The Border is Vanishing as Mexico Pushes North

The Revenge of Geography, by Robert D. Kaplan
The Revenge of Geography, by Robert D. Kaplan

America’s foreign policy emanates from the domestic condition of its society, and nothing will affect that society more than the dramatic movement of Latino history northward. Mexico’s 111 million people plus Central America’s 40 million add up to half the population of the United States. Eighty-five percent of all Mexico’s exports go to the United States, even as half of all Central America’s trade is with the U.S. While the median age of Americans is nearly 37, the median age is 25 in Mexico and even lower in Central America (20 in Guatemala and Honduras, for example). The destiny of the United States will be north–south, rather than the east–west “sea to shining sea” of continental and patriotic myth.

Half the length of America’s southern frontier is an artificial line in the desert, established by treaties following the Mexican-American War of 1846–1848. I have described before how crossing this border, having traveled by bus north from Mexico City, was as much of a shock for me as crossing the Jordan-Israel border and the Berlin Wall. Surrounded by beggars on the broken sidewalk of Nogales, Sonora, I stared at the American flag indicating the border. The pedestrian crossing point to Nogales, Ariz., was in a small building. Merely by touching the door handle, I entered a new physical world. The solidly constructed handle with its high-quality metal, the clean glass, and the precise manner in which the room’s ceramic tiles were fitted seemed a revelation after weeks amid slipshod Mexican construction.

There were only two people in the room: an immigration official and a customs official. Neither talked to the other. In government enclosures of that size in Mexico and other Third World countries, there were always crowds of officials and hangers-on, lost in animated conversation. Soon, as in Israel, I was inside a perfectly standardized yet cold and alienating environment, with empty streets and the store logos made of tony polymers rather than of rusted metal and cheap plastic. After weeks of turbulence and semi-anarchy, these quiet streets appeared vulnerable, unnatural even. Arnold Toynbee writes, in reference to the barbarians and Rome, that when a frontier between a highly and less highly developed society “ceases to advance, the balance does not settle down to a stable equilibrium but inclines, with the passage of time, in the more backward society’s favor.”

Since 1940, Mexico’s population has risen more than fivefold. Today it has swelled to more than a third the population of the United States, and it continues to grow at a faster rate. East Coast elites display relatively little interest in Mexico, focusing instead on the wider world and America’s place in it. America’s southern neighbor registers far less in the elite imagination than does Israel or China, or India even. Yet Mexico could affect America’s destiny more than any of those countries.

mexico-immigration-OV03-main A border trail where migrants seek a safe place to cross. Kadir van Lohuizen / NOOR

Mexico exhibits no geographical unity. Two great mountain ranges, the Sierra Madre Occidental and the Sierra Madre Oriental, lie on either side of a rugged central plateau. Then there are other, crosscutting mountain ranges, mainly in the south: the Sierra Madre del Sur, the Sierra Madre de Oaxaca, and so on. Mexico is so mountainous that if it were flattened, it would be the size of Asia. The Yucatán Peninsula and Baja California are both essentially separate from the rest of Mexico, which is itself infernally divided. This is the context to understand northern Mexico’s ongoing, undeclared, substantially unreported, and undeniable unification with the southwestern United States and consequent separation from the rest of Mexico.

Northern Mexico’s population has more than doubled since the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed in 1994. The U.S. dollar is now a common unit of exchange as far south as Culiacán, halfway to Mexico City. Northern Mexico is responsible for 87 percent of all maquiladora (duty-free) manufacturing and 85 percent of all U.S.-Mexico trade. The northeastern Mexican city of Monterrey, one of the country’s largest, is intimately connected with the Texas banking, manufacturing, and energy industries. David Danelo, a former U.S. Marine now working for U.S. customs who has studied northern Mexico extensively and has traveled throughout all six Mexican border states, told me he has yet to meet a person there with more than one degree of separation from the United States. As he told me, “Northern Mexico retains a sense of cultural polarity; frontier norteños see themselves as the antithesis of Mexico City’s [city slicker] chilangos.”

