Poverty and Violence

Poverty and Violence Pushing the Waves of Immigration

Kim Andolina, December 2014

Since the birth of the United States people have come from all over the global to pursue a new life in the land of the free leaving their homes, and often their loved ones, behind. Why? Why do people choose to leave the place they know and love, leave their families, their culture, and their heritage behind? When a nation is struck with such profound turmoil with no end in sight, people often feel forced to leave their homes as a last stitched effort for peace and stability in their lives; and when we look at the numbers connected to the countries of origin with the highest numbers of immigration to the United States we can see a common trend of extreme poverty and violence plaguing those nations. The importance of understanding why people are leaving their homes to come and make a new life in America is essential to understanding why American citizenship is key to their very survival.

For the past 50 years Mexico has had some of the highest numbers of people immigrating to the United States, however the numbers increased exponentially at the same time the War on Drugs was officially declared by President Nixon in 1971 and continue to rise as the violence worsens year after year. We can then see another major spike in the years following the implantation of North American Fair Trade Agreement or NAFTA in the 1990’s.

First let’s look at the numbers; in 1960 the number of legal Mexican immigrants living in the United States was 575,900, by 1970 that number rose to 759,700, by 1980 there were 2,199,200, in 1990 that number doubled to 4,298,000. Today there is well over 11 million Mexican’s legally living in the United States [1]. To overlook these statistics as being a coincidence to what was happening in Mexico with the war on drugs and the implementation of NAFTA is being blind to the facts and completely ignoring the key issues when it comes in immigration.

During the 1980’s cocaine hit the streets in America and took a hold of the country. Coined at the “crack epidemic” by the Ronald Reagan Administration the Drug Enforcement Agency or DEA and CIