Archive for the ‘Mexico’ Tag

Love in the time of Terror Babies

“My parents, with admirable foresight, had their first child while they were on fellowships in the United States. My mother was in public health, and my father in a library-science program. Having an American baby was, my mother once said, like putting money in the bank.”

So begins Daniel Alarcón’s recently published short story “Second Lives,” whose narrator is a Latin American man with a potent longing for a First World life. His dream has eluded him; he realizes he is doomed to a “terminal condition” of Third World citizenship, despite that his older brother — the one lucky to be born on U.S. soil — had seized the opportunity to emigrate many years prior.

Alarcón is a writer I’ve long admired, in part for how he weaves complex cultural politics into quietly powerful narratives. (His luminous story collection War by Candlelight is a must-read.) “Second Lives” arrived with uncanny timing in this politically boiling August. At face value, its opening easily could be another rallying cry for the political far right, members of which have been stirring up anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim hysteria from California to Texas to lower Manhattan.

Even by today’s standard of partisan politics, the hot wave of demagoguery hitting the country feels off the charts. Take the fear mongering of Louie Gohmert, the Texas congressman who has been flogging the “terror babies” conspiracy on national television: Shadowy foreigners are plotting to give birth in the U.S., only to take their tots overseas, train them as terrorists and send them back decades later, courtesy of the 14th Amendment, to wreak havoc inside the country.

That this theory is plainly ridiculous, and has been debunked by FBI and U.S. Customs officials, is beside the point. As Ruben Navarrette Jr. wrote from Phoenix, this is political opportunism of a very scary kind.

You might say that Gohmert is just small potatoes. But what about more influential Republicans eager this election season to foment a crusade against Islam? The tactics aimed at the so-called “Ground Zero mosque” — which in name is pure invention — are no less craven. Newt Gingrich put a Hitlerian stamp on the proposed Muslim center in lower Manhattan: “Nazis don’t have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust museum in Washington,” he said by way of egregious comparison on Fox News. No doubt Gingrich is pleased to be in lockstep with the cowardly Anti-Defamation League; he could scarcely do more to exploit fearful support from Jews than to evoke the Holocaust.

There seems to be not a shred of empathy or basic human decency in this dark political campaign. Oh, sure, some agitators will say that some of their best friends are Muslims — which should ring about as true and logical as pronouncements on CNN by Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association: “I love Muslims, I am pro-Muslim. I am anti-Islam. I would say to a Muslim, ‘Look, your ideology is destructive, it’s deceptive, it’s dark.'” Or as Fischer also put it: “Islam is not a religion of peace. It is a religion of war, it is a religion of violence.”

In this war, Gingrich, Boehner and Cantor are the generals, the Fischers their captains on the ground. For them anything goes in the battle for congressional power this fall, the rising dangers of nativist provocation be damned.

Which returns me to Alarcón’s story. Against the multitude in the media recently (no shortage of fictions among them) it is an unwavering prick of light. It brims with the humanism that America’s darkly cartoonish politicos so palpably lack. As great fiction should, the story never directly grapples with the Big Political Issues, like immigration. Indeed, the politics here are personal, etched in the lives of characters coping with family struggle, romantic heartbreak and the daily challenges and amusements of assimilation. “Second Lives” is a portrait of a divided family gazing across the chasm between the Third and First Worlds — and it is a vivid reminder of what is really in the hearts and minds of the vast majority of America’s immigrant hopefuls.

“In school,” recalls Alarcón’s narrator, “my favorite subject was geography. Not just mine, it should be said.” He continues:

I doubt any generation of young people has ever looked at a world map with such a powerful mixture of longing and anxiety; we were like inmates being tempted with potential escape routes. Even our teacher must have felt it: when he took the map from the supply closet and tacked it to the blackboard, there was an audible sigh from the class. We were mesmerized by the possibilities; we assumed every country was more prosperous than ours, safer than ours, and at this scale they all seemed tantalizingly near. The atlas was passed around like pornography, and if you had the chance to sit alone with it for a few moments you counted yourself lucky. When confronted with a map of the United States, in my mind I placed dots across the continent, points to mark where my brother had lived and the various towns he’d passed through on his way to other places.

That dream of “other places,” of course, has everything to do with the greatness on which our immigrant-rich society has been built. The demagogues who have forgotten this truth, or who knowingly have traded it for the miasma of deranged politics, would do well to read and ponder Alarcón’s tale. It is so much taller, as it were, than any of theirs.

