If we needed any further evidence that we are a deeply divided nation all you would need to do is speak out about Mexico or immigration reform in the U.S. Past Republican champions of immigration reform have vanished. Senator John McCain and other leaders have ducked any attempt at much needed reform, as some of their most vocal constituents back home have dug in their heels, vigorously opposing anything that allows those that entered illegally (the vast majority are Mexican) to stay. Republican presidentialcandidates Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry have felt the sting of criticism from the right-wing of the GOP for advocating the "normalization" of the status of long-time undocumented aliens in the U.S. or for providing in-state college tuition for children of undocumented aliens. On the other side of the political spectrum, Progressives and Latino organizations in the U.S. are losing hope that President Obama and congressional Democrats will propose immigration reform bills anytime soon. In fact, the Democratic Party is betting that the strong anti-immigrant sentiment within the Republican Party will be the deciding influence for the growing numbers of Latino voters to opt for Democrats in the 2012 November elections, notwithstanding any real efforts on their part to move immigration reforms into law.
As the campaigns heat up after the January Iowa caucuses, look for the candidates to return to what has become our national "default position" on Mexico and immigration, which is to spend billions more on beefing up security along our southern border with Mexico. We will add more Border Patrol agents, build higher walls, string more wire fencing, and deploy more drones and other surveillance gadgets. This seems to be all that we can agree on, even if it is misdirected, wasteful, and inefficient to what really impacts our security.
The U.S. has already added 13,000 new border patrol agents and extended barriers through all the major crossing points used by the undocumented. Illegally crossing the border now means a perilous journey of several days through some of the most inhospitable geography in the Southwest of our country. Between 2005 and 2009 about 400 people died per year, mostly from exposure and dehydration, attempting to cross. The numbers of those trying to cross illegally has fallen some 67% in the last four years. President Obama has deported historically high numbers of undocumented aliens back to Mexico and elsewhere. The slumping U.S. economy has also taken its toll, as an estimated 200,000 Mexicans have left the U.S. and returned to Mexico.
So do we need to spend billions more on border security? When one moves away from the Mexico immigration debates in Planet Washington, the border reality is quite different. Over 700,000 people cross the U.S./Mexico border each day on their way to work, school and shopping. Manufacturing: parts, labor, and assembly have not recognized the border as an obstacle for decades. Almost two billion dollars in trade crosses this border each day, providing needed jobs to millions of Americans and Mexicans. As North Americans, both our people greatly benefit from this trade, as do the geographic, cultural, and familial ties that bind us so tightly together.
So, if it is important for the well-being of all Americans to keep our border with Mexico open, it is also critical to address the most pressing security needs and looming health care crisis brought about by narco and gang violence at this border. Not just simply to build more walls and deploy more border cops, but to work more closely with Mexico to surge both our efforts to tame violence-plagued Mexican border cities like Juarez.
Thus far, the horrendous levels of violence have occurred largely on the Mexican side of the border. Yet these cartels and their gangs traffic their wares (drugs, people, guns, money, prostitution, and counterfeit DVDs and CDs) on both sides of the border. While we would like to think that our efforts have kept violence on the Mexican side, it is more likely that the cartels are simply protecting their principal markets in the U.S. by keeping them free of the same kind of horrific violence seen on the Mexican side. This simply makes good business sense and, if anything, these cartels have demonstrated serious business savvy.
In the security policy debates in both Mexico City and Washington both governments have missed the point. Narco traffickers, in league with criminal gangs, are using urban terrorist tactics, as they fight to better position themselves for the lucrative drug corridors to U.S. markets. These groups embed themselves into the local population. By providing a diverse mix of jobs, neighborhood, artisanal "justice", gifts to the indigent, and payment to those who report on the actions of the police (and swift and violent retribution to those who appear to be cooperating with the police), these criminal groups can operate unfettered within these communities. The objective is to supplant government at the local level by also offering bribes to officials and death threats to those that do not take the bait. Besides law enforcement officers, these narco gangs target those with any influence over the local population. For that reason doctors and medical professionals are some of the first to be targeted.
