THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Juliette Kayyem

What’s at stake with Mexico

By Juliette Kayyem
May 16, 2011

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IN HIS address last week in El Paso, President Obama made a new push for immigration reform. Just a few feet away, the Mexican flag waved from that country’s side of the border. There were no decapitated bodies, lootings, or shootings during Obama’s speech.

That may seem surprising, as fears of spillover violence from Mexico have captivated our national imagination. We tend to view Mexico through the lens of a border war. Such a focus overemphasizes the threat the United States faces at the border, and underestimates the challenges Mexico is facing internally. We blame Mexico for almost nonexistent violence here, and take no responsibility for how our conduct helps fuel violence over there.

The notion that Mexico is responsible for rampant violence on our own side is a myth based on isolated tragedies such as the killing of David Hartley while riding on a jet ski on the Mexican side of Falcon Lake, Texas.

House Speaker John Boehner paints a picture of utter chaos when arguing that “our first priority must be ending the violence at the border — we really can’t deal with other issues until it is secure.”

If that’s the standard, it has been met. Let’s consider, just for the fun of it, Boehner’s great state of Ohio. The six largest cities in Ohio all have higher rates of violence and crime than every major American city along the Mexican border. In fact, the speaker’s own district in Dayton saw more homicides in 2010 than Texas’s four largest border cities combined; Dayton’s population is only about one-tenth of the size.

The reality is a dynamic border, better managed and protected due to investments in technology and increased manpower by the last two US administrations and the Mexican government. It is where legal trade flourishes, people and goods cross without incident, and where local economies grow. Daily, nearly a million people cross the border lawfully at 54 different checkpoints over 2,000 miles.

“We now let more of the things we want through: legal goods and people — and fewer of the things we don’t: smuggled migrants, drugs, bulk cash, guns,’’ said Simon Rosenberg of the think tank NDN, which works on border issues.

On the other side, however, Mexico is waging a war. When President Felipe Calderon began his military efforts against the drug cartels in 2007, he did so because his own nation was essentially a captured state. Now, as cartels target civilians to undermine support for the government, Calderon is facing internal pressure to let the cartels alone. The fight has already claimed 34,000 civilian lives.

Even without spillover violence here, the United States has a strong stake in Mexico’s future. A failed Mexico would unleash a wave of economic and political instability. It would threaten the border security we have spent so much effort supporting.

Mexico is our third-largest trading partner, representing nearly half a trillion dollars, surpassing Britain, Japan, and Germany combined. Mexico is also our second-largest export market. President Obama’s export strategy, which focuses on doubling exports over the next five years, is intended to reinvigorate our own economy.

The increasing violence in Mexico is already leading to declines in foreign investment and tourism. So instead of vilifying Mexico for the myth of spillover violence, authorities in Texas and Arizona should do more to stop the southbound flow of US weapons and drug cash. The United States does not have clean hands here. The majority of the cartels’ business is satisfying our appetite for drugs.

Meanwhile, relations between the two countries have become so strained that the only US ambassador to leave his post in the wake of the WikiLeaks revelations was Carlos Pascual, who departs Mexico this week. Pascual’s indiscretion paled in comparison to others whose diplomatic cables were exposed. He tamely criticized Calderon’s handling of an investigation involving a cartel leader. Calderon, however, leaped on the chance to condemn a neighbor that seemed too eager to criticize and too complacent in its own flaws.

Hawking the notion of border violence in the United States may garner political points, but it’s neither factually accurate nor helpful to America.

Juliette Kayyem can be reached at jkayyem@globe.com.