Friday, May 24, 2013

Chihuahua Magic and Realism

If you want a break from wars and tragedy in Mexico, take the libre from Chihuahua to Cuauhtémoc.  Published in New Mexico Mercury, at:

Tom Barry

Elizabeth Dávila with collection of mammoth fossils / Tom Barry

I wasn’t expecting to spend more than a half-hour at Laguna de Bustillos.

Ready to get back on the road to Cuauhtémoc, I had accomplished what I had intended -- having taken a series of photos of the nearly completely dry lakebed strewn with thousands of dead trout. To see this graphic evidence of Chihuahua’s severe drought, I had taken the longer, free road heading southwest from Chihuahua City.

After two years without much rain, the lake was retreating as much as 200 meters a day, according to newspaper reports. A combination of factors – two years of intense drought, increased deep well drilling, and the disappearing watershed – were endangering the future existence of the lagoon.

Just when I was getting back on the libre toward Cuauhtémoc, I spotted a sign for the Favela Museum.

A dying community next to a badly contaminated and increasingly dry lake is an odd place for a museum. Curious, I turned into the lakefront community of Favela – one of more than a dozen dying or dead ejidocommunities that ring the disappearing lake.

Unlike most urban areas and more prosperous villages in Mexico, where home and business owners delight in painting their building in bright and joyous colors, Favela is the color of dirt and gravel – a couple of blocks of impoverished adobe and concrete-block homes that have probably never had a paint makeover.

The Favela Museum doesn’t need a sign to attract attention. The upbeat brash colors of the trippy murals that cover the walls of this house/museum demand your attention like a blooming cactus flower.

Just what is this place?

Standing at the door, the two owners/curators Eliseo Villegas and Elizabeth Dávila welcomed me to the Don Isidro Fabela Alfaro Museo.

If you feel the need for wonder and a healthy injection of inspiration, then take the libre from Chihuahua and pay the 25 pesos (roughly $1.85) entry fee to the museo – where North American prehistory, Mexican rural history, and a vision of homegrown environmental sustainability mesh in magical ways.

If you are longing for a bit of magical realism, then get off the libre and step inside the world of Eliseo and Elizabeth.

This isn’t Macondo; it’s Favela.

Flea Markets, Casinos, and Home in the Museum

It may have been my New Mexico plates that explain why Eliseo and Elizabeth were immediately so friendly and welcoming. 

There was, of course, a crossborder connection here in Favela, like most anywhere you travel in Chihuahua.

Eliseo knows better than I the road from New Mexico to central Chihuahua. For many years, he traveled the long road to the other side -- up to Nuevo Casas Grandes, turning northeast toward Palomas, and then on to Albuquerque and Santa Fe. Before his truck died and his visa expired, Eliseo used to load the back of his old truck with the arts and crafts of Elizabeth – his painter wife and New Age explorer (Her email prefix is “oriente del cosmos.”).

The old milk jugs abandoned by the ejidatarios and Mennonite farmers around Cuauhtémoc have become aesthetic objects in the artful hands of Elizabeth. The metal jugs were the most popular items on sale by Eliseo at the flea markets in Albuquerque and Santa Fe. Some of these cheerfully painted jugs – usually with flowers -- are currently on display in the museum’s patio.

After he sold all of Elizabeth’s art creations, Eliseo would go back on the road, heading south with a load of used appliances and other discarded items he acquired in the north. This crossborder entrepreneur made money coming and going – and saved money while in the north sleeping in his truck, spending the nights in the parking lots of the Native American casinos near Albuquerque and Santa Fe.

Entering their museum/home, I could only laugh – in appreciation and wonder – not knowing exactly how to absorb and understand all that was before me.

So what is this museum? Well, obviously, it’s hard to describe – a difficulty that Eliseo and Elizabeth have also confronted.

When they founded the museum five years ago, soon after they moved to Favela from Cuauhtémoc, Elizabeth chose upbeat, indigenous name: the Rayénari Museo (Ray of Light Museum). But it now bears a less New Age-tinged, more education-focused name: Museo Paleontológico Don Isidro Fabela Alfaro – a title that links its paleontological core with its trappings of local history, apparently designed to attract visits by school groups from Chihuahua City and Cuauhtémoc.