Sick with swine flu racism

The threat of a deadly swine flu pandemic appears to be fading, despite an outbreak of hype that one former CNN reporter says stemmed from the media’s “economic vested interest in promoting the fear.”

But fear may well be lingering — fueled by animosity toward Mexicans — thanks to a rash of comments from some of America’s nastiest right-wing broadcast personalities.

Ignoring news reports that some swine flu victims inside the U.S. likely contracted the virus during recent trips to Mexico, Fox News regular Michelle Malkin asserted: “I’ve blogged for years about the spread of contagious diseases from around the world into the U.S. as a result of uncontrolled immigration.”

“No contact anywhere with an illegal alien!” radio host Michael Savage warned listeners about the contagion threat. “And that starts in the restaurants,” he said, where you “don’t know if they wipe their behinds with their hands.”

As Media Matters for America reported, radio host Neil Boortz stoked fears of a “bioterrorist” plot, asking, “What better way to sneak a virus into this country than to give it to Mexicans?”

Savage also ran with that idea: “There is certainly the possibility that our dear friends in the Middle East cooked this up in a laboratory somewhere in a cave and brought it to Mexico knowing that our incompetent government would not protect us from this epidemic because of our open-border policies.” He suggested terrorists may realize that Mexicans “are the perfect mules for bringing this virus into America.”

limbaugh-studioRush Limbaugh ranted about an Obama administration conspiracy to use both the swine flu scare and the renewed debate over torture “to cover up the mess that is the United States of America right now.” (One wonders if he’s including Dick Cheney’s prominent role in the latter.)

While such ugliness from this bunch is predictable, it’s worth remembering that these folks have sizeable to large audiences. Moreover, the rank xenophobia underscores an uneasy truth: America has yet to contend in a serious way with its enormous immigration problem.

Obama continues promising to do so, as when he campaigned for president. The task, like many others since last fall, has been swallowed up in the nation’s economic maelstrom — but it’s inextricable. (So is overhauling health care in Obama’s view.) As Colin Powell emphasized when I interviewed him back in 2007 — not long after immigration had commanded headlines in a national election cycle — dealing with the issue is at once a moral and economic imperative. In an hour-long conversation covering much political ground, Powell’s comments on the matter stood out. We should do everything we can, he said, to admit people legally, dry up the flow of illegals and defend our borders. “But let’s recognize that these folks, whether legal or illegal, are making an enormous contribution to America’s well-being. They do the jobs that others don’t want to do.”

He continued: “It’s outrageous for us to take advantage of this population of 12 million people, to use them to cut our grass and build our houses and repair our streets, but keep them illegal and subject to deportation. That’s not equitable — that’s not America. We have to find a dignified way to work through with this population.”

With the swine flu scare, the unpleasant opportunism of the far right reflects how incredibly far we still have to go.

A fevered case of swine flu hype

Will the outbreak of the H1N1 virus get historically serious? According to global health experts, the answer is that nobody really knows. Pandemics tend to hit in waves, and the biggest danger could come this winter.

pigFor now the news media is maintaining its fever pitch as long as possible, of course, hungry to feast at the ratings trough. As one analyst told Howard Kurtz yesterday, “Cable news has 24 hours to fill, and there isn’t 24 hours of exciting news going on. If you scare people, they’ll tune in more.” Still, when flipping past CNBC on Monday afternoon I was a bit shocked to encounter the blaring graphic “Pandemic Pandemonium” accompanying a discussion about reaction on Wall Street. (In fact, the market barely budged early this week.)

Naturally, some news consumers are caught up in the hallucinatory chatter. From an inquiry to Bay Area physician and blogger Doc Gurley — posted, I kid you not, under the headline Swine Flu Sex? — on SFGate today:

Dear Doc,

My husband and I are trying to get pregnant. We’ve just recently “put the pedal to the floor” and are undergoing fertility treatment. Now I’m concerned that I may be putting myself and an unborn fetus at extra risk for the Swine Flu that is wending its way down the pipeline. Included in this concern is the fact that I’ve heard that anti-virus medications can adversely affect a developing fetus, which means it would be a lose/lose case scenario if I had the opportunity to prevent an imminent case in the future. Should we shelve this project for a few months or what?

