A Violent Mexican ‘Independence’ Day

Throughout Mexican modern history, millions have gathered in the country’s central squares every year on the eve of our Independence Day, September 16, to give out the traditional “shout” of independence. This year, the celebration turned into tragedy in the city of Morelia, when two hand grenades thrown into the crowed killed seven civilians and wounded dozens, adding to the rampant violence that increasingly permeates Mexican society.

The Mexican government’s prime suspects are drug traffickers, while the opposition leftist party, the Democratic Revolutionary Party, has called for additional lines of investigation, including the possibility that the killers were far-right fascists. Whoever is responsible, the Mexican government will likely exploit this latest explosion of violence to justify further security crackdowns — and further dependence on the United States.

Indeed, for most Mexicans, celebrating the country’s independence has become a sad contradiction with reality.

Although of course Mexico has never been completely independent from the giant to the north, these days, the concept of “national independence” appears shakier than ever. Under the two consecutive presidencies of the National Action Party (PAN), Mexico has become even more dependent on the U.S. economy and even more vulnerable to pressure from large U.S. corporations bent on exploiting Mexico’s most valuable resources.

In the framework of the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP) of North America, Calderon has negotiated a massive U.S. “aid” package aimed at combating the drug trade. The increase in drug-related violence is a huge issue for Mexicans. As a recent Washington Post editorial points out “more Mexican soldiers and police officers have died fighting the country’s drug gangs in the past two years than the number of U.S. and NATO troops killed battling the Taliban.” More than 3,500 people have died in drug-related violence this year alone, including at least 500 police.

However, the aid package, called the Merida Initiative, is misdirected and an intrusion into Mexican sovereignty. The funding priorities in the Merida Initiative focus more on hardware, including military equipment and technology, than on supporting much-needed reforms to Mexico’s judiciary and civilian public security institutions. The Merida Initiative also does not include any additional commitments to reduce U.S. demand for drugs and arms trafficking into Mexico.

Mexico has also become even more dependent on the United States for jobs. And rather than focusing on creating economic opportunities, the 2009 budget will increase security spending by 39 percent. In Calderon’s words, the expected result of this budget adjustment will be to “clean house,” but most likely it will be an increased rate of migration, which has steadily grown since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect in 1994. The former ruling Institutional Revolution Party claims that Calderon’s government has broken the record for the number of Mexicans who have migrated to the United States — 1,300,000 in two years. For 2008, prospects for job creation seem bleak. According to the United Nations, Mexico’s growth rate is expected to be 2.5 percent, the lowest in Latin America.

In large part due to NAFTA, Mexico is also more dependent on the United States and other countries for food. In the first half of this year alone, Mexico spent $10.4 billion on food imports — 30 percent more than the previous year. That’s about the same amount as the $10.5 billion that entered the country through foreign direct investment in the same period. If Mexico continues to increase its food imports at the present rate, by the end of Calderon’s regime in 2010, imports will make up as much as 60 percent of national consumption. This alarming loss of food sovereignty and security is the reason why Mexican rural producers are demanding an urgent renegotiation of the agricultural chapter of NAFTA.

Mexico’s publicly owned oil company, PEMEX, has long been a source of national pride and a cash cow. But the federal government aims to privatize operations and infrastructure for oil extraction, a move that could put the country’s most treasured resource in the hands of foreign oil companies. Mexico’s left-of-center opposition parties, grouped in the Broad Progressive Front (FAP), have developed an alternative proposal, based on recommendations made by academics and civil organizations, which would keep a reformed and strengthened PEMEX in public hands and free it from the excessive taxes which have subsidized the Mexican State for years.

The next U.S. administration should recognize that a more independent and stable Mexican economy would be good for both countries. A new approach to integration should be based on a different vision, one that recognizes the root causes of the inequality, poverty and lack of opportunities that provoke migration and cause many to join the ranks of the drug traffickers. Mexico should be aided to strengthen its internal economy, supporting small and medium companies in the rural and urban areas so they can also benefit from external trade. This is the right economic policy for meaningful job creation, helping Mexicans retain their livelihoods peacefully at home. An increasingly less dependent and less violent Mexico is something we should all be able to celebrate.