Elizabeth and Eliseo have turned their four-room home into a combination history and natural history museum – all crammed together in an art-gallery ambience. Colorful murals cover the walls along with beautiful paintings by Elizabeth, including a beguiling portrait of Frida Kahlo.

Huge mammoth fossils are piled on a long table that runs down the center of the main room, and everywhere you look something else that is equally surprising and delightful. Over five hundred fossils have been numbered and catalogued, mostly of mammoths – tusks, molars, and rib bones of Columbian Mammoths who roamed this water basin for many millennia and perhaps as late as 4,500 years ago.

Don Isidro Fabela Alfaro, whose image is displayed outside the museum, was one of early ejidatarios and found of the ejido that now prefers the “v” to the “b” spelling of Favela.  There would, of course, be no Favela Museum without Favela -- not only because where Elizabeth and Eliseo decided to live but also because of what the ejido has done with his land since its founding in the early 1930s.

Ejido and Environment

How did all these massive mammoth bones come to occupy the central room of the modest home of Elizabeth and Eliseo? As I came understand, the answer involves the land use patterns of the Favela ejido.

For many decades, the area’s ejidatorios eked out a living on the shores of this ancient basin, which collects groundwater that seeps and flows from the Sierra Madre Occidental. Growing corn and beans and grazing cattle in the surrounding grasslands and forests, they led a hard life. They didn’t prosper, but they survived, at least until the last couple decades when the diaspora to the cities and to the United States began.

The well-organized collection of washbasins, antique furniture, farm implements, and photos – brought to the museum by the remaining ejidatarios and carefully displayed in the yard  – tell this campesino story.

The lagoon and the land tell a parallel story – one of the exploitation, abuse, and death of the grasslands, the juniper forests, and the Chihuahuan Desert hills. Today, the land lies bare – primarily due to clear-cutting, overgrazing and unsustainable farming.

Adrian Estrada, 57, is one of the few ejidatarios who is still trying to make a living off the land, and he manages, he tells me, because he has many hectares of good land back in the hills and because he has cared for his land.  Like most close observers of the rural economy in Chihuahua, Estrada attributes the current water crisis to global climate change and unsustainable land management practices locally.

Estrada points to the denuded hills past the lake, saying: “I remember when those cerros were higher. But over the years, the wind has blown the tops of our hills and mountains away, covering us with dust and not attracting the rains as they used to.”

Since the land no longer gives – “No se da la tierra,” Adrian explained -- the ejidatarios of Favela began to sell their land about a dozen years ago. Not selling the ownership to their properties (since nobody would want this now-sterile land) but actually selling the earth.

Sands of Time

Playas are scattered throughout the Chihuahuan Desert. These are hard-packed often-salty shallow basins that catch the seepage and drainage of the monsoons. Like desert playa, Laguna de Bustillos expands after the summer rains. But unlike the ephemeral water catchments of the playas, the lagoon traditionally has been more like a lake, with the quantity of water and its expanse varying according to the rain and snowfall of recent years. In some years, after the torrential rains during the summer, the lagoon even edged up to backyards of the surrounding communities.

It was such a year when Elizabeth and Eliseo, a married couple, moved to Favela from Cuauhtémoc to be near the lake, which, when full as it was then, is a thing of unusual beauty – vistas of seemingly endless expanses of desert and water.

Although highly contaminated, the immense lagoon seemed a miracle of nature – a large lake in the middle of the desert. But signs of environmental sustainability and rural development gone awry could not be missed. The wastes of the town of Anáhuac and Cuauhtémoc had long flowed into the lagoon, including the discharges of a cellulose plant on the edge of the lagoon. The surge of intensive agricultural enterprises by Mennonite farmers – who have drilled for water at unprecedented depths and whose crops depend on chemical fertilizers – have also contaminated the lagoon waters, leaving a layer of agrochemical dust that blows off the lakebed when the waters recede.

Behind their new home, materials companies from Cuauhtémoc were mining the land for the sand that had accumulated over the millennia in the region’s largest natural lake.

