Memories of a different border

I am a huge fan of Alfredo Corchado's work at The Dallas Morning News.  He is my friend and one wonderful reporter of the U.S.-Mexico border situation.  We also enjoy talking sports, a pleasant distraction from the reality of the world!

Let me recommend Alfredo's new book Midnight in Mexico: A Reporter's Journey Through a Country's Descent into Darkness.  It will make some wonderful pool or beach reading this summer.  It reads like a novel, but it tells a true story.

His book is rather interesting, given all of the talk up here about violence and crime on the border.  This is a bit of what Alfredo wrote:

Nearly 100,000 people have been killed or have disappeared since President Calderon launched a war on cartels in 2006. At the time, less than 20% of those detained for drug trafficking were convicted, cops were underpaid and forced to rely on bribes to put food on the table, low rates of tax collection limited funding, and the education system was run by a corrupt union. (The country lost an estimated $50 billion to tax evaders, criminals, and corruption.) The murder clearance rate was less than 5% at the time.

Opium production began in the 1940s when the U.S. needed morphine for soldiers in WWII, even though growing it was illegal in Mexico. Pot cultivation also began at that time, and demand exploded in the 1960s and 1970s. A few Mexican families controlled the entire production and distribution chain (cartel men married each other's sisters), and law enforcement couldn't get past these family ties. By the 1980s, Americans also developed a taste for cocaine, and Columbia became a supplier. The easy route went through the Caribbean, but American ships and planes made that too risky. Thus, Mexico became the preferred, safer route. Tunnels crossing the U.S. border were dug as early as the 1980s, and migrants were often used as mules, sometimes unwittingly. Today the Sinloa cartel (the largest) can buy a kilo of South American cocaine for $2,000; its value increases to $10,000 upon entering Mexico, $30,000+ upon reaching the U.S., and $100,000 when broken up for retail distribution. An estimated 500,000 Mexican jobs are attributable to the drug trade.

Another key topic - why the explosion of violence that began in 2006? Corchado tells us that Mexico's long-time ruling party (PRI) had grown older, more divided, and weaker, leading to lessened authority on drug matters. Another factor - the new PAN government decentralized government, making it easier (per the author) for the rule of law to be taken over by the cartels. The cartels started running wild, fighting amongst each other as they too became divided. Mexico's murder rate had fallen 37% between 1997 and 2006 - by 2008 it had tripled. A key enabler - the Bush administration's rolling back Clinton-era restrictions on the sale of high-powered weapons such as the AR-15 quickly flooded Mexico with these weapons.

A third major topic explained in 'Midnight in Mexico' is how immigration into the U.S. evolved over the years. After the Great Crash of 1929, Mexicans within the U.S. were sent back by the busload, no questions asked. Then Mexican braceros helped feed Americans and worked in some factories during WWII. For example, in 1940 Nevada, there were about one million whites working in the fields; this fell to about 60,000 by 1942. After WWII came the Korean War, and a renewed need for workers from Mexico - especially to feed the growing baby-boomers. There were an estimated 430,000 Mexicans that entered the U.S. legally in 1957 - among them, the author's father. (All it took was 25 cents to cover a phone call to his sister in El Paso, the bus ride to her house, and a soft drink.) By 1964 the number living and working in the U.S. had doubled to five million. In 1993, Mexico's then President Salinas pushed for NAFTA passage among congressional leaders as a way to keep otherwise immigrants home and employed in Mexico. Instead, NAFTA brought in subsidized corn from Iowa that made it impossible for Mexico's two million corn farmers to compete - this both added to the number of immigrants to the U.S. and weakened the PRI at the polls.

Where did the directive come from to kill Corchado, and why? Eventually he learned that it originated from the head of the Zeta gang (Miguel Treviño Morales, aka 'Forty'), Mexico's #2 drug cartel. He was upset about Corchado's reporting of a government-brokered cartel peace, and also wanted to know Corchado's sources so they could also be eliminated. He didn't want government corruption brought out into the daylight as this risked their ability to conduct business. Corchado estimates the drug business in Mexico is a $10 - $40 billion business, compared to $22 billion in remittances. Kickbacks to the government ran as much as $500 million/year. (The peace plan fell apart after a few weeks.) Morales is now on Mexico's most-wanted list, with a $7.5 million bounty ($5 million from the U.S.) for his arrest and conviction, and reportedly sleeps in his car (along with hundreds of thousands of dollars to bribe his way out of capture), protected by 15 layers of security, often travels in ambulances or low-flying planes, and likes to live in the forests.

Alfredo's book tells the story of a border, and to some extent a country, torn apart by violence.  

