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Strengthening justice system south of border key to success of U.S.-Mexico security deal

While the United States and Mexico have renewed their vows to tackle public security issues under a philosophy of shared responsibility for the problem, Mexico must do its part to reinforce its criminal justice system to stem the record-high levels of violence within its borders. 

High-ranking government officials from both countries met in October to discuss a new path forward to peace and stability. The details of the proposed “U.S.-Mexico Bicentennial Framework for Security, Public Health, and Safe Communities” will be announced in January. 

Essential to the success of the deal set to replace the Mérida Initiative — which failed to reduce drug violence and addiction in both countries — is a responsible U.S. firearms trade that ensures that guns bought legally in the United States don’t end up in the hands of Mexican drug traffickers. 

However, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence notes that even if the flood of illicitly trafficked .50-caliber sniper rifles, AR-15s, and other assault-style weapons were to stop flowing across the border immediately, the easy availability of ammunition in the United States would still fuel extreme violence in Mexico due to the number of U.S.-sold firearms already in the country. Thus, Mexico must contend with the sky-high levels of impunity and corruption currently afflicting its citizens and institutions.

“The party primarily responsible for the violence in Mexico is Mexico. We need to make that clear,” said María Elena Morero, president of Causa en Común (Common Cause), a Mexico City-based nonprofit that works to hold government officials accountable for matters of public security. 

“Although the United States’ responsibility lies in the supply of firearms and the demand for drugs, between the impunity and the corruption [in Mexico], we’re unable to deal with our own problems,” she said. “Here they kill because they can. There are no consequences.”

Tackling Mexico’s systemic impunity and corruption will be no easy task, and Morero has little faith in the Mexican government to solve the transnational problem either on its own or in conjunction with U.S. authorities. “In today’s globalized society, it’s going to take international groups that promote the reduction of violence here, as well as in the United States,” she said. 

It will also require specific actions to target the root causes of violence, something the proposed Bicentennial Framework aims to treat with broad social programs more akin to universal basic income than targeted measures to reduce violence. 

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Mexico’s Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard said that employment programs currently underway in Mexico could be expanded into Central America to deal with crime, human trafficking and other public safety issues. Morero, however, noted how the government’s tree-planting and youth employment programs have not functioned as intended in Mexico, “so there’s no reason to believe they’ll work in Central America.”

She said that a solution “will require an analysis of the causes of crime and a strategic plan to identify and reduce the causes of violent crime in the very communities where young people are being drawn to it, rather than broad programs” like those suggested by diplomats.

Making the problem even more cumbersome is the fact that very few people involved in or informed of the matter seem to have hope that something can be done to reduce the violence that has led to the creation of Mexico’s National Search Registry, which currently maintains a list of nearly 100,000 missing or forcibly disappeared persons. 

The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) reports the vast majority of these disappeared people are not even legally recognized as the victims of a crime, revealing the out-of-control levels of impunity in Mexico.

When asked if he has hope for a solution to Mexico’s violence problem, author Alan Riding had a hard time coming up with a positive answer due to “the incapacity of the Mexican people to address this issue … and the fact that Americans don’t really care about the issue.”

Riding said impunity and corruption have only gotten worse since he served as The New York Times’ Mexico City bureau chief in the 1980s. “In Mexico’s case, there’s a government that’s going to do what they like, and people may not like it, but nobody can do much about it.”

Author and journalist Ana Karina Zatarain doesn't have much hope for a Mexico free of extreme violence either. Currently working on a book of essays about “the cultural flux between Mexico and the United States” — set to be published by Knopf Doubleday in 2023 — she attributes this hopelessness and powerlessness to the psychological theory of learned helplessness. 

“Once people become normalized to the idea that they can’t do anything to impact their surroundings, that there’s no cause-effect correlation to their actions, they feel helpless, hopeless, and they become static,” she said. 

Born in Culiacán, Sinaloa, Zatarain spent many of her formative years in the United States, and she saw that her friends, family, and acquaintances were taken aback by her reactions to the violence in her natal city upon her return. 

“I would notice when I came back that people would speak so nonchalantly about certain things, like 'Oh, someone just threw a human head on the street and so it's closed, so I had to go this way.' And I’d say, ‘What do you mean a human head?’ and they'd be like, 'Why are you acting like you're not from here?’"

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Having reported on Sinaloa mothers who don't have the luxury of remaining static as they search for the remains of their disappeared loved ones, Zatarain takes deliberate steps to avoid becoming inured herself to the violence that has become the new normal in Mexico.

"I try to remind myself how radical and necessary it is to try and cultivate shock within myself, to keep my ability to be outraged, because the only thing I can think of that is worse than feeling horrible about something like this is not feeling horrible. That, to me, just sounds so bleak.”

In this light, any solution to Mexico’s recalcitrant public security problem — as well as the United States’ addiction crisis — will require more than social programs, enhanced law enforcement tactics, and highly publicized security dialogues. It will take an all-out shift in the mentalities of average citizens on both sides of the border. 

Those to the north must learn to care about how their perception of freedom impacts others not protected by the U.S. Constitution. Those south of it will have to take that first step of believing that there is actually something they can do to change their situation, a step that grows more and more difficult to take each day.

“The price you pay for the normalization of these things is your humanity," said Zatarain. "We can’t become inured to it, because that’s much more horrifying.”

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Patrick Semansky/AP/pool photo

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, right, speaks during a working breakfast with Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the National Palace in Mexico City, Friday, Oct. 8, 2021.

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