The sand and gravel quarry that borders Favela, extending to the backyard fences of some homes and bordering the road into the community, represents the last gasp of the ejido. The death of these campesino communities – created during the apex of the Mexican Revolution’s agrarian reforms – underscores the end of an era. Yet like the sheen of post-monsoon water in the desert playas, the era of ejidos in Mexico seems an ephemeral part in the course of the history of the land, especially when digging deeper into the region’s prehistoric past.

Along with the mountains of sand, the machinery uncovered a graveyard of prehistoric life. When Elizabeth and Eliseo came to Favela, they were horrified that the bones of mammoths and other still-unidentified vertebrates were not being collected and preserved.

Elizabeth is the official curator of the paleontology museum, which has the blessing of the National Institute of Art and History (INAH) and of the lead paleontologist at the University of Chihuahua.

According to researchers from U.S. and Mexican universities, the paleontological findings harbored in this homemade museum are largely vertebrates of mammals that emerged in the Pleistocene, although the Favela museum also displays fossils of numerous mid-Cretaceous invertebrates, including oysters, gastropods, ammonites, and bivalves.

Why were so many mammoth remains found next to Favela? Some have speculated that this area was a type of cemetery for mammoths, which weighed as much as 12 tons.

As Elizabeth guides me through the main showroom, she tells me: “People often say, ‘Aren’t you afraid to live in a mammoth graveyard?’ But no, I feel safe and rooted, as if the mammoths that lived here are now protecting us.”

But it is not just the remnants of almost incomprehensible past that amaze the museumgoer in Favela. It’s the conjunction with what seems, by comparison, to be almost the present. A collection of Apache daggers and arrowheads – dating back a couple of hundred of years -- are displayed on the wall. There are also rows ofmetates and morteros left behind by other indigenous people, including the Rarámuri, who found sustenance around the ancient water basin Also part of the unusual mix of natural and human history are sepia and faded black-and-white photos of the early ejidatarios..

Prehistory mixes with colonial, frontier, indigenous, and Mexican history with an ease and seamlessness that leaves you dizzy – especially knowing that this couple as captured all this past in only five years without any government or outside help.

A Sustainable Future

Elizabeth and Eliseo are, however, not stuck in the past. They are also living the future of survival and sustainability in Favela.

Taking to heart the lessons of unsustainable land-use practices and of the new challenges of climate change, Eliseo has in the last year created yet another dimension of the museum – establishing what apparently is the only garden in this rural area, building a greenhouse, and installing a solar water-heating system on the museum/house’s roof, all on the cheap.

Producing their own food supply and reducing their energy costs is, of course, one goal of this new museum display.

But Eliseo also aims to create a living museum for visiting schoolchildren –showing how seeds flourish in the greenhouse even in winter, how the sun not only bakes the earth but can also heat our water, and how appropriate technology functions in the form of a simple drip-irrigation system.

 Elizabeth and Eliseo in front of new greenhouse / Tom Barry
 Compost produced by Eliseo / Tom Barry
 Eliseo's compost pile / Tom Barry

Another World

“I don’t understand why the government and the universities don’t help us maintain the fossils and the museum,” lamented Dávila. She and her husband would appreciate governmental financial support, but the government, she said, “complains that they don’t have enough resources to help.”

“Well, neither do we. We don’t have the room nor the money to preserve all this,” she said.

Yet, the couple doesn’t relish the thought of seeing all the remnants of natural and human history they have so carefully accumulated carted off to some storeroom in the capital.

“What we have here is part of the heritage of the nation,” observed Dávila,” but it is also the heritage of all humanity. And we want this museum to be accessible to everyone, not just a collection but a place of learning.”

While the community of Favela has supported the establishment of the museum, there are some who regard it as simply another way that a poor family has found to scratch out a living in these tough times.

Eliseo and Elizabeth hope that all their work and dreams for the museum will eventually result in a steady income stream, making possible, among other things, for them to separate home from museum.  But they also dream of saving the pesos needed to buy a new truck. Eliseo is eager to get back on the road again and revive the flea market-based crossborder mercantilism that once proved so rewarding.

As we exchanged our goodbyes, Eliseo and Elizabeth stressed their hope in attracting more visitors from the across the border to visit their museum/house. I promised to spread the word and to pass their way again in the not-too-distant future.

