Along the Texas-Mexico border, the beheadings and bombings carried out by drug cartels are drawing comparisons to murders by Muslim extremists — not surprising, given the war-like death toll of 8,100 so far this year in Mexico. And that's just a guess; the news is sporadically reported these days — a consequence of the explosives being hurled at newsrooms and the reporters brutalized in broad daylight. Fear pervades Ciudad Juárez, the epicenter of the violence, where masked soldiers roam busy streets and once-thriving tourist commercial districts have disappeared.
Yet diplomats from both sides of the border reject the notion raised regularly by government officials and media outlets that Mexico has become a "failed state," and they call comparisons to Muslim extremists misguided. The horrors of some border communities, they say, overshadow the fact that parts of Mexico remain stable and are thriving economically. Daily trade between the U.S. and Mexico nears $1 billion; elections go on, and so has life in general, as unsettling as it may be in border hot spots.
That was the message reiterated last week by the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Carlos Pascual, and the Mexican ambassador the U.S., Arturo Sarukhan, and other experts appearing at a Border Security Conference — "Re-Envisioning the Border Community to Foster a U.S.-Mexico Partnership for Prosperity, Progress, and Socio-Economic Development" — at the University of Texas at El Paso. Despite the violence (and, to some degree, because of it), cooperation between the U.S. and Mexico has in many ways grown to unprecedented levels, the two men say.
From UTEP's hilltop campus, a message painted in white on a mountainside, just across the Rio Grande, reminds residents that the Bible, above all else, is the truth. And notables at the conference all spoke of a border community that would inevitably triumph over terror. But on the streets of Juárez, the murders continued unabated: About 50 people would die violent deaths in the days that followed.
"A difficult period of time"
The atrocities have led some to question the future stability of a nation reeling from years of civil war between rival cartels, and between those gangs and Mexican law enforcement. But Pascual said the "failed state" label belies the reality of stability in much of Mexico, where the hallmarks of any modern nation remain present despite chaos in some corners of the country.
“Mexico had a difficult period of time" over the last two months, he said. "A candidate was killed before the elections, it went through extreme floods, and it still went ahead and had an election process on July 4. [There were] 12 gubernatorial elections, two local elections." A failed state, he said, "wouldn’t have been able to do that and handle that kind of stress.”
Following a fatal car bomb — detonated remotely in Juárez less than two weeks after the “successful” election Pascual referenced — comparisons abounded between the violence traffickers and their enforcers and that of Middle Eastern terrorists with extreme agendas. He does not minimize the horrors wrought by traffickers but argues that their brand of terror lacks a key ingredient.
“Cartels have undertaken ruthless behavior, and it should be condemned," Pascual said. "But what we also have not seen from the cartels is a political ideology or a religious ideology, and we need to make that distinction." Those tactics could warrant a shift in certain strategies, he said, but the lines should not be blurred to link the cartels with “terrorist activities with an ideology.”
A tale of two borders
Sarukhan, the Mexican ambassador, says that despite mounting tensions over immigration and border security, cooperation between the U.S. and his country has risen to a level not seen since the negotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Invoking a classic line from Dickens, he said it's “the best of times and the worst of times” for relations between the two nations.
“Despite the naysayers and the cable TV pundits out there, it behooves Mexico to make sure the border is secure in both directions," he said. "And we’ve been working together since 9/11, but even more forcefully since President Calderón and President Obama have been working together." Sarukhan said this joint effort to realize the symbiotic relationship has led to an unprecedented number of security forces along the border.
“I am going to continue to bang my drum on this issue," he said of the international cooperation. "There are individuals out there … seeking to decouple the United States and Mexico. [T]here could be nothing more dangerous and more problematic to what we’ve been doing together.”
But the worst of times, he said, can be seen in the lack of confidence that many, if not most, citizens from both countries have in their leaders. Another sign: state governments in the U.S. taking it upon themselves to pass draconian immigration laws and deploy troops to the border, reacting to a perceived federal failure to act.
“This extremely healthy, strong, forward-moving formal and diplomatic bilateral relationship is witnessing a paradoxical movement in the other direction," he said. "Public opinion on both sides of the border feels completely alienated." He cited bitter reaction on the Mexican side to the passage of Arizona’s controversial SB 1070 and the anger that reverberated in Ciudad Juárez after the shooting death of teenager Sergio Adrían Hernández Güereca — at the hands of a U.S. Border Patrol agent — following an alleged rock-throwing incident on the concrete banks of the Rio Grande. “These public perceptions are poisoning the well of this bilateral relationship,” he said.
Also on the “worst” list is the failure of Congress to craft comprehensive immigration reform, which he termed a bipartisan failure. “There is no issue more important to the future of this bilateral relationship," he said. “We both have responsibilities.”
As opposed to the negotiation of NAFTA two decades ago, he added, the private sectors of both countries are today completely absent in the debate over how to reform immigration policy in a mutually agreeable fashion agreeable.
“It’s not surprising," he said. "All human beings are goal-oriented, and NAFTA was a big, juicy carrot. Both private sectors had a very clear objective. But we need the private sectors on both sides of the border to re-engage with one another — with politicians from Washington, D.C., and politicians from Mexico City — and move this agenda forward."