Mexico – Beyond Illegal Immigration and Narcotics
While much of the attention on Mexico focuses on illegal immigration and the continuing drug wars, the reality is that these are only a pair of the problems contributing to the instability faced by that country. This instability stems from a culture of corruption as well as the geographic and economic spilt between Mexico’s North and South, the European and indigenous (Mexican Indians) populations, the resulting educational deficiencies and finally, the undercurrent of social rebellion.
Leaving the drug wars aside for another time, an examination of the economic and social issues that divide Mexico’s people can offer insight to some of the contributing reasons why concern about our neighbors to the south is warranted.
The southern most states of Chiapas, Oaxaca and Guerrero (along with parts of Puebla and Veracruz), 95% of the people are predominantly in the lowest 10% of economic development. This compares to the Northern states, where 12% of the people live in rural areas and are extremely poor. Despite the plans of previous President Fox and current President Calderón to add highway infrastructure (a total of $28.7 billion over six years) to improve the ability of Southern states to move their goods and crops to the larger cities and to the ports, the results are questionable.
The economic stagnation in the southern areas of Mexico is complicated by its rugged geography, continuing ethnic discrimination and poor education. Further, the politics of these areas is complicated by powerful strongmen, incompetance and corruption. Only two years ago, the city of Oaxaca, a past tourist destination was wracked by strikes and violence seeking the removal of the state governor.
Even further, a 1994 Zapatista-style revolt by bands of ethnic Mayan Indian peasants from the highlands in the state of Chiapas brought attention to the issues of poverty, inability to preserve the indigenous culture, the lack of political or judicial rights (especially against the confiscation of their property, lack of education and medical services in this area. Today, Chiapas remains a poverty stricken area with the unresolved revolution in the balance.
● The Zapatista rebellion raised Mexicans' awareness of race discrimination. But this remains a problem. The majority of the population in every one of Mexico's 100 poorest municipalities is of indigenous descent
● One policy designed to help the poor Indians is bilingual education. But the flaws of the public education system are magnified in the south. In practice, the teachers' union rather than the government controls teaching appointments; the union sometimes appoints a teacher who speaks a different indigenous language to his pupils● A typical adult in the south has only six years of schooling; the corresponding figure in northern Mexico is 8.1 and 9.7 in Mexico City. And those years of schooling are not full years: local education officials report that in urban areas in the south an average teacher spends only 110 of the notional 200 days of the academic year actually in the classroom.
The record is even worse in rural areas. Mexicans of indigenous descent face cultural barriers too, some of them self-imposed. Land remains the most important possession of the indigenous population. Yes, some of the incentives to switch from the traditional maize and coffee crops to more lucrative bamboo and fruit have not taken hold in this area. There is a concern over human rights abuses in Chiapas, including incarceration of some of the people for nothing more than being indigenous and poor . The clear warning from the Economist article is this:
With each passing year, the socio-economic gap widens. Monterrey, Mexico's northern industrial capital, is starting to resemble south Texas. Many parts of the south still look like a northern extension of Guatemala. But unless the government shows a greater ability and willingness to tackle its problems, the south will not just remain stuck in its poverty trap but risks handicapping the country as a whole.
The more visible problems in Mexico are, indeed, illegal immigration and the drug wars. However, as often as I and others voice strong opinions about the need to stop the flow and to enforce the border, without fixing the internal socio-economic issues, Mexico, in my judgment, cannot become an equal partner with the U.S.