As I was taking my leave, Eliseo handed me a strangely heavy, odd-looking black rock, explaining that it was a meteorite found in the desert nearby -- a “recuerdo” from another world.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Homeland Predator Drones Hunt Far Beyond Border -- Deep into Mexico, Central America, and Carribbean

CBP presentation to National Defense Industrial Association
Published by TruthOut, May 18, 2013
Tom Barry
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) says it is the "leading edge" of drone deployment in the United States. Since 2005, DHS has been purchasing Predator drones - officially called unmanned aerial systems (UAS) - to "secure the border," yet these unarmed Predator drones are also steadily creeping into local law enforcement, international drug-interdiction and national security missions - including across the border into the heart of Mexico.
DHS will likely double its drone contingent to two-dozen unmanned UAS produced by General Atomics as part of the border security component of any immigration reform.  The prominence of border security in immigration reform can't be missed.  The leading reform proposal, offered by eight US senators, is the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013 - which proposes to spend $6.5 billion in additional "border security" measures, mostly high-tech surveillance by drones and ground surveillance systems.
Most of the concern about the domestic deployment of drones by DHS has focused on the crossover to law-enforcement missions that threaten privacy and civil rights, and that, without more regulations in place, the program will accelerate the transition to what critics call a "surveillance society." Also alarming is the mission creep of border drones, managed by the DHS' Customs and Border Protection (CPB) agency with increasing interface between border drones, international drug interdiction operations and other military-directed national security missions.
The prevalence of military jargon used by US Customs and Border (CBP) officials - such as "defense in depth" and "situational awareness" - points to at least a rhetorical overlapping of border control and military strategy. Another sign of the increasing coincidence between CBP/Office of Airforce and Marine (OAM) drone program and the military is that the commanders and deputies of OAM are retired military officers. Both Major General Michael Kostelnik and his successor Major General Randolph Alles, retired from US Marines, were highly placed military commanders involved in drone development and procurement.
Kostelnik has been involved in the development of the Predator by General Atomics since the mid-1990s and was an early proponent of providing Air Force funding to weaponize the Predator. As commander of the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory, Alles was a leading proponent of having each military branch work with military contractors to develop their own drone breeds, including near replicas of the Predator manufactured for the Army by General Atomics.
In promoting - and justifying - the DHS drone program, Kostelnik has routinely alluded to the national security potential of drones slated for border security duty. On several occasions Kostelnik has pointed to the seamless interoperability with Department of Defense (DOD) Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) forces. At a moment's notice, Kostelnik said, that OAM (Office of Airforce and Marine) could be "CHOP'ed" - meaning undergo a Change in Operational Command from DHS to DOD.
DHS has not released operational data about CBP (Customs and Border Protection)/OAM drone operations. Therefore, the extent of the participation of DHS drones in domestic and international operations is unknown. But statements by CBP officials and media reports from the Caribbean point to a rapidly expanding participation of DHS Guardian UAVs in drug-interdiction and other unspecified operations as far south as Panama. CBP states that OAM "routinely provides air and marine support to other federal, state and local law enforcement agencies" and "works with the US military in joint international antismuggling operations and in support of National Security Special Events [such as the Olympics]."
According to Kostelnik, CBP planned a "Spring 2011 deployment of the Guardian to a Central American country in association with Joint Interagency Task Force South (JIATF-South) based at the naval station in Key West, Florida." JIATF-South is a subordinate command to the United States Southern Command (USSOUTHCOM), whose geographical purview includes the Caribbean, Central America and South America. In mid-2012, CBP/OAM participated in a JIATF-South collaborative venture called "Operation Caribbean Focus" that involved flight over the Caribbean Sea and nations in the region - with the Dominican Republic acting as the regional host for the Guardian operations, which CBP/OAM considers a "prototype for future transit zone UAS (drone) deployments."
CBP has been secretly deploying Predators into Mexican territory. In its description of the OAM operations, CBP states, "OAM works in collaboration with the Government of Mexico in addressing border security issues." But it has never publicly specified the form and the objectives of this collaboration.  Nor has it publicly acknowledged that its Predator drones have entered Mexican territory.
As part of the US global drug war and as an extension of border security, the US Northern Command acknowledged that the military was deploying - with the approval of the Mexican government - the $38 million Global Hawk drone into Mexico as part of the joint US-Mexico attempt to suppress the Mexican drug cartels. 
CBP says that OAM drones have not been deployed within Mexico, but notes that "OAM works in collaboration with the Government of Mexico in addressing border security issues, "without specifying the form and objectives of this collaboration." As part of the US global drug war and as an extension of border security, unarmed drones are also crossing the border into Mexico. The US Northern Command has acknowledged that the US military does fly a $38-million Global Hawk drone into Mexico to assist the Mexico's war against the drug cartels.