Gurley replies that pregnant women do have “very mildly” suppressed immune systems. However, she continues, “The fact is, given the way the world (and media coverage) works, there will, undoubtedly, never be a time when the world looks rosy, all-welcoming, and risk-free. Yesterday’s potential nuclear annihilation is today’s swine flu. It’s a wonder, in fact, that any baby ever sticks its head out.”

If they only knew about the likes of AC360 or Countdown with Keith Olbermann.

Mexico, meanwhile, now suffers from a confluence of maladies. As GlobalPost’s Ioan Grillo reports from Tijuana: “Amid a U.S. recession, a fever pitch fear of the Mexican drug war and now an epidemic of swine flu sweeping across Mexico, Humberto Beltran says business at his border city store has nosedived 85 percent this April compared to the same time last year.”

From North America to the Far East, another pressing question has arisen amid the swine flu scare: Is it still OK to love bacon?

UPDATE: As of Wednesday afternoon the World Health Organization has raised its alert level, determining that a “pandemic is imminent.” So too is plenty more cable news yammer.

Could marijuana light up the economy?

The debate about whether to legalize marijuana in the United States has never been a mainstream one. So it’s been fascinating to watch how much attention the concept has gotten lately, however viable it may or may not be.

Preoccupation with Mexico’s violent drug war is one factor; marijuana is the largest source of revenue for the cartels’ multibillion dollar business north of the border. Commodify the major cash crop through legalization, the idea goes, and its cost will plummet, putting a serious dent in the bad guys’ bank accounts.

taxing_marijuanaBut the larger issue lighting up the idea seems to be the battered American economy. In February, California state lawmaker Tom Ammiano proposed legislation that would regulate the cultivation and sale of marijuana, with a potential tax windfall of more than $1 billion to help bail out the state from a severe budget crisis.

On Thursday, the legalization concept wafted all the way up to the presidential level. In a live Internet “video chat” with Americans, President Obama found himself responding to a question that had been voted among the most popular of those submitted by the public: whether the controlled sale and taxation of marijuana could help stimulate the U.S. economy. “I don’t know what this says about the online audience,” Obama quipped. “The answer is no, I don’t think that is a good strategy to grow the economy.” By Thursday night, CNN’s Anderson Cooper was jabbering at length about the idea with law enforcement officials.

The issue of taxation just cropped up in another intriguing way. The Drug Enforcement Administration caused a stir in San Francisco on Wednesday when it raided a locally permitted medical marijuana dispensary. In part there was outcry because just days prior U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder had announced that the feds would no longer prosecute medical marijuana dispensaries where they are allowed under state and local law. So why the bust now?

So far the DEA isn’t sharing any details, but according to the San Francisco Chronicle, “A source in San Francisco city government who was informed about the raid said the DEA’s action appeared to be prompted by alleged financial improprieties related to the payment of sales taxes.”

It’s difficult to gauge the Chronicle’s anonymous source, but if accurate, the explanation seems rather odd. Last I checked, there was no national sales tax in the United States, so why would the federal government be interested in that issue? Moreover, while I’m not sure whether it applies to medical marijuana, prescription drugs are exempt under the current California sales tax regime.

The federal government does oversee interstate commerce, and U.S. border security, of course — perhaps better clues to the DEA’s continuing interest in the case. (Was supply at the SF pot club the real issue?) Which takes us back to the headline-grabbing drug war. You don’t have to stare for long at this DOJ threat assessment map tracking the Mexican cartels to notice the densely covered trajectory that runs the length of I-5, from San Diego to San Francisco to Seattle.

It’s no longer the war next door

Rising talk stateside about Mexico’s violent drug war has included a lot of buzz about potential “spillover” of the trouble — but it spilled over long ago, reaching far and wide. According to a report in December from the U.S. Department of Justice, the Mexican cartels maintain distribution networks or supply drugs to distributors in at least 230 American cities, from Orlando to Omaha to Anchorage. They control a greater portion of drug production, transportation and distribution than any other criminal group operating in the U.S., filling their coffers with billions of dollars a year.

Indeed, the war against the cartels is very much a Mexican-American one. Just take a look at this current threat assessment map from the National Drug Intelligence Center, showing U.S. cities implicated:

U.S. cities reporting the presence of Mexican drug trafficking, January 2006 - April 2008.

U.S. cities reporting the presence of Mexican drug trafficking, January 2006 - April 2008.

