The fearful fallout from Mexico’s drug war

Mexico’s drug war is bound to have a profound effect on the lives of Mexican immigrants in the United States. On the one hand, the image of Mexico’s chaos as a spreading contagion most likely will strengthen the hand of anti-immigrant forces. On the other, as Mexican newcomers look back at their increasingly dangerous homeland, they will -- consciously or unconsciously -- set down deeper roots in the United States.

This newspaper routinely publishes an astounding statistic: Over the last 15 months in Mexico, as the government has cracked down on drug cartels, 7,000 Mexicans have been killed. The carnage has begun to spill over the border. There’ve been brazen “home invasions” on Tucson’s west side. Kidnappings in Phoenix. The cartels pursued the mayor of Ciudad Juarez across the border into El Paso, where he and his family have sought refuge.

Then, two weeks ago, CNN brought such stories much closer to home for most Americans. As part of the news package titled “Mayhem in Mexico,” CNN featured an Anglo couple, Chris and Debra Hall, and their two children, who were robbed and threatened in Baja by masked gunmen. Traumatized, the Halls recalled the harrowing incident over and over, as the piece replayed for days. Though Chris and Debra have been vacationing in Mexico since they were teenagers, they vowed never to go back. The CNN reporter ended the story on an ominous note: “The country they loved, stolen from them in the middle of the night on a Mexican highway.”


The terror and the truth of the Halls’ experience isn’t in doubt, and it’s a cautionary tale worth telling. But CNN’s sharply defined middle-American angle on Mexico’s violence also carried with it an uh-oh factor. When the American majority starts to see itself as the primary victim of Mexican chaos, it can unleash outsized fears and overreactions against a minority. Even in the best of times, Mexico can easily slip into a menacing role in the American mind. For generations, sailors, soldiers and teenagers would cross the border to break rules they wouldn’t dare bend at home. It isn’t surprising that the place next door that so many Americans reserve for illicit fun would loom large as a source of social problems and boogeyman evil.

Nearly a century ago, during its revolution, Mexico’s social and political problems hopped the border in much the same way they are now -- real incidents, easily magnified to chilling effect. Back then, what Americans feared most from their southern neighbor was that its political radicalism would seep northward. In 1915, the Chicago Tribune came close to predicting a race war in the Southwest. “Mexican anarchy,” its editorial board warned, “now thrusts its red hand across our border and with an insane insolence attempts to visit upon American citizens in their homes the destruction it has wreaked upon American persons and property abroad.”

In fact, a year later, Pancho Villa, angry at the U.S. for recognizing the government of his rival, Venustiano Carranza, led a 500-man attack on the border town of Columbus, N.M. Seven hundred miles away in Los Angeles, the LAPD reacted to the news by announcing that no guns or liquor would be sold to Mexicans for fear they would revolt. The chief of police tripled the patrol of the heavily Mexican district known as Sonoratown. Applauding the move, the Los Angeles Times, which estimated that at least 10% of the city’s 35,000 Mexicans were “rabid sympathizers with the outlaw, Villa,” warned that “the firebrands ... must be watched and snuffed out.”

Mexico’s anguish now will undoubtedly add fuel to the U.S. anti-immigrant fire, breathing new life into nativism in general and anti-Mexican sentiment in particular. Badly needed immigration reform -- already a third rail of U.S. politics, and made even more politically dangerous because of the economy’s meltdown -- will get further buried under new American fears. It’s all too easy to identify all immigrants with the worst of the problems of the nation they left.

Ironically, the drug war fallout will also inevitably strengthen the ties of those immigrants to their current home. I know many Mexicans and Mexican Americans in Los Angeles who are now reluctant to even visit Tijuana for fear of getting kidnapped or caught in the crossfire. The violence back home means that more immigrants will simply feel safer in the United States.

For more than a century, millions of Mexican migrants came to the U.S. harboring dreams of making money and returning home, and many did just that. Now, however, more and more Mexican families will be obliged to acknowledge that their future is here -- and only here.

The Halls aren’t the only ones to have a country they love stolen from them.