An April 28 Washington Post article by Dana Priest raises new questions and concerns about the increasing mission creep of homeland drones into foreign missions involving the U.S. military, CIA and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). 
President Felipe Calderón began requesting US drone flights into Mexico on targeted killings missions soon after he became president in December 2006. However, it wasn't until the July 2009 killing of a US Border Patrol agent by suspected Mexican drug smugglers that the US government began deploying unarmed Predator drones.
According to Washington Post reporter Priest, "[H]ours after Mexican smugglers shot and killed a U.S. Border Patrol agent while trying to steal his night-vision goggles, U.S. authorities were given permission to fly an unarmed Predator drone into Mexican airspace to hunt for suspects. Intelligence from the flights was passed to the Mexican army. Within 12 hours, the army brought back more information, according to two U.S. officials involved in the operation. Eventually, four suspects were captured. Three pleaded guilty, one is awaiting trial and a fifth remains at large."
 "That first flight dispelled Mexican fears that U.S. authorities would try to take control of drone operations,” noted the Washington Post article, "An agreement was reached that would temporarily give operational control to Mexican authorities during such flights. U.S. pilots sitting in the states would control the planes remotely, but a Mexican military or federal police commander would be able to direct the pilot within the boundaries of a Mexico-designated grid. By late 2010, drones were flying deeper into Mexico to spy on the cartels ..."
CBP has never stated for the public record that its Predators are being deployed over Mexican territory. In an attempt to clarify the nature and extent of Predator surveillance in Mexico, Truthout asked CBP to confirm that OAM drones stationed along the border were indeed being deployed into Mexico and whether CBP maintained operational control of these missions or whether CBP drones were piloted by nonagency personnel from the military or intelligence sector.
CBP officials declined to speak for attribution. Instead, a CBP official responded anonymously and ambiguously, stating:
"As part of the bilateral security cooperation, the Government of Mexico has asked the US government - in certain instances - for the support of unmanned aircraft to gather specific intelligence, particularly along the border region, in order to achieve concrete security goals. When such operations take place, Mexican authorities have the operational authorization, oversight and supervision.
"In 2009, the United States requested approval from the Mexican government to fly in Mexican airspace to support law enforcement officers assigned to search and apprehend Agent Rosas' murder suspects who fled into Mexico.
"During the current administration, the emphasis on the collaboration of information sharing has assisted in the fight of criminal organizations that affects populations on both sides of the border. Within this framework, information and greater intelligence gathering capabilities have been made available to both governments, to include support of unmanned aircraft."
Left hanging was the question about the role of DOD and the intelligence sector in piloting CBP drones and in analyzing the resulting surveillance data. It also remains unclear whether the Mexican government interacts directly with DHS and CBP/OAM or, in making its requests for drone surveillance, it bypasses DHS entirely.
Increased border security funding and more drones are a core part of all immigration reform proposals being introduced in Congress. However, because of the secrecy and lack of transparency and accountability that is systemic in the DHS border agencies, it is likely neither the Congress nor the US public understands that increasing the number of border security Predators also likely increases the foreign deployment of these drones in nonborder missions over foreign nations and international waters.
Communities, state legislatures and even some congressional members are proceeding to enact legislation and revise ordinances to decriminalize or legalize the consumption of drugs, especially marijuana, targeted by the federal government's drug war of more than four decades. At the same time, DHS has been escalating its contributions to the domestic and international drug war - in the name of both homeland security and national security. Drug seizures on the border and drug interdiction over coastal and neighboring waters are certainly the top operative priorities of OAM. Enlisting its Guardian drones in SOUTHCOM's drug interdiction efforts underscores the increasing emphasis within the entire CBP on counter-narcotic operations.
CBP is a DHS agency that is almost exclusively focused on tactics. While CBP, as the umbrella agency, the Office of the Border Patrol and OAM all have strategic plans, these plans are marked by their rigid military frameworks, their startling absence of serious strategic thinking and the diffuse distinctions between strategic goals and tactics. As a result of the border security buildup, south-north drug flows (particularly cocaine and more high-value drugs) have shifted back to marine smuggling, mainly through the Caribbean, but also through the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific.
Rather than reevaluating drug prohibition and drug control frameworks for border policy, CBP/OAM has rationalized the procurement of more UAVs on the shifts in the geographical arenas of the drug war - albeit couching the tactical changes in the new drug war language of "transnational criminal organizations" and "narcoterrorism." The overriding framework for CBP/OAM operations is evolving from border security and homeland security to national security, as recent CBP presentations about its Guardian deployments illustrate.
Shortly before retiring after seven years as OAM's first chief, Major Gen. Kostelnik told a gathering of military contractors: "CPB's UAS Deployment Vision strengthens the National Security Response Capability." He may well be right, but the US public and Congress need to know if DHS plans to institute guidelines and limits that regulate the extent of DHS operational collaboration with DOD and the CIA.
Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

