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Legends of the fall

20 August 2010

Diego Valle-Jones — our favorite statistician — crunches the numbers from Ciudad Juarez and discovers that — prior to the U.S. proxy war on drugs:

  • The homicide rate in Ciudad Juarez was not different from other border cities.
  • The homicide rate for women, while certainly higher than average for Mexico, was lower than in other large urban areas and not significantly different from other border cities.
  • Ciudad Juarez is not poor or particularly unequal as measured by its gini coefficients relative to other Mexican municipalities.

While Valle-Jones ties the increase in homicides during the 1990s to the intramural mayhem among gangsters that followed Rafael Aguilar Guajardo death in 1993, he finds one statistically measurable difference between women in Juarez and other communities there are more single mothers in Juarez. It’s not anything easily measurable, but I would add that Juarez, as a “gateway”, not just for narcotics going north, but for social trends in the United States coming south — as well as a “frontier town” — would also be the kind of community where you would have more violent deaths. The 1990s was when young Mexicans started living more on their own, and when foreign businesses began taking advantage of relocation to the Mexican side of the border, opening up opportunities for young adults to live independently. And, as any actuary will tell you, young adults on their own are the most likely victims of homicide.

In a sense, Felipe Calderón is correct when he says (as quoted by Valle-Jones):

The deterioration of values and evidently the expression of violent criminality in Mexico, was not a phenomenon that appeared suddenly, or that occurred fortuitously in our country; it was the fruit of a very long process, that today is showing, precisely, this grave result for the country, but it wasn’t something that happened suddenly.

He’s right that social values changed… but of course, he’s trying to deflect criticism from those that notice homicide rates have increased all along the border (and in the narcotics production regions) simultaneously with his tenure in office.

A factor — and one intuited, but not statistically provable (not by me, certainly) — in the perception of more criminality in Juarez than elsewhere is that Juarez is more likely to subjected to “instant analysis” by fly-over journalists.   Ojinaga went through a period of violence in the 1980s, but — given the long history of smuggling in the Big Bend region, other than the somewhat “nota roja” type of Mexican border bandit writing of  Terrence Poppa’s re-released 1990 “Drug Lord”, journalists weren’t going to pay attention to the place.

Besides, have you ever stayed in an Ojinaga motel?  There isn’t much in Presidio Texas to attract major media types (except maybe the National Geographic… people go to the Big Bend for birdwatching or wilderness experience or to do art or to play cowboy– not to write hard-hitting crime and economic pieces… one reason I like the area).

Tijuana is always described as “not the real Mexico” (much to the annoyance of the Tijuanense, who are real Mexicans) — or at least recognized as atypical and “too Americanized”, whatever that means.  Murder rates there have skyrocketed during the Calderón Administration, is less reported, perhaps because Tijuana is perceived as simply the “wrong side of the tracks” of southern California, rather than as a foreign city.

While El Paso isn’t as posh as San Diego when it comes to access to U.S. amenities, for a reporter doing a “Mexico story”, Juarez was ideal:  a major Mexican city which allows the reporter to see “the real Mexico” without having to go through the complicated process of becoming a “foreign correspondent.”  At least in pre-internet days, covering Juarez also meant a U.S. writer didn’t have to go more than a few hours without access to English-language media.

Valle-Jones writes that one reason for the focus on Juarez femicides was “The anti-globalization movement latched onto the killings to show the evils of free trade since they increased around the time NAFTA came into effect.” Undoubtedly true, but a less noticed factor is that the borderlands were experiencing rapid growth on both sides of the line.  The old borderlands culture was changing.  Porfirio Díaz supposedly said “between us and them… the desert!”, but in the 1990s, both the Mexican and U.S. sides of the border were undergoing rapid growth, and cultural changes that exacerbated the always under-the-surface  “Anglo-Mexicano” cultural rift.  Michoacan and Michigan suddenly found themselves facing each other in El Paso, and — with Michigan factories moving to Juarez, what happened in Juarez mattered to people in Grand Rapids.

There was no “conspiracy”, but the tendency was to report negatively on Mexico. Throwing in the recent “drug war” which came just as the U.S. was undergoing a periodic outbreak of xenophobia, AND an economic slide that makes it tempting to write “we aren’t as bad off as they are” news AND its a natural. And, as always, U.S. media people buy into the same stereotypes of Mexico and Mexicans that have floated around the United States since the 1840s.

That the same (U.S. funded proxy “war on drugs”) had been going on in Colombia, and had (and has) similarly appalling violence has not been widely reported … simply because reporters would actually have to go to Colombia (and learn Spanish) … and — out of sight, out of mind.  The spates of violence, followed by militarization, which creates “stability” but does nothing to meet social needs (nor does it substantially lower narcotics exports) in Colombia were reported mostly by relying on official sources.  The only difference is that with Mexico, the “drug war” is more visible to U.S. media consumers and unofficial sources are more available to U.S., including English-language on-line writers.

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