Violence has also been imported in no small quantity. Although the most sensational killings have taken place south of the border, brutal assaults, home invasions and murders connected with the drug trade have plagued U.S. cities and towns, particularly in the south but reaching as far north as Canada.

Buzz in Washington has also included the specter of Mexico becoming a “failed state.” Journalist and author Enrique Krauze says the talk is overblown. “While we bear responsibility for our problems,” he wrote this week, “the caricature of Mexico being propagated in the United States only increases the despair on both sides of the Rio Grande.” It is also profoundly hypocritical, he said.

America is the world’s largest market for illegal narcotics. The United States is the source for the majority of the guns used in Mexico’s drug cartel war, according to law enforcement officials on both sides of the border. Washington should support Mexico’s war against the drug lords — first and foremost by recognizing its complexity. The Obama administration should recognize the considerable American responsibility for Mexico’s problems. Then, in keeping with equality and symmetry, the United States must reduce its drug consumption and its weapons trade to Mexico.

Apparently this concept has reached the presidential level. At a prime time news conference on Tuesday otherwise dominated by discussion of the economy, President Obama reiterated a major border initiative unveiled earlier in the day and acknowledged: “We need to do even more to ensure that illegal guns and cash aren’t flowing back to these cartels.”

One way to help achieve that goal, it seems, would be to reconfigure policy with the recognition that the war on drugs as we know it is a proven failure.

Update: The San Francisco Chronicle reports about how cheap and easy it is to get high-powered assault rifles in Nevada. Many of them filter south to Mexican gangs by way of California. One of them was used to kill two police officers in Oakland on Saturday.

Mexico’s drug war, fully U.S. loaded

The raging drug war in Mexico is about to command even greater attention inside the United States. It’s not just the gruesome tales of drug cartel violence to the south; the U.S. is far more caught up in the maelstrom than many north of the border may care to realize.

Tuesday at the White House, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano laid out Obama administration plans to throw additional money and manpower at the problem, amid mounting fears about “spillover” of corruption and violence into the U.S. On Wednesday, Napolitano will go to Capitol Hill specifically to address the crisis, while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is scheduled to arrive in Mexico.

The administration is deploying big guns like Napolitano and Clinton with good reason. As the Wall Street Journal reported recently, “The government is girding for a possible Katrina-style disaster along the 2,000-mile-long Mexican border that would involve thousands of refugees flooding into the U.S. to escape surging violence in northern Mexico, or gun battles beginning to routinely spill across the border.” A recent story from international reporting start-up GlobalPost shows how joint U.S.-Mexican operations have been implicated in the spreading violence, on both sides of the border.

Some relatively obscure testimony by senior officials from the ATF and DEA to a Senate subcommittee last week contains stark details about our country’s role in the predicament. Simply put, the U.S. is serving as a vast weapons depot for the drug gangs. Because firearms are not readily available in Mexico, cash-wielding drug traffickers have gone north to obtain many thousands of them. According to the law enforcement leaders’ testimony, 90 percent of traceable seized weapons have come from the United States. The ATF reports disrupting the flow of more than 12,800 guns to Mexico since 2004.

Smuggled weapons seized recently in Texas. (Photo via U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.)

Smuggled weapons seized last December in Texas. (Photo via U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.)

The weapons aren’t just coming from the U.S. border region. The law enforcement leaders cited a case from April 2008 in which 13 warring gang members were killed and five wounded: “ATF assisted Mexican authorities in tracing 60 firearms recovered at the crime scene in Tijuana,” they said. “As a result, leads have been forward to ATF field divisions in Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Francisco and Seattle.”

Sources of the weapons, they said, “typically include secondary markets, such as gun shows and flea markets since—depending on State law—the private sale of firearms at those venues often does not require background checks prior to the sale or record keeping.”

Military weapons are also a growing problem: “In the past six months we have noted a troubling increase in the number of grenades, which are illegal to possess and sell, seized from or used by drug traffickers, and we are concerned about the possibility of explosives-related violence spilling into U.S. border towns.”

Given that the global war on drugs is a proven failure, there was another striking aspect of the testimony: The top revenue generator for the Mexican cartels isn’t cocaine, heroin or other hard stuff. It’s… marijuana.