The North American Neighborhood -- Changing Perspectives of U.S.-Mexico Relations

Border fence in West Texas / Tom Barry

May 2, 2013
Tom Barry

TransBorder Project Policy Report

It’s unfortunate that the two presidents chose to hold their May 2-3 summit in Mexico City. Both nations and Presidents Barack Obama and Enrique Peña Nieto would have been better served by a meeting at the border—where the grim reality of neighborly relations would not be masked by the pomp and circumstance of the grand presidential residence of Los Pinos.
A meeting at the customs building in Ciudad Juárez—the site of the first Mexico-U.S. presidential meeting in 1909 between Porfirio Díaz and William Taft—would have likely resulted in a more memorable and productive summit of the current heads of state, Enrique Peña Nieto and Barack Obama. As it is, this meeting will likely be soon forgotten—lost in protocol, predictable rhetoric about interdependence, and the photogenic smiles of the two presidents.
A century ago the Rio Grande/Río Bravo clearly marked the divide between El Paso and Juárez, the border twins that were jointly known as El Paso del Norte—the pass to the north. Today, however, it’s unlikely that the presidential delegations and the accompanying media would now passes for a river—really just an alarmingly greenish trickle of pesticides, fertilizer runoff, and human waste.
Instead of news photos from the bilateral meeting depicting two smiling presidents, we would be witnessing images of the stark divide between the two neighbors: the formidable border security infrastructure, the smog rising from the long lines of vehicles waiting to cross, the beggars and street vendors taking advantage of the stalled south-north traffic, the ravages of the drug wars, the miles of low-slung factories called maquiladoras, the sprawling colonias of Mexico’s expanding, but still largely poor, middle class (those families earning at least $7,500 annually), and still-poorer squatter settlements that spread out into the Chihuahuan Desert.

The lead items of the Los Pinos meeting are ones that have long dominated U.S.-Mexico presidential meetings: immigration, border control, economic integration, and drug-related security. The presidents will achieve some camaraderie chatting about the domestic political obstacles that complicate their plans for national and international progress. In the pleasant, climate-controlled setting of Los Pinos, it’s unlikely that Peña Nieto and Obama will address in any depth, if at all, what will soon become the top agenda item of most binational and multilateral meetings: the scourge of climate change.
Climate Change

