Nov 15, 2011

MexicoBlog Editorial: Debunking Drug War "Spillover"

An article published this week in the New York Times"Money-Laundering Case Speaks to Border Fears," originally published in the Texas Tribune, got us thinking about the hot topic of border "spillover." The article provides an excellent description of a money-laundering scheme. But it begins with this sentence, "... when federal agents raided the stately home of a downtown (Laredo, Texas) perfume salesman in January, it reinforced a notion that is feared by Texas leaders: The drug war spillover from Mexico is much broader than shootouts and kidnappings — it is cloaked in the seemingly routine business transactions of the border economy."

Over the past year or so there has been much political brouhaha as to whether or not there is "spillover violence" from the drug war in Mexico into the border states of the U.S. Border state politicians, including one running for president, claim there is. The State of Texas recently paid for a study by retired U.S. generals to document "spillover." (The report included mostly undocumented, anecdotal reports.) The F.B.I.'s statistics say that crime in border cities is lower than elsewhere in the country. The Obama administration both claims that there is no appreciable "spillover" and uses the threat of "spillover" to justify increased border security measures aimed at pleasing those same border politicians and their constituencies. 

But there is another problem with "spillover." The concept, itself, is a politically motivated metaphor that prevents accurate perception of reality. Using the metaphor "spillover" implies that some force that ought to be contained on one side of a barrier, like water behind a dam, is overwhelming the barrier, endangering whatever is on the other side. This metaphor is being used in the context of another politically motivated metaphor — the "war on drugs."

The metaphor of "war" attempts to create the perception that the drug issue is a "threat" coming from outside the boundaries of the United States. Therefore, it must — and can be — contained on "the other side," if not eradicated at the "source" (see A Disastrous Metaphor: Waging Domesitc War). Thus, if any aspect of the "threat" of drugs, crosses the border, it is "spilling over."

However, if we look at the reality, the drug trade is an integrated commercial process. It is the meeting of demand within the U.S. with supply from Mexico, through the exchange of goods for money. The trade transcends the official border. (The book, Line in the Sand by Rachel St. John talks not only about how arbitrary the U.S-Mexico border is in terms of geographic, economic and social realities, but also how borders actually create smugglers by attempting to interrupt commercial exchanges, aka "free trade.")

From the point of view of trade dynamics, the border is an obstacle to trade. NAFTA and subsequent trade-centered actions of both the U.S. and Mexican governments — including the recent agreement to allow Mexican trucks into the U.S. interior — are aimed at reducing border obstacles. In talking about the economic benefits of Mexican-U.S. trade for Arizona, Gov. Jan Brewer described the border as "bountiful." Hence the money-laundering described so well in the New York Times article is not "spillover." It is an integral part of a transnational trade process.

Goods sold by the Mexican cartels are excluded from legitimate international trade relations; hence, they are denied direct access to standard banking channels for currency exchange and transfer of large sums across national borders. So the cartels become inventive — using U.S. perfume merchants and Mexican currency exchange businesses. The money is not "spilling over." It is flowing between markets.

We would also venture that drug trade-related violence is not "spillover violence." Whether it occurs in Texas, other border states or even further north, whether it involves Mexican cartels or U.S. gangs, it is integrally related to the trans-border drug trade. This drug trade does not have access to civil means of conflict resolution and functions in a hyper-competitive environment — due to the inflated value of its prohibited products. Therefore, it resorts to violence to resolve disputes and issues of competition, whether those issues occur in Mexico or the U.S..

The general conclusion of a number of writers is that the cartels use U.S.-based gangs for distribution precisely because they don't want to get entangled with U.S. police and courts. For the same reason, they don't want to increase acts of violence north of the border. In this sense, the existence of a jurisdictional border actually prevents "spillover." 

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