Next Steps in Mexico

I support the decision to bring former Mexican President Felipe Calderón as a fellow to the Harvard Kennedy School. The prestige of Harvard’s name will bring needed attention to a critically important country that has been totally missing from America’s national debate. However, the reasons cited by some Harvard professors for this decision are woefully misguided. Although Calderón showed courage in taking on the drug cartels immediately after his election in 2006, his decision to mobilize the military and the federal police and in effect “decapitate” the cartels by killing off their leaders was a disaster. His stubborn refusal to recognize that he had made a mistake cost the lives of thousands of innocent Mexicans. In addition, for people who live in extraordinary poverty in places like Ciudad Juárez, Calderón’s talk about improved health care and better economic opportunities is a fantasy.

On July 28, 2010, I made my first trip to Juárez as part of an ongoing project to write about the various humanitarian groups on the border. At that time Juárez was the most dangerous city in the world: In 2009, the city had the world’s highest murder rate. Stranded in the center of town at about 9 a.m., I watched as a federal police patrol of three dark blue pickup trucks repeatedly circled our area. With six heavily armed men in each truck, this was an intimidating show of force. Yet this approach obviously accomplished little when it came to identifying, arresting, and prosecuting those committing the murders and other violent crimes.

On subsequent visits, I would drive across at the Santa Teresa crossing on the west side of Juárez, nervously passing through one military checkpoint at the crossing and another one a few miles south. Again, the questions were clear: Why are all these soldiers out in the desert when the killings are taking place in the city? What skills do soldiers have in the policing process?

The questions concern much more than a misallocation of resources. One must wonder to what extent the federal police and the military became involved in the drug business and the killings themselves. Why is it that the homicide rate has dropped so dramatically with their departure?

Furthermore, there is the claim that Calderón improved health care. In these monthly trips to Juárez as well as small towns to its west, I’ve had the chance to visit orphanages, food banks, a privately run mental asylum, a Christmas gift program, a rehab center for young women involved in drugs and prostitution, a migrant labor camp for Mixteca Indians, and dozens of individual homes. These impoverished people might as well be on Mars because there are simply no adequate social services here for them. For example, in Guadalupe Victoria, a migrant worker camp with pools of foul water is less than a half-mile from the homes of the well-to-do farm owners. It would not be difficult for a government official to tell the farmers to provide clean drinking water to their workers. Yet Mixteca Indians come north from their home states of Oaxaca and Guerrero because conditions there are even worse. Their only salvation comes from humanitarian individuals and groups who have volunteered to help, often at great personal risk.

In terms of the economy and jobs, there are other Mixteca Indians trying to sell trinkets at the Santa Teresa crossing, young men offering to wash your car in Palomas, and men walking for hours along the Juárez-Chihuahua roadway picking up aluminum cans. But these are not real jobs. And the minimum wage is only about $4.32 a day, one third of the hourly living wage in Cambridge.

Given this lack of opportunity and alternatives, it is no wonder that young people, many of whom have been orphaned by or lost relatives to this violence, turn to gangs and cartels. What ever made Calderón believe that killing off cartel leaders wouldn’t simply lead to a bloody scramble to replace them? Why have the underlying social issues been ignored for so long?

These are American issues as well. It’s our money that buys the drugs, our guns that fuel the violence, and our political leadership that has shied away from addressing the immigration problem and the failed War on Drugs. Harvard can bring visibility to these issues, but only if Calderón's appointment is an honest dialogue and not just a defense of the “Calderón legacy.”

Morgan Smith '60, has been traveling to Mexico since his Harvard years. He now travels to Juárez and other border towns to assist and write about humanitarian programs.