If Obama and Peña Nieto were to talk about common concerns while on the border instead of in sitting rooms of the White House and Los Pinos, they would see a common future in the river that divides the two nations. Climate change-aggravated drought has reduced the Río Bravo to a viscous, milky green trickle. Groundwater reserves in the greater borderlands are being quickly depleted, and farmers, ranchers, and city planners on both sides of the border are battling over rapidly diminishing supplies in the first skirmishes of the water wars that will surely soon overshadow the drug wars as the main threat to regional stability.
A common commitment by Obama and Peña Nieto for each government to do its part to mitigate and mutually adjust to climate change—which doesn’t respect border lines or border security fortifications—would be a sign that binational relations can move beyond being merely economic partners and fighting on the same side of the drug war.  The sad plight of the once glorious Río Bravo should not further divide the two nations, but bring the communities to the north and those to the south together as neighbors and part of the larger North American community with shared interests and responsibilities.
Obama comes to Mexico buoyed by an increased personal popularity among U.S. Latinos and Mexicans, largely because of his deepened commitment to reform U.S. immigration policy, but also due to his more assertive stance on behalf of the poor and middle class. The improved (although faltering) prospects for immigration reform will not be well served if Obama continues to use the support for immigration reform as a political crutch.
At the Mexico City meeting, and during all policy discussions about immigration, President Obama should sketch out a new vision of regional immigration that is just, sustainable, and mutually beneficial, delink his support for immigration reform from the wasteful U.S. border security buildup, and administratively suspend the immigrant detention and deportation practices of the Department of Homeland Security until immigration reform is passed and instituted.
Immigration flows from Mexico have nearly zeroed out as the Mexican economy continues to expand at the relatively high rate of more than 3.5% annually since 2009. A reliable and easily used system of employee verification should be the guarantor of a sustainable immigration policy, rather than the proposed billion-dollar yearly increases in border security operations and infrastructure.
Border Security

The near-fortification of the border during the Bush and Obama administrations has greatly stymied regional trade and the once-vibrant crossborder culture. In highly urbanized areas such as the El Paso-Juárez metroplex, some level of border fencing makes for good neighborly relations, but the 3,169-kilometer border the “secure border fence” is not only a multibillion waste of scarce U.S. revenues, it’s also a shameful monument to U.S. xenophobia and political opportunism.
President Obama should shed the “border security” framing of U.S.-Mexico border policy adopted by the Bush administration and tell President Peña Nieto and the U.S. public that Mexico and Mexicans present no security risk to the borderlands or the U.S. homeland. Terrorism is a palpable threat to U.S. public safety and national security, but this threat is best met by better U.S. intelligence about potential foreign and domestic terrorists and by a common regional security perimeter—not by continuing or increasing military-like measures of border control including drones and militarized border patrols.
Economic Integration