Napolitano’s message Tuesday included the assertion that the Obama administration is “renewing our commitment to reduce the demand for illegal drugs here at home.” That comes on the heels of Attorney General Eric Holder’s announcing that the federal government will no longer prosecute medical marijuana dispensaries in California and other states where they are legal under state law. With the prospect of a day trip to Ciudad Juarez looking increasingly like a visit to Kabul, and with the violence ricocheting northward, perhaps those who have been advocating fundamental changes in the nation’s marijuana laws will start to see some political traction for their ideas.

Mexico’s chilling drug war, at the door

In yesterday’s post about the chronically failing war on drugs, I didn’t mention Mexico — drug war-related problems just across the southern U.S. border have gotten big enough and scary enough to command their own focus. Mexico’s growing instability draws from a complex and long-running set of government and societal issues. But U.S. policy is a large and indisputable factor, and not just anti-drug policy. Indeed, our vast market for marijuana, cocaine and other illicit substances provides the criminal gangs with an endless river of cash. But even more troubling, our lax gun laws and prolific gun dealers supply them with stockpiles of nasty, sophisticated weaponry.

The contents of a new travel warning from the U.S. State Department posted in late February are nothing short of astonishing. The greatest increase in violence has occurred near the U.S. border. And it literally is a war:

Some recent Mexican army and police confrontations with drug cartels have resembled small-unit combat, with cartels employing automatic weapons and grenades. Large firefights have taken place in many towns and cities across Mexico but most recently in northern Mexico, including Tijuana, Chihuahua City and Ciudad Juarez.

The carnage, according to the State Department, has included “public shootouts during daylight hours in shopping centers and other public venues.” In Ciudad Juarez alone, just across the border from El Paso, Texas, Mexican authorities report that more than 1,800 people have been killed since January 2008.

Hot zones in Mexico's drug war. (Wikimedia commons.)

Hot zones in Mexico's drug war. (Source: Wikimedia commons.)


According to a report in early March from “60 Minutes,” nearly 6,300 people were killed across Mexico last year in drug-related violence, double the amount of the prior year. There have been mass executions of policemen, kidnappings and beheadings. Mexico’s attorney general Eduardo Medina-Mora tells of weapons seizures including thousands of grenades, assault rifles and 50-caliber sniper rifles. The vast majority of them, he says, were acquired inside the United States.

Breaking the addiction to the drug war

In Vienna this Wednesday policy makers will convene once again to consider the United Nations strategy for battling illegal narcotics worldwide. It’s a war that is statistically impossible to win. A report today from the Guardian points to the massive cocaine trade out of Latin America to exemplify how the supply-side war on drugs is equivalent to shoveling water on an international scale:

The crucible is Colombia, the world’s main cocaine exporter. Since 2000 it has received $6 billion in mostly military aid from the US for the drug war. But despite the fumigation of 1.15m hectares of coca, the plant from which the drug is derived, production has not fallen. Across the whole of South America it has spiked 16%, thanks to increases in supply from Bolivia and Peru.

Says César Gaviria, Colombia’s former president and co-chair of the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy: “Prohibitionist policies based on eradication, interdiction and criminalisation have not yielded the expected results. We are today farther than ever from the goal of eradicating drugs.”

Says Colonel René Sanabria, head of Bolivia’s anti-narcotic police force: “The strategy of the US here, in Colombia and Peru was to attack the raw material and it has not worked.”

needleHalfway around the world it’s the same story with the heroin trade out of Afghanistan.

Respected U.S. economists and judges agree: Our long-running drug policy with ideological roots tracing to Reagan and Nixon has gotten us nowhere.

If, as Tom Friedman argued yesterday, we have crossed a historic inflection point for fundamentally recasting our global economic paradigm, then it seems the costly war on drugs should be of a piece. There are no easy solutions, but there are promising alternatives to the status quo. A few years ago I reported an in-depth series for Salon examining “harm reduction” policy implemented in Vancouver, whose emphasis at a local level was on curbing drug demand and its attendant social problems. It appeared to work remarkably well.

There are signs the Obama administration might take things in a different direction. For his new director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, President Obama reportedly has nominated Seattle police chief Gil Kerlikowske, whose views on drug policy seem decidedly more moderate than those of Bush-appointed hardliner John P. Walters. As the Guardian also notes today, a report last fall by the Government Accountability Office concluded the war on drugs had failed in Colombia — a report that was commissioned by then Senator Joe Biden.

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