The Immigration Debate

Much of the election season to date has revolved around the questions of immigration reform and border security, yet little time has been given to the devastation that is now tearing through Mexico and the northern region of Central America. To address this pandemic of violence will require multiple government agencies, grassroots movements, and leadership in the White House and Congress. Why then, are we on the cusp Super Tuesday without hearing a single comprehensive plan?


Mexico has been living in a state akin to civil war for a decade. The violence began when, at the bidding of a United States administration, the Mexican government declared war on the cartels which had already divided the country into fiefdoms. At that time, the cartels were operating on what they knew was and would continue to be a multi-billion dollar profit model where they delivered drugs from the south to eager consumers in the shadows of the north.


In the process they accumulated wealth and weaponry more akin to micro-states than to organized crime. Millions of dollars flowed south from the United States, sums that make long-standing remittance flows seem paltry by comparison. The penetration of the cartels into the Mexican state apparatus was unprecedented. The Zetas cartel is in fact staffed primarily by ex-military officers who have chosen lucrative careers in brutality over their previous national service.


The cartels were ready for war.


So many people died in Mexico in the years following that declaration of war that the people began to doubt their ability to defeat the cartels. The brutality with which innocents and combatants alike were dispatched created a culture of fear that permeates Mexican life to this day. There is an understanding that the police can offer no protection for those who cross the cartels. In many cases, the cartels and the police force overlap, with money winning loyalty when decision time comes.


In the fog of war, the cartels grew stronger. They struck deals with international banks to launder money, they bought politicians and police officers at record rates, and they expanded their reach to almost every corner of the country. Would-be drug traffickers found the country smaller than before and moved south to participate in the lucrative supply chain that was moving overland from the Caribbean when the United States clamped down on marine-route drug smugglers.


Along the way they found ready-made allies in the maras (street gangs) that had come to dominate criminal life in Central America. Mara Salvatrucha is still perhaps the best known gang in the region, but there are many, many others. What these gangs lacked in experience they made up for with gusto and a willingness to engage in brutality, a mirror of the more established cartels to the north. They met with states unprepared for their rapid rise and a population cowed by insecurity and past trauma.


The now infamous Golden Triangle (Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador) emerged as one of the most dangerous regions on earth. Production centers in South America found the countries of Central America easy prey. The region faces some of the highest poverty rates in the hemisphere, and there are long histories throughout the isthmus of extrajudicial killings, organized crime, and government involvement in criminal enterprise, often with the implicit blessing of administrations in Washington.


People who live in these countries and in large swaths of Mexico have no guarantee of safety. Young boys in poor neighborhoods are recruited, trained, and used as weapons against rival gangs and government forces. Young girls face threats of rape for being noticed. There is no force between these innocent civilians and the drug traffickers and criminals who see them as potential recruits, a source of income, or merely targets of opportunity. They are the poor and the middle classes. They are people who have only recently emerged from the upheaval of revolution and counter revolution. Having survived their own history they face this new and seemingly uncontrollable threat to their very existence.


Men and women desperate for an escape pay exorbitant fees to people smugglers called coyotes to carry them north undetected. They board a train called simply The Beast, or they crowd into trailers, or they walk or ride in the back seats of cars. It is a harrowing journey at best. Those without the resources to go entrust their children to the coyotes and send them on a long and dangerous journey. Many are abducted for ransom, rape, or slavery. That parents risk these hazards is evidence of the absolute powerlessness they feel at home.


In August 2012 I played a small part in coordinating the Caravan for Peace, a road trip of some 120 Mexican people across the United States. They were led by the renowned poet Javier Sicilia, and all have had their lives dismantled in some way by the drug war. I had the opportunity to listen to mothers grieving children, young people grieving friends, and survivors grieving a lost innocence. Sadly, little has changed in the years since those courageous people made that journey.


This does not have to be. These are human problems caused by decisions that were made without a full understanding of the consequences. The demand for heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, and cannabis here in the United States funds the institutional disintegration of our neighbors. Our free trade policies drive down wages in the region and erode the voice of the electorate. Powerful politicians manipulate the drug trade, poverty, and newfound wealth streams to maintain their power. All of it is happening just to the south of the United States, and all of it is inextricably tied to United States policies.


Threats of mass deportation and a wall are absurd. We deserve a serious discussion of how the candidates plan to address this thorny issue on day one of a presidency. Platitudes and vague mentions are not enough. Immigration reform is only a piece of this immense puzzle. I hope that the upcoming contests in states with significant Latino populations will be enough to convince the candidates that this is an issue worth their time and energy if they hope to win.