Bursting the Bubble and Minding the Border

The Neglected 'Third Space'

To call the U.S.-Mexico border home, as I do, is to live in a kind of no man’s land, at least as far as Washington and Mexico City are concerned. Neither country has ever really understood the region that binds them – a third space that both Mexicans and Americans perceive as neither here nor there, an exotic fault line not easily accessible to mainstream understanding, even for those who reside a few hundred miles away.

And yet the border’s crisis has now crept onto center stage. I am an anthropologist and journalist living on the border with Tamaulipas and doing research in Chihuahua, arguably the two Mexican states most ravaged by drug-related violence. In Chihuahua, which borders West Texas, a territorial dispute between drug cartels has ignited a wider conflict among the city’s poor that some days resembles social extermination. And in Tamaulipas, opposite the Rio Grande River from South Texas, the Mexican Navy is taking on two formerly allied criminal groups in a three-way war that features rocket-propelled grenades and hours-long gun battles on major thoroughfares.

These are unpleasant topics in unpleasant times, but I am still struck by the willful neglect of what is happening along the border, as well as in the other Mexican states where the drugs pass on their way to the world’s largest market, the United States.

A recent trip to Mexico City – which my U.S. correspondent friends had begun referring to as “The Bubble” – was a case in point. A city once obsessed with its own crime problem has now become a safe haven, spared the public shootouts, street blockades, and dismembered bodies ravaging the border, where the violence no longer offers any warnings or obeys any rules.

Mexico faces an unusual historical moment in which the most critical national issue is playing out nearly everywhere but the place where decisions get made. My takeaway from a week of meetings with leading Mexican journalists, politicians and entrepreneurs is that everyone finally recognizes that Mexico’s future fortunes are tied to the effort to dismantle the powerful cartels. But the admission is still too hedged, too qualified. There is still too much of a yearning to think of the problem of organized crime as a distant abstraction.

The message went something like this. Yes, it’s true that 30,000 Mexicans have died since the cartels first began fighting each other in late 2006, but the national homicide rate is not any worse than it was in the 1970s or ’80s, and it’s still far lower than in countries such as Colombia, South Africa or Russia. And yes, it’s also true that the murders have grown both more brazen and grotesque, but this can be chalked up to the crippling of the cartels by the federal government’s arrest or killing of some of their top leaders.

Language plays a funny role in creating this disconnect. One politician I heard from insisted that the violence was not generalized but limited to “certain spaces.” Another indulged in the argument that most of the murders should be properly thought of as “executions” – presumably these are less problematic than run-of-the-mill homicides, since they imply that the business is merely taking care of itself.

Numbers, too, can be parsed in different ways. Mexican officials like to note that nearly 80 percent of the murders have transpired in 160 of 2,465 municipalities, and that 90 percent of the victims are criminals. (Nobody explains how they arrive at this number if the Mexican attorney general’s office has acknowledged that only 5 percent of the killings are investigated.) In short, four years of bloodshed can be summed up this way: The violence is geographically contained, most of the victims had it coming, and Mexico is hardly in as bad a shape as Colombia or Brazil.

That said, there is a growing consensus that simply allowing the military out of the barracks wasn’t enough. Four years into President Felipe Calderón’s campaign, members of Congress are finally debating the kinds of reforms that might actually make a difference in the long-run – creating a central police command structure, enacting financial regulations to track money laundering, facilitating criminal investigations, and establishing better judicial oversight of human rights abuses committed by military and police.

All this news was making me optimistic. Then I picked up the latest issue of the magazine Proceso, where an article by reporter Marcela Turati described the mayhem that recently befell Tamaulipas after special forces gunned down a top capo for the Gulf Cartel in Matamoros, across the international line from my hometown. (The University of Texas at Brownsville, where I have an office, had to be locked down for the weekend because of the prospect of bullets flying over the Rio Grande.) The government claimed Ezequiel Cárdenas Guillén’s death as a major victory, and President Obama phoned Calderón to personally congratulate him. But the residents of Tamaulipas felt the fallout immediately.

The following day, the rival group known as the “Zetas” papered Matamoros with recruitment fliers. And a few days later, they raided Ciudad Mier, a border town formerly controlled by the Gulf, where they burned police buildings and forced the remaining several dozen residents to run for their lives. Those who didn’t have the resources to escape to Texas sought cover in nearby Ciudad Alemán, where they huddled on the ground of the Mexican government’s first shelter for drug war refugees.

Everyone in Mexico City these days is paying lip service to the imperative of addressing the violence that is unfolding everywhere but there, and yet it feels much like the way Americans might speak about the urgent need to pacify the tribal lands between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Even the Calderón government’s attempts to galvanize national solidarity sometimes ring hollow. A slogan unfurled earlier this year – “Todos Somos Juárez,” or “We are all Juárez” – was the official response to a blunder the president made in hinting that 16 teenagers who were slaughtered at a house party there in January had been criminals.

The slogan remains a far-fetched aspiration rather than a reality, but it’s an aspiration we should all heed. Both Mexicans and Americans have to move beyond their historic neglect and contempt of our shared border, before this third space truly begins to undermine the future of both nations.

Cecilia Balli, a writer for Texas Monthly and an assistant professor of anthropology at The University of Texas, is working on a book about the U.S.-Mexico border fence.

*Photo of Mexican security forces courtesy Jesús Villaseca Pérez.


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