In Ciudad Juarez, adjacent to El Paso, Texas, the crisis began some 10 years ago with acute gender violence. Since then the bodies of over 1,000 women, mostly employed in the city's assembly plants, have been found throughout the city. The gangs then targeted medical professionals and their patients, killing scores. From 2008 through 2011 60% of the medical clinics in Juarez were shuttered. There are now only 20 psychologists serving a population of over 1.3 million. While the Mexican government has built a new psychiatric hospital and attempted to open clinics, they are not able to achieve anywhere near the staffing required, as most qualified health care professionals would rather work elsewhere (or not work at all) than to become targets of the gangs. Gang members stop ambulances, remove, and kill patients. They enter hospitals and clinics to assassinate and kidnap medical professionals and their patients. The social impact of this is alarming. According to a recent poll, over 20% of residents reported that they have no health care. There are an estimated 100,000 drug addicts in Juarez. The mortality rate is 575/100,000 versus the national average of 486/100,000. Average life expectancy there is 50 years, compared to the national average of 64 years, as non-communicable diseases, HIV/AIDS and drug addiction have risen at alarming rates. It is not that facilities are non-existent or unavailable; it is that people feel too threatened and frightened to seek care.
The real victims, however, have been the city's children. Infant mortality is three times the national average--120 children have been killed in the last three years. There are an estimated 10,000 orphans—a result of the violence—and more than 3,000 children "working" on the streets. Only one in three school age children are in school. Narco gangs have taken to employing children as young as 12 and 13 years old as hit men, taking advantage of Mexican law that stipulates that minors cannot be given stiff sentences; they are released after a few years in juvenile detention, even for capital offenses.
For its part, the Calderon government has attempted to turn the deteriorating security climate in Juarez around by a whole-of-government approach. His Todos Somos Juarez (We are all Juarenses), with a $267 million price tag, has built parks, recreation centers, clinics, and a hospital, and paved many of the cities' dirt streets. His government has engaged local leaders and social service providers on what needs to be done and how to best accomplish the critical twin objectives of reducing fear and gaining the trust of Juarenses. The fear of retribution by the gangs is still pervasive and much of the government's efforts to date have either been not used or under utilized. It is now clear that without commensurate and simultaneous improvement in the personal security climate of Juarez, all such efforts at improving health, education, and other social services will fail.
In the last five years Calderon has pulled all the levers of government to get a grip on the security situation. He virtually disbanded the municipal and state police because of real fears of rampant corruption and penetration by the narcos. He has deployed the army, navy, and marines all of whom proved ill adapted to the rigors of effective policing in this volatile urban environment. Their presence and the credible accounts of violations of civil liberties and human rights created a popular backlash. Waves of Federal Police have also been sent to Juarez, but have not connected with residents. Tough strictures to prevent corruption and penetration of the force have made the Federales appear more like foreign paramilitaries in the eyes of the Juarenses. For instance, a Federal Police requirement for deployment to Juarez is that you cannot be from the city or even the State of Chihuahua. Officers and enlisted were billeted in hardened and remote places away from neighborhoods. When off duty, they were confined to their barracks and in the infrequent occasions that they ventured outside the security bubble they were required to bring along back up.
Recognizing that there is no shortcut to building trust within the communities of Juarez, the federal government has decided to pull thousands of Federales out of the city by March 2012 and keep about 1,200 there for training and support purposes, in an effort to rebuild the municipal and state police and create one operational force, known as Policia Unica. The appointment of a successful, no-nonsense police chief from Tijuana, Julian Leyzaola, as the new chief in Juarez should also help in integrating these security forces. This is a start.
However, what is also needed is a comprehensive public security plan for the city, a community-centric policing plan that puts cops into the neighborhoods on a regular basis where they can show consistent responsiveness to community needs and security challenges. Above all, they will be better-positioned to forge the kinds of relationships critical to building trust with local resident leaders. To protect this force and provide it "ground truth", an array of surveillance cameras and gunshot real-time alert systems should also be deployed, providing these nascent beat cops with the force multipliers necessary to immediately react to what is going on in their neighborhoods and for their own force protection. Breaking through deep distrust (and fear of retribution by the gangs) will not be easy, but U.S. troops in the extremely hostile environments of Afghanistan and Iraq are returning with valuable lessons learned that should be shared with Mexican security forces, after all security of the Mexican border cities is key to U.S. national security.
For its part, the U.S. government should marshal more resources to assist the Mexican police in border cities like Juarez. In addition to current intelligence sharing and target packaging, the U.S. should send veteran police who have worked in some of the worst gang-infested neighborhoods in our country to impart valuable lessons learned on community policing. When we look at the vast amounts of U.S. treasure expended in Afghanistan and Iraq for the sake of our national security, isn't it worth spending a fraction of those resources right next door?