Northern Mexico contains its own geographical divisions. The lowlands and desert of Sonora in the west are generally stable; the Rio Grande basin in the east is the most developed and interconnected with the United States—culturally, economically, and hydrologically—and has benefited the most from NAFTA. In the center are mountains and steppes, which are virtually lawless: witness the border city of Ciudad Juárez, the murder capital of Mexico, where 700 people were killed in the early months of 2010 alone. In 2009 more than 2,600 died violently in the city of 1.2 million; some 200,000 more may have fled. In Chihuahua, the state where Ciudad Juárez is located, the homicide rate was 143 per 100,000—one of the worst in the Western Hemisphere. The northern mountains and steppe have always been the bastion of Mexico’s tribes: the drug cartels, Mennonites, Yaqui Indians, and so forth. This harsh frontier was difficult for the Spanish to tame. Later on, in the 1880s, it was a lair for Geronimo and his Apaches. Think of other remote highlands that provided refuge for insurgents: the Chinese communists in Shaanxi, the Cuban revolutionaries in the Sierra Maestra, and al Qaeda and the Taliban in Waziristan. The drug cartels come out of this geographical tradition.

mexico-immigration-OV03-secondary Migrants who have been intercepted and sent back to Mexico. Kadir van Lohuizen / NOOR

Most of the drug-related homicides have occurred in only six of Mexico’s 32 states, mostly in the north. That’s another indicator of how northern Mexico is separating out from the rest of the country (though the violence in Veracruz and the regions of Michoacán and Guerrero is also notable). If the military-led offensive to crush the drug cartels completely falters, and Mexico City goes back to cutting deals with the cartels, then the capital may in a functional sense lose control of the north, with grave implications for the United States. If that happens, writes Robert C. Bonner, former administrator of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, “the United States will share a 2,000-mile border with a narcostate controlled by powerful transnational drug cartels that threaten the stability of Central and South America.”

The late Harvard professor Samuel Huntington, who made a career out of clairvoyance, devoted his last book to the challenge that Mexico posed to the United States. In Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity, Huntington posited that Latino history was demographically moving north into the U.S. and would consequently change the American character. Huntington argues that it is a partial truth, not a total truth, that America is a nation of immigrants: America is a nation of Anglo-Protestant settlers and immigrants both, with the former providing the philosophical and cultural backbone of the society. For only by adopting Anglo-Protestant culture do immigrants become American. Dissent, individualism, republicanism ultimately all devolve from Protestantism. “While the American Creed is Protestantism without God, the American civil religion is Christianity without Christ.” But this creed, Huntington reasons, might be subtly undone by an advancing Hispanic, Catholic, pre-Enlightenment society. “Mexican immigration is leading toward the demographic reconquista of areas Americans took from Mexico by force in the 1830s and 1840s, ” Huntington writes. “It is also blurring the border between Mexico and America, introducing a very different culture.”

Boston College professor Peter Skerry writes that one of Huntington’s “more startlingly original and controversial insights” is that while Americans champion diversity, “today’s immigrant wave is actually the least diverse in our history. To be sure,” Skerry continues, paraphrasing Huntington, “non-Hispanic immigrants are more diverse than ever. But overall, the 50 percent of immigrants who are Hispanic make for a much less diverse cohort than ever. For Huntington, this diminished diversity makes assimilation less likely.” And as David Kennedy observes, “the variety and dispersal of the immigrant stream” smoothed the progress of assimilation. “Today, however, one large immigrant stream is flowing into a defined region from a single cultural, linguistic, religious, and national source: Mexico ... The sobering fact is that the United States has had no experience comparable to what is now taking place in the Southwest.” By 2050, one third of the population of the United States could be Spanish-speaking.

Geography is at the forefront of these arguments. Here is Huntington: “No other immigrant group in American history has asserted or has been able to assert a historical claim to American territory. Mexicans and Mexican-Americans can and do make that claim.” Most of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, and Utah were part of Mexico until the 1835–36 Texan War of Independence and the 1846–48 Mexican-American War. Consequently, as Skerry points out, Mexicans arrive in the United States, settle in areas of the country that were once part of their homeland, and so “enjoy a sense of being on their own turf” that other immigrants do not share. Huntington points out that a nation is a “remembered community”—that is, one with a historical memory of itself. Mexican-Americans are for the first time in America’s history amending our historical memory. By 2000, six of 12 important cities on the U.S. side of the border were more than 90 percent Hispanic, and only two (San Diego and Yuma, Ariz.) were less than 50 percent Hispanic.

The blurring of America’s Southwestern frontier is becoming a geographical fact that all the security devices on the border cannot invalidate. Nevertheless, while I admire Huntington’s ability to isolate and expose a fundamental dilemma that others in academia and the media are too polite to address, I do not completely agree with his conclusions. Huntington believes in a firm reliance on American nationalism in order to preserve its Anglo-Protestant culture and values in the face of the partial Latinoization of our society. I believe that while geography does not necessarily determine the future, it does set contours on what is achievable and what isn’t. And the organic connection between Mexico and America is simply too overwhelming. Huntington correctly derides cosmopolitanism (and imperialism too) as elite visions. But a certain measure of cosmopolitanism, Huntington to the contrary, is inevitable and not to be disparaged.