Not long ago, the border was actually a pleasant place to live, visit, and do business.  There was a border culture that combined north and south.  They spoke English and Spanish or sometimes a combination of the two.  Families crossed the border on Sundays to visit each other.

I visited the border on business many times and enjoyed it a lot.  Unfortunately, it is not that way now.  You enter Mexico, and you see armed soldiers and a very tense environment.   

Forget driving in Mexico's interior.  I did it before, but I wouldn't do it now!

Where does this book connect with Donald Trump's comments?

First, let me say that Trump was wrong in painting with such a big brush.  Most of the illegal immigrants are not engaged in any kind of violent crime.  I am not defending illegal immigration.  I am simply stating a fact.  They are here for work and because we hire them.   

Let me add that I don't think that Trump meant to say that everybody crossing the border is a criminal.  It came out wrong, a consequence of a political candidate who doesn't prepare himself properly.  

Second, Trump is right that our porous border, and the sanctuary cities, provide a hiding place for criminals.  Why did this guy go to San Francisco?  The answer is that he knew that San Francisco would protect him, no matter how much of a criminal record he had compiled.

Third, Mexico has not been helpful in solving the border problem.  This is because the nation is addicted to the $20 billion sent south, or a huge safety net for much of the underclass.  Also, Mexico has lost control of the border, specially the isolated areas run by cartels and gangs.

Fourth, and this is a huge item in the book, we are sending billions of dollars to Mexico with our consumption of illegal drugs.  As PBS reported:

While the US drug user may not intend to invest in this international drug economy, every dollar spent purchasing those weekend escapes is ultimately fueling a mammoth and destructive system that depends on our drug dollars to survive. "That population of hard core users generates the funds," says former IRS agent Mike McDonald. "They generate the dollars that go back to Mexico and go back to Colombia. They generate those dollars that in Colombia and in Mexico are turned into power, turned into extortion, turned into homicides, turned into corrupting foreign governments, arms dealing, and expanding criminal enterprises around the world." 

Just do the math.  Mexico has a $1-trillion GDP.  It is estimated that $20 to $50 billion goes south.  You can't introduce that kind of money without very serious economic and ultimately political consequences.

Check out Alfredo's book.  He will give you some of the context about this horrible mess on the U.S.-Mexico border.  

Last, but not least, you will learn just how complicated this situation really is.   

P.S. You can listen to my show (Canto Talk) and follow me on Twitter.

I am a huge fan of Alfredo Corchado's work at The Dallas Morning News.  He is my friend and one wonderful reporter of the U.S.-Mexico border situation.  We also enjoy talking sports, a pleasant distraction from the reality of the world!

Let me recommend Alfredo's new book Midnight in Mexico: A Reporter's Journey Through a Country's Descent into Darkness.  It will make some wonderful pool or beach reading this summer.  It reads like a novel, but it tells a true story.

His book is rather interesting, given all of the talk up here about violence and crime on the border.  This is a bit of what Alfredo wrote:

Nearly 100,000 people have been killed or have disappeared since President Calderon launched a war on cartels in 2006. At the time, less than 20% of those detained for drug trafficking were convicted, cops were underpaid and forced to rely on bribes to put food on the table, low rates of tax collection limited funding, and the education system was run by a corrupt union. (The country lost an estimated $50 billion to tax evaders, criminals, and corruption.) The murder clearance rate was less than 5% at the time.

Opium production began in the 1940s when the U.S. needed morphine for soldiers in WWII, even though growing it was illegal in Mexico. Pot cultivation also began at that time, and demand exploded in the 1960s and 1970s. A few Mexican families controlled the entire production and distribution chain (cartel men married each other's sisters), and law enforcement couldn't get past these family ties. By the 1980s, Americans also developed a taste for cocaine, and Columbia became a supplier. The easy route went through the Caribbean, but American ships and planes made that too risky. Thus, Mexico became the preferred, safer route. Tunnels crossing the U.S. border were dug as early as the 1980s, and migrants were often used as mules, sometimes unwittingly. Today the Sinloa cartel (the largest) can buy a kilo of South American cocaine for $2,000; its value increases to $10,000 upon entering Mexico, $30,000+ upon reaching the U.S., and $100,000 when broken up for retail distribution. An estimated 500,000 Mexican jobs are attributable to the drug trade.

Another key topic - why the explosion of violence that began in 2006? Corchado tells us that Mexico's long-time ruling party (PRI) had grown older, more divided, and weaker, leading to lessened authority on drug matters. Another factor - the new PAN government decentralized government, making it easier (per the author) for the rule of law to be taken over by the cartels. The cartels started running wild, fighting amongst each other as they too became divided. Mexico's murder rate had fallen 37% between 1997 and 2006 - by 2008 it had tripled. A key enabler - the Bush administration's rolling back Clinton-era restrictions on the sale of high-powered weapons such as the AR-15 quickly flooded Mexico with these weapons.

