,” said Hector Pedraza Reyes, a researcher at the University of Chihuahua in Juarez. “It is quite well known that the big drug dealers live in the well-to-do communities like El Campestre – a local Beverly Hills-type community. How come there are no army operations there?” he asks.

Pedraza Reyes believes that the joint operation is merely a media tool for President Calderón to increase his own popularity and avoid a possible defeat in the June elections, when his party will face challenges as a result of his inability to solve the country’s major problems – not just drug violence, but also key issues such as unemployment and economic growth.

Return to the Frontpage