America, I believe, will emerge in the course of the 21st century as a civilization oriented from north to south, from Canada to Mexico, rather than as an east-to-west, racially lighter-skinned island in the temperate zone stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific. This multiracial assemblage will be one of sprawling suburban city-states, each nurturing its own economic relationships throughout the world, as technology continues to collapse distances. America, in my vision, would become the globe’s preeminent duty-free hot zone for business transactions, a favorite place of residence for the global elite. In the tradition of Rome, it will continue to use its immigration laws to asset-strip the world of its best and brightest and to further diversify an immigrant population that, as Huntington fears, is defined too much by Mexicans. Nationalism will be, perforce, diluted a bit, but not so much as to deprive America of its unique identity or to undermine its military.

But this vision requires a successful Mexico, not a failed state. If outgoing President Felipe Calderón and his successors can break the back of the drug cartels (a very difficult prospect, to say the least), then the United States will have achieved a strategic victory greater than any possible in the Middle East. A stable and prosperous Mexico, working in organic concert with the United States, would be an unbeatable combination in geopolitics. A post-cartel Mexico combined with a stabilized and pro-U.S. Colombia (now almost a fact) would fuse together the Western Hemisphere’s largest, third-largest, and fourth-largest countries in terms of population, easing America’s continued sway over Latin America and the Greater Caribbean. In a word, Boston University historian Andrew Bacevich is correct when he suggests that fixing Mexico is more important than fixing Afghanistan.

Unfortunately, as Bacevich claims, Mexico is a possible disaster, and our concentration on the Greater Middle East has diverted us from it. If the present course continues, it will lead to more immigration, legal and especially illegal, creating the scenario that Huntington fears. Calderón’s offensive against the drug lords has claimed 50,000 lives since 2006, with close to 4,000 victims in the first half of 2010 alone. Moreover, the cartels have graduated to military-style assaults, with complex traps set and escape routes closed off. “These are war fighting tactics they’re using,” concludes Javier Cruz Angulo, a Mexican security expert. “It’s gone way beyond the normal strategies of organized crime.” Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign-policy studies at the Cato Institute in Washington, writes: “If that trend persists, it is an extremely worrisome development for the health, perhaps even the viability, of the Mexican state.”

The weaponry used by the cartels is generally superior to that of the Mexican police and comparable to that of the Mexican military. Coupled with military-style tactics, the cartels can move, in Carpenter’s words, “from being mere criminal organizations to being a serious insurgency.” United Nations peacekeepers have deployed in places with less violence than Ciudad Juárez and Tijuana. Already police officers and local politicians are resigning their posts for fear of assassination, and Mexican business and political elites are sending their families out of the country, even as there is sustained middle- and upper-middle-class flight to the United States.

Mexico is now at a crossroads: it is either in the early phase of finally taking on the cartels, or it is sinking into further disorder—or both. As of this writing, violence is dropping significantly, but that’s mainly because the cartels are consolidating their control. What the United States does could be pivotal. And yet the U.S. security establishment has been engaged in other notoriously corrupt and unstable societies half a world away—Iraq until 2011 and Afghanistan at least until 2014. Unlike those places, the record of U.S. military involvement in the Mexican border area is one of reasonable success. As Danelo points out, during the 19th and 20th centuries, the United States and Mexico reduced banditry on the border through binational cooperation. From 1881 to 1910, Mexican President Porfirio Díaz joined with American presidents to jointly patrol the border. Mexican rurales rode with Texas Rangers in pursuing the Comanche. In Arizona, Mexican and American soldiers mounted joint campaigns against Apaches.

Today, the job of thwarting drug cartels in rugged and remote terrain is a job for the military, quietly assisting Mexican authorities and subordinate to them. But the legal framework for such cooperation barely exists. While we have spent hundreds of billions of dollars to affect historical outcomes in Eurasia, we are curiously passive about what is happening to a country with which we share a long land border, that verges on disorder, and whose population is close to double that of Iraq and Afghanistan combined.

Adapted from The Revenge of Geography, by Robert D. Kaplan, published by Random House, Inc., and on sale from Sept. 11, 2012. Copyright © 2012 by Robert D. Kaplan. By arrangement with Brandt & Hochman Literary Agents, Inc. All rights reserved.