The Political Opportunism of Drug War 'Spillover'

A media-fueled specter of drug-war spillover from Mexico is stalking the U.S. border region. A closer examination of these issues casts doubt on the connection being made between Mexican cartel violence and crime in the southwest, leading some officials to dismiss the spillover claim. But that's not stopping anti-immigration forces and militarized border agencies from crying that the sky is falling.

Zach Dyer

Phoenix recently became the first U.S. city that the mainstream media gave the notorious title of "kidnap capital." Articles in the press recount harrowing home invasions and violent crimes in the heart of suburban neighborhoods. The media and government officials chalk up the violence to "spillover" from the drug war currently wracking northern Mexico. But a closer examination of these issues casts doubt on the connection often made between cartel violence and crime on the U.S. side of the border region.

Ciudad Juárez, just opposite El Paso, Texas, is the epicenter of violent combat between drug cartels and Mexican security forces. Juárez has gained notoriety as one of the most violent cities in the world. The city accounts for about a quarter of the 7,200 drug-war deaths recorded nationwide over the last year alone. The killing of women, particularly, has reached epidemic proportions over the years.

Citing assassination threats, the position of city police chief must have the highest turnover rate in the country. The latest police chief was forced out of office in February after the cartels promised to kill a policeman every 48 hours until he resigned. Now, Juárez is the main site of President Felipe Calderón's massive anti-drug military deployment.

And yet, El Paso, just across the Rio Grande, remains peaceful. If spillover were indeed a fact, then surely it would be felt in the city adjacent to the worst of the drug violence. But according to El Paso District Attorney Jaime Esparza, "It's night and day."

Esparza stunned the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when he flatly testified, “Our city is safe.” El Paso has registered only 20 homicides in the last 14 months, while crime has also remained at standard levels in other large Texas cities, Esparza told the committee. "If we see a radical change, I would tell you differently."

Reports of suspected cartel-related violence – namely, home invasions and kidnappings – are, however, surfacing in Phoenix, Arizona not El Paso, with frantic accounts of violence and its supposed drug connection.

Dr. David Shirk, who directs the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego, presents a different picture. "There are isolated cases of extreme violence but not necessarily cartel violence," Shirk said. "Street–level gang violence is a persistent problem and local drug dealers are increasingly victimized. We’re not seeing 'spillover' violence."

Shirk suggests that the violence in Arizona is more closely tied to human trafficking. The success of anti-migration efforts in the 1990s like "Operation Gatekeeper" in California and "Operation Hold the Line" in Texas, along with more recent militarized border security campaigns, have "squeezed" smuggling routes. The result is a human trafficking superhighway through Arizona's treacherous Sonora Desert.

These migrants are increasingly at risk of extortion or coercion schemes once they cross into the United States, where their handlers known as "coyotes," often turn on them. Coyotes have been known to hold immigrants as hostages, extorting their families for more money; others have been coerced into criminal activities to pay off their debt to the coyotes.

Phoenix police chief Jack Harris recently spoke at a field hearing on border security held by Senators Joe Lieberman and John McCain. Harris emphasized that human trafficking was at the root of the crime problem in Phoenix, noting there are over 100 "drop-houses" in the city where migrants are held captive for ransom payments.

Human trafficking and its criminal networks remain a serious problem, but the media-fueled specter of drug war spillover has not materialized in any obvious way. It is too early to say whether the suburban break-ins in Arizona are linked to the drug-related violence in Juárez.

Nonetheless, political opportunists are cashing in. Shirk noted that the perception of a security crisis on the border gives historically underfunded border agencies a political lever in Washington to expand their budgets. Esparza made the same point in his testimony: "Speculations about spillover violence persist, and are at times exaggerated in some instances to benefit other agendas."

“In the past, this kind of violence was not of strategic importance to the U.S. government,” said Erik Lee, associate director of the North American Center for Transborder Studies. While acknowledging that the current flare-up of drug violence in Mexico is more serious than previous bouts, Lee noted, "U.S. media coverage of Mexico has always been highly problematic, generally privileging these types of dramatic and often violent stories rather than the harder-to-cover, slower-developing stories of institution-building and democratic consolidation in Mexico."

Overblown perceptions of spillover are giving opponents of immigration reform ammunition against President Barack Obama's proposal to begin working this year toward immigration reform legislation. In reference to claims of spillover, Arizona Senator John Kyl told Inter-Press Service, "The people who defeated [the reform] last time are going to have a good argument that we haven’t done everything we could do to secure the border." It's unclear whether the Obama administration's appointment of Alan Bersin as "border czar" means cooler heads will prevail.


Zach Dyer is a NACLA Research Associate.
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