January 9, 2009

A Year of War, Recession and Repression

By Kent Paterson
Frontera NorteSur

Many people in the borderlands will say good riddance to 2008. On both sides of the border, war, recession and repression were words that will almost certainly stand out in the writings of future historians recapturing a tumultuous year.

Undoubtedly, the narco war in Ciudad Juarez, Tijuana and other regions of Mexico ranked high among the top stories of the year. A staid German think tank, the Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research, even put Mexican narco-violence in the same category as conflicts in Colombia and the Middle East.

In Ciudad Juarez alone, approximately 1,600 people were slain. Since December 1, 2006, when Mexican President Felipe Calderon came to office, more than 8,000 people have perished in narco-violence nationwide, according to the latest press accounts.

Although Ciudad Juarez has long been a violent place, several trends made this year’s violence particularly gruesome. Decapitations, public massacres and the gunning down of innocent bystanders shocked even a public accustomed to violence. As warring gangs roamed the streets, reports of kidnappings, bank robberies, arson attacks, and extortions shot through the roof.

The year also stood out for its record toll of women’s homicides. Eighty one women were reported slain by the first half of December, though some accounts put the number far higher. Like their male counterparts, most female victims were linked to gangland violence, but sex-related crimes continued to appear and young women disappear.

Few recall that the first homicide victim discovered in 2008, 20-year-old Joanna Radilla Lucero, was reportedly raped and stabbed to death.

Rolled out as the official response to narco-violence, the Mexican army’s Operation Chihuahua Together was a spectacular failure. Violence actually increased after the army entered the conflict, and some soldiers were implicated in human rights violations.

In short, what little semblance to law and order that existed in Ciudad Juarez went up in a bloody haze of smoke during the War of 2008. Not surprisingly, those with the wherewithal hightailed it of Dodge as fast as they could cross the border; perhaps thousands of Juarenses fled to the United States this year.

While the press dutifully reported the daily body counts, little discussion took place about the wider implications of the carnage. In Ciudad Juarez, for instance, thousands of families are now traumatized from experiencing the loss of loved ones or from simply the threat of becoming the next victim. Some schools have found it difficult to even function. A generation of orphans is being created, and in the case of the long-running femicides, a second generation of survivors is left with persistent emotional and psychological scars.

Across the scooped up, channeled strip of land that sometimes passes as the Big River and which provides a neat division between Mexico and the US, many people like to pretend that they are safely removed from the disaster underway on the other side of the border.

This denial ignores the myriad family, cultural and commercial bonds that tie the borderlands together. What happens on one side inevitably reverberates on the other.

Another, little-examined development could greatly complicate the picture.

El Paso will soon host a dramatic expansion of Fort Bliss. The city’s good fathers and citizens welcome the infusion of new money that thousands of soldiers and their families will inject into an always struggling economy But many of the newcomers, returning from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, will struggle with demons of their own as they attempt to cope with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Ironically, they will have plenty of company in the thousands of Juarenses, adults and children alike, who suffer PTSD from a war underway in their homeland, according to Mexican psychologists recently quoted in the press.

Is the Paso del Norte prepared to handle a massive, multi-generational PTSD problem stemming from wars both close to home and in distant foreign lands? What preparations are the schools taking to address the needs of children who suffer from the loss of a relative or the memories of seeing a human being slaughtered before their very eyes? Are governments adequately budgeting for this emergency? Are they even aware of its existence? Will the Paso del Norte one day become known as PTSD Border?

Often, what is not said in the press is just as important as what is said.

Many of the international press stories about Ciudad Juarez glossed over or completely ignored the other disaster, the economic one, that also wreaked havoc on the border city in 2008.

Export manufacturing, the city’ s largest legal industry, was hit hard by the US economic collapse, with more than 25,000 workers losing their jobs in Ciudad Juarez and Chihuahua state this year .

Price increases pummeled workers who were offered a minimum wage increase of roughly 16 cents a day as the year drew to an end. In such a landscape, perhaps it is not surprising that some choose to ease their pain with poppy dreams or cocaine highs.

Ten or fifteen years ago, a popular press narrative framed Tijuana, Ciudad Juarez and Monterrey as glittering examples of the free-trade driven future of a Mexico firmly irrevocably bound to the United States and Canada. The successes of the dynamic northern Mexican cities were contrasted to the impoverished, backward regions of a southern Mexico relatively isolated from the world economy.

The norteno trio was trumpeted as the vanguard of an economic modernization that would shake Mexico out of its “cultural stupor” and begin Mexican workers on the wondrous path to the consumer middle class.

In 2008, harmonization was indeed reached for workers on both sides of the border. Long part of the diet south of the border, an economic stew of declining wages, exaggerated price hikes for food and other basic necessities, credit crises, and collapsing banks became the order of the day north of the border too.

Meanwhile, NAFTA’s Three Cities of Gold, the promised Dorados of the 21st Century, were awash in violence, crime, drugs, and corruption. Is this mere coincidence?

Which brings another issue to mind: immigration. Excluded from the North American Free Trade Agreement, the migrant question refused to go away as millions of people, uprooted by adverse economic forces and lacking legal walking papers, desperately sought refuge in the American Dream. Thousands died trying to cross the border north.

In 2008, news stories stressed how the economic crisis and tighter US border controls, including a controversial wall, slowed the passage of undocumented people.

But the year ended with a solution to the fates of nearly 12 million undocumented people in the US still blowing in the wind. As politicians largely avoided the issue, the Bush Administration stepped up incarcerations and deportations of undocumented migrants.

It remains to be seen if a new administration in Washington, led by an African-American elected to office with overwhelming support from Latino and other communities of color, will achieve a new immigration reform or simply put off the issue for another day.

On the border, many are already asking President-elect Obama and his incoming administration to address not only the immigration dilemma, but tackle long-neglected infrastructure needs, environmental crises, economic inequalities and educational deficits as well.

In both the US and Mexico,labor, farm and culture activists demand the renegotiation of NAFTA, but in Mexico City the issue is off the table.

Whether the new US president will act on an early campaign pledge to take a second look at the treaty is another burning question awaiting an answer in the new year.

Frontera NorteSur (FNS): on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news Center for Latin American and Border Studies New Mexico State University Las Cruces, New Mexico

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