Blogs > Ira Chernus's MythicAmerica > The War on Drugs and the Wars on Mexico

Jul 16, 2012

The War on Drugs and the Wars on Mexico


Mexican troops in a gun battle, 2007. Credit: Wikipedia

There’s a growing debate among policymakers about how to wage the war on drugs, the New York Times reports. No one doubts that the war must be waged, apparently. At least the article, in the nation’s most influential news source, doesn’t hint at any doubts. Like any mythic truth, the need to keep the war going is simply taken for granted.

But how should we fight it? That’s the question now, it seems. In one corner is the traditional “stop the flow from abroad” approach. In the other corner, a new and rising view:

The money now used for interdiction could be better spent building up the institutions -- especially courts and prosecutors’ offices -- that would lead to long-term stability in Mexico and elsewhere. ... Since 2010, programs for building the rule of law and stronger communities have become the largest items in the State Department’s antidrug budget, with the bulk of the money assigned to Mexico. That amounts to a reversal from 2008 and 2009, when 70 percent was allocated to border security and heavy equipment like helicopters. ... American officials say they are now focused on training Mexican prison guards, prosecutors and judges.

In sum, U.S. drug policy is rather confused, one expert reports: “Some U.S. officials favor building institutions; others think it’s hopeless.”

It’s a classic case of head-to-head competition between the two great mythologies that have vied for dominance throughout American history. The mythology of homeland insecurity focuses on keeping us safe from dangerous forces trying to pierce through our borders. The mythology of hope and change urges us to go out to the frontier and tame those dangerous forces by bringing them the gift of civilization, which we as Americans are uniquely suited -- some say obligated -- to bestow.

Those officials who favor strengthening the rule of law in Mexico by building institutions like courts and prosecutors are acting out the latter myth with splendid clarity. It seems obvious to them that the Mexicans simply can’t figure out on their own how to run a legal system. They’ve got to learn it. And who better to teach them than their northern neighbors?

U.S. officials have been trying to teach the Mexicans that kind of lesson for a long time. Most famously, Woodrow Wilson sent troops south of the border in 1913 to remove the Mexican president, Victoriana Huerta -- an “ape-like” man, his counterpart in Washington declared. But as Wilson explained his motives to the British ambassador to Washington, his personal dislike for Huerta wasn’t really the issue. It was mainly about Wilson’s fear that the kind of nationalist revolution which brought Huerta to power might break out in Central American nations too, places much closer to the all-important Panama Canal.

The specter of nationalists seizing control of the Canal was intolerable. So, Wilson said, those Central Americans had to have “fairly decent rulers”; that is, rulers decently disposed to support policies favoring U.S. interests. Wilson sent troops to depose Huerta in order “to teach those countries a lesson”: They had to learn to “elect good men.”  

That’s not to suggest history is merely repeating itself. There’s no indication that U.S. officials are contemplating a military invasion to achieve their institution-building goals. All their means are peaceable. It’s only the interdiction fans who want to use the military -- at least so far. And if the Times has it right, the pendulum is swinging toward the advocates of peaceful means. Some would say this is real progress.

The progress looks even more significant if we expand the historical perspective back to the U.S. war with Mexico, 1846-48. Though there were strong and loud opponents of the conflict that President Polk intentionally provoked, the dominant mood of the country was pro-war. The big question that most Americans debated was: How much of our defeated southern neighbor should we annex? Some clamored for “all Mexico.” We were “pioneers of civilization,” as a prominent historian of the era, William Prescott, put it. We could regenerate the Mexican people by making them Americans.    

But Prescott himself argued the other side: “The Spanish blood will not mix well with the Yankee.” Indeed, said Andrew Jackson Donelson (nephew of the president for whom he was named), “We can no more amalgamate with her people than with negroes.” The racist fear of white Americans inter-breeding with Mexicans, contaminating American blood, bringing Americans down to the degraded level of Mexicans, was one big reason -- some historians say the biggest reason -- that the U.S. took only the northern part of Mexico (where relatively few Mexicans lived).

We rarely hear such overt anti-Mexican racism from elite voices today. And of course neither overt annexation or military invasion are ever discussed. No doubt that’s progress.

Yet there are striking continuities. Wilson worried most about the Panama Canal, which was making investment in foreign trade so much safer, more profitable, and thus more attractive than ever before. There’s a similar motive at work in the move toward “institution-building” today: “We see crime as the leading threat in some countries to economic growth and the leading threat to democracy,” Mark Feuerstein told the New York Times. He’s the assistant administrator for Latin America and the Caribbean in the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Note that democracy gets second place in this short list of priorities. Economic growth is number one. If we can teach the Mexicans to elect (or appoint) good judges and prosecutors, foreign capital will be safer. Again, the basic assumption is that the Mexicans will never figure it out on their own. They’ve got to be carefully taught.

But Americans have had to be carefully taught too -- taught to assume the inferiority of even the most elite Mexicans. Behind that teaching lies another lesson, memorably phrased by Oscar Hammerstein II in South Pacific:

You've got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade,
You've got to be carefully taught.

Here the two great mythologies meet. Even if today’s “pioneers of civilization” are mainly concerned about making Mexico safe for foreign investment (and no one can know their true motives), they can’t come out and say so. The American public wouldn’t pay for that. “Hope and change” is hard enough to sell even here at home.

The best way to build public support for this new policy direction is to play subtly on two deeply-rooted strands of mythic America: the continuing sense of superiority that so many white Americans feel when they look southward, and the fear that crime, so often imagined in American discourse as a physical plague, is epidemic in Mexico and constantly threatens to spread northward across our border. “Homeland security” is still what sells best.  

P.S.: Just after I posted this piece I noticed that the NY Times website had posted, very prominently, an article about the very widespread use of bottled water in Mexico, because of the perception (perhaps inaccurate, the article notes) that the water throughout Mexico is contaminated. It's probably just coincidence that this article appears right next to the "drug war" piece on the Times's site. But in the realm of mythic language and thought, everything gets connected, whether it's logical to do so or not.  

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