A third major topic explained in 'Midnight in Mexico' is how immigration into the U.S. evolved over the years. After the Great Crash of 1929, Mexicans within the U.S. were sent back by the busload, no questions asked. Then Mexican braceros helped feed Americans and worked in some factories during WWII. For example, in 1940 Nevada, there were about one million whites working in the fields; this fell to about 60,000 by 1942. After WWII came the Korean War, and a renewed need for workers from Mexico - especially to feed the growing baby-boomers. There were an estimated 430,000 Mexicans that entered the U.S. legally in 1957 - among them, the author's father. (All it took was 25 cents to cover a phone call to his sister in El Paso, the bus ride to her house, and a soft drink.) By 1964 the number living and working in the U.S. had doubled to five million. In 1993, Mexico's then President Salinas pushed for NAFTA passage among congressional leaders as a way to keep otherwise immigrants home and employed in Mexico. Instead, NAFTA brought in subsidized corn from Iowa that made it impossible for Mexico's two million corn farmers to compete - this both added to the number of immigrants to the U.S. and weakened the PRI at the polls.

Where did the directive come from to kill Corchado, and why? Eventually he learned that it originated from the head of the Zeta gang (Miguel Treviño Morales, aka 'Forty'), Mexico's #2 drug cartel. He was upset about Corchado's reporting of a government-brokered cartel peace, and also wanted to know Corchado's sources so they could also be eliminated. He didn't want government corruption brought out into the daylight as this risked their ability to conduct business. Corchado estimates the drug business in Mexico is a $10 - $40 billion business, compared to $22 billion in remittances. Kickbacks to the government ran as much as $500 million/year. (The peace plan fell apart after a few weeks.) Morales is now on Mexico's most-wanted list, with a $7.5 million bounty ($5 million from the U.S.) for his arrest and conviction, and reportedly sleeps in his car (along with hundreds of thousands of dollars to bribe his way out of capture), protected by 15 layers of security, often travels in ambulances or low-flying planes, and likes to live in the forests.

Alfredo's book tells the story of a border, and to some extent a country, torn apart by violence.  

Not long ago, the border was actually a pleasant place to live, visit, and do business.  There was a border culture that combined north and south.  They spoke English and Spanish or sometimes a combination of the two.  Families crossed the border on Sundays to visit each other.

I visited the border on business many times and enjoyed it a lot.  Unfortunately, it is not that way now.  You enter Mexico, and you see armed soldiers and a very tense environment.   

Forget driving in Mexico's interior.  I did it before, but I wouldn't do it now!

Where does this book connect with Donald Trump's comments?

First, let me say that Trump was wrong in painting with such a big brush.  Most of the illegal immigrants are not engaged in any kind of violent crime.  I am not defending illegal immigration.  I am simply stating a fact.  They are here for work and because we hire them.   

Let me add that I don't think that Trump meant to say that everybody crossing the border is a criminal.  It came out wrong, a consequence of a political candidate who doesn't prepare himself properly.  

Second, Trump is right that our porous border, and the sanctuary cities, provide a hiding place for criminals.  Why did this guy go to San Francisco?  The answer is that he knew that San Francisco would protect him, no matter how much of a criminal record he had compiled.

Third, Mexico has not been helpful in solving the border problem.  This is because the nation is addicted to the $20 billion sent south, or a huge safety net for much of the underclass.  Also, Mexico has lost control of the border, specially the isolated areas run by cartels and gangs.

Fourth, and this is a huge item in the book, we are sending billions of dollars to Mexico with our consumption of illegal drugs.  As PBS reported:

While the US drug user may not intend to invest in this international drug economy, every dollar spent purchasing those weekend escapes is ultimately fueling a mammoth and destructive system that depends on our drug dollars to survive. "That population of hard core users generates the funds," says former IRS agent Mike McDonald. "They generate the dollars that go back to Mexico and go back to Colombia. They generate those dollars that in Colombia and in Mexico are turned into power, turned into extortion, turned into homicides, turned into corrupting foreign governments, arms dealing, and expanding criminal enterprises around the world." 

Just do the math.  Mexico has a $1-trillion GDP.  It is estimated that $20 to $50 billion goes south.  You can't introduce that kind of money without very serious economic and ultimately political consequences.

Check out Alfredo's book.  He will give you some of the context about this horrible mess on the U.S.-Mexico border.  

Last, but not least, you will learn just how complicated this situation really is.   

P.S. You can listen to my show (Canto Talk) and follow me on Twitter.