article

05.11.10

Immigration's Surprise Villain

As Arizona Governor Jan Brewer tries to kill ethnic studies, Bryan Curtis says there’s an unexpected force behind the state’s awful immigration bill: Mexico's President Felipe Calderon.

Who should we blame for Arizona’s anti-immigrant law? Governor Jan Brewer, who signed the thing. The Tea Parties, which have dragged our politics to the right. And the U.S. Congress, which has gone three years without acting on immigration reform. But, today, let’s train our animus on a politician who has thus far escaped much scrutiny: Felipe Calderon, the president of Mexico.

Calderon’s war on drugs, now wobbling into its fourth year, helped turn the U.S.-Mexico border into a bloody slaughterhouse, complete with kidnappings, torture, and beheadings. You can draw a straight line between the border’s climate of terror and the political opportunism in Arizona.

“Calderon’s failure has created a situation of completely unjustified overreaction,” says John M. Ackerman, a professor at the Institute for Legal Research at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

How audacious is Calderon’s war on drugs? It’s like the New York police, during the heyday of the Italian mafia, going to war against all five families at once.

Calderon is an odd figure to stand at the crossroads of history. He’s known to Americans as a tough drug warrior—no less a Chicagoan than Barack Obama compared him to Eliot Ness. But his presidency is almost an accident. In July 2006, the former energy secretary won the job by just .58 percent of the vote over his liberal opponent, Andrés Manuel López Obrador. The circus that followed made the 2000 Florida recount look like a minor hiccup. López Obrador declared himself the rightful president of Mexico. Calderon’s December 2006 swearing-in was punctuated with a brawl in Mexico’s Chamber of Deputies. Thanks to intensifying intra-cartel violence and inaction on the part of Calderon’s predecessor, Vicente Fox, drug traffickers ran roughshod over blocs of the country. So Calderon did something audacious: He declared war on all of Mexico’s drug gangs at the same time.

“Calderon unleashed the army because he won by a razor-thin margin,” says Charles Bowden, author of Murder City: Ciudád Juarez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields.

Just how audacious is Calderon’s war on drugs? It’s like the New York police, during the heyday of the Italian mafia, going to war against all of the five families at once. In such a scenario, New York’s cops would be out-funded and outgunned. And New Yorkers who didn’t have anything to do with the mob or the police would be killed in the crossfire. This is the war that Calderon has unleashed in Mexico.

Calderon’s first big mistake was using the Mexican army as his enforcers. Like its American counterpart, the Mexican army is trained to destroy targets, not do police work like raiding apartments or arresting cartel leaders. Moreover, the intense nationalism of the army brass caused it to resist cooperation with American intelligence, says George W. Grayson, the author of Mexico: Narco-Violence and a Failed State? 

“The army is much more insular and parochial,” Grayson says, “and doesn’t like to take advice from gringos, no matter how diplomatic and subtle that advice may be.”

Calderon’s war inevitably moved to the cities and towns along the U.S.-Mexico border, which the drug gangs use as a staging ground to move their product north. In 2009, Calderon dispatched 10,000 troops to Juarez, which sits across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas. Despite the occupation, the city, to borrow Charles Bowden’s useful term, is a “killing field”—more than 2,700 people were murdered in Juarez last year. Border cities were often violent. Under Calderon, they became war zones.

The battles between the army and the gangs were bad enough. But Calderon’s forces soon discovered another grim side effect of the drug war. When you start killing cartel leaders or ousting them from key territories, you upset a delicate hierarchy. To again borrow the New York analogy, if the police eradicated one mafia family from Queens, that family might try to move its operations onto the turf of a Brooklyn family. Or else the Brooklyn family might try to horn in on the newly vacated blocks in Queens. Or else some low-level hoods might use the power vacuum to set up their own kidnapping business. This would transform a bloody police war into a bloody mob war. This also happened in Mexico.

In April, a U.S. law-enforcement source told the Associated Press that the powerful Sinaloa cartel had “won” the battle of Juarez—meaning it had effectively killed off the other drug gangs. In Calderon’s war, this qualifies as a pathetic kind of victory, because one murderous gang is better than two or three.

Since he took office, Obama has been one of Calderon’s biggest cheerleaders, sending an all-star delegation of Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates, and others south in March to toast the Mexican Eliot Ness. But even Calderon has begun to hint that his all-military strategy isn’t working. In March, he visited Juarez and pledged to focus more on education and poverty eradication, which is what his strategy should have properly focused on from the beginning. But Calderon’s visit only came after 15 Juarez residents, who apparently had nothing to do with the drug trade, were murdered at a house party.

How did we get from Calderon’s war to Arizona’s state house? Residents of border states like Arizona were understandably terrified that a vicious war was raging a few miles away. GOP pols seized on the violence. State Senator Russell Pearce, the bill’s arch-conservative author, used his media rounds to cite gruesome border crime statistics. John McCain, who supported the bill in his bid to fend off a GOP primary challenge, said that border violence was “the worst I have ever seen.” The murder of American rancher Robert Krentz, who was killed 20 miles from the border in March, made it feel like the state was under siege.

Most of this was pure politicking. Almost all the violence McCain and Pearce have cited occurred on the Mexican side of the border, not the American side. (Even Krentz’s murder remains unsolved.) As an Arizona Republic story last week showed, the notion of drug violence “spilling over” into Arizona’s border towns is fictional. But Calderon’s war has given new weight to a powerful political idea: that the U.S.-Mexico border is a Maginot Line that lies between us and a great evil—a shadowy menace that would kill us, torture us, behead us. In his effort to wipe out Mexico’s drug gangs, Calderon has pulled off a kind of coup: He somehow made the border an even bigger political flashpoint.

Asked about Arizona Senate Bill 1070 last month, Calderon condemned the law as “ racial discrimination.” He’s right. He also might want to consider what he did to bring it about.

Bryan Curtis is a senior editor at The Daily Beast. His story about his grandfather's softball career is in The Best American Sports Writing of 2009.