Both presidents will likely commit their governments to facilitating cross-border commerce and improving the infrastructure necessary for vibrant, profitable trade and investment. That’s important, but Obama and Peña Nieto will be remiss if they do not first situate their discussion about economic integration within the context of the entire region.
The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) of 1994 fell far short of delivering the broadly shared economic development and employment gains promised by its promoters. It was little more than a trade and investment agreement, whose labor and environmental side accords and associated institutions had little enforcement power and limited reach. Even before NAFTA, the economies of Canada, United States, and Mexico were increasing their structural integration not just in trade but also in such now highly integrated sectors as energy resources, electricity, agriculture, and manufacturing (including highly integrated automotive and aviation production). Since 1994 regional trade has tripled and foreign investment increased six times. Mexico is the second largest importer of U.S. goods, following Canada; moreover, the United States is by far the leading market for Mexican exports.
Both Mexico and the United States are currently engaged in another economic liberalization initiative called the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), involving more than a dozen other nations, mostly Asian but also including Chile and Canada. Many of the concerns and criticisms about the corporate-driven character of NAFTA are also highly relevant to the TPP negotiations. However, the main problem of the new, Asia-oriented focus of U.S. and Mexican trade/investment initiatives is the failure to appreciate, leverage, and improve the highly integrated North American economy. The Obama and Peña Nieto trade teams should recognize the mutual benefits of including Canada in talks about smart borders, trade infrastructure, educational visas, security perimeters, immigration, and further economic liberalization—as should the Canadian government.
Presidents Obama and Peña Nieto should embrace the concept—and the reality—of a North American community (a concept heralded by Robert Pastor and other scholars and visionary policy analysts) shaped by demographic trends and economic integration. Whether structured or not by new regulations and institutions, the emergence of a North American community is evident in existence of some 30 million Mexican Americans in the United States.
The NAFTA institutions such as the North American Development Bank and the North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation as well as such important bilateral initiatives as Border 2020 (which emerged from the 1983 La Paz environmental agreement) should not be left to wither away, but seized upon as the building blocks of a more sustainable regional community that extends beyond economic liberalization. Such institutions are among the first steps of recognizing and shaping the south-north community. Focusing on Asia is looking away from our own region’s complementarity and common future.
Both governments will surely point to fundamental importance of the two nations as trading partners. Yet the trade and investment numbers fall far short in defining the identity, advantages, and challenges of the U.S.-Mexico relationship. More than economic partners, the United States and Mexico are next-door neighbors and all that this proximity implies for the future welfare of both nations. Governance measures on such issues as energy, environmental standards, immigration flows, weapons, illegal drugs, and labor standards need to follow and shape economic integration. If there is to be a sustainable North American community, the framework of economic integration must necessarily address the stark regional imbalances in Mexico’s economic growth and development—with Mexico’s southern states left further and further behind. Similarly, cheaper consumer goods made possible by liberalized trade and investment do not compensate for stagnation of Mexican wages—averaging just over $2 an hour.
Not to be missed is the growing militancy of teachers, students, and agricultural workers in southern Mexico, which was the defining theme of the May 1 marches in Mexico City and elsewhere. Casting a long shadow over the summit will be the intensifying teacher-led protests over the federal reforms of labor and education policy. Centered in Mexico’s poorest southern states, especially Guerrero, the anti-government opposition is protesting the labor, energy, and education reforms of the Peña Nieto government and the Pact for Mexico, which has brought together Mexico’s leading political parties over a package of long-overdue reforms.
Drugs and Guns
Drug trafficking and related violence have largely shaped the binational relationship over the past six years. During his first term, President Obama correctly identified the “shared responsibility” of the United States for the horrific drug-related violence in Mexico. But the Obama administration abysmally failed in shouldering its responsibility. By continuing the military-oriented aid of the Bush administration’s Mérida Initiative, the Obama administration contributed to the increase of drug-related violence and human rights violations in Mexico. By encouraging and largely directing the Calderón government’s military-directed drug war, the Obama administration—along with the Calderón government and Mexico’s security forces—turned large parts of Mexico into killing grounds where assault weapons, not the rule of law, are the only instruments of governance and control.
Despite the Obama administration’s assessment that Mexican drug trafficking organizations constitute a security threat not only to Mexico but also to the United States and to the nations of Central America, President Obama has failed to take sufficient measures to stop the flow of military-grade weaponry to organized criminal organizations and bandits in the region.
The failure to stand up for gun control until the Newtown massacre is emblematic of President Obama’s lead-from-behind posture in many controversial domestic issues, including immigration. In truly addressing the shared responsibility of the United States for violence in Mexico—which has led to the killing or disappearance of nearly 100,000 Mexicans (overwhelmingly civilians) since 2006—President Obama needs to take the lead in finally ending the drug prohibition era and the related U.S.-supported drug wars.
Similarly, President Peña Nieto must, as part of his declared commitment to “crime prevention” and ending the military-led drug war, call for drug legalization in the United States, joining other Latin American leaders as well as Javier Sicilia and the Movement for Justice with Peace and Dignity.  Although not yet calling for the end to the drug-prohibition induced drug wars, Peña Nieto has rightly ended the wholesale drug-interdiction campaigns and drug-kingpin targeting initiated by Calderón and the U.S. government and instead committed his administration to a violence-reduction and law-enforcement strategy.
While the shape of the strategy remains unclear, dramatically reducing the pervasive and proactive military presence throughout much of Mexico has been an appropriate first step. The Mexican president has narrowed the window of U.S. involvement in intelligence, counternarcotics operations, and Mexican military affairs—a clear rebuff to the U.S. government. The Obama administration may be justifiably concerned about the ability of the new government to diminish the power and reach of criminal organizations built largely on drug-trafficking, yet President Obama should, in a gesture of solidarity and shared responsibility, acknowledge the systemic flaws in U.S. counternarcotics and anti-organized crime strategies.
Pervasive patterns of human rights violations, impunity, and police and judicial corruption/reform should be top among U.S. concerns at the presidential meeting. At the same time, however, President Obama should acknowledge that the United States’ four-decade strategy of attempting to reduce the flow of illicit drugs has not only failed, but also led to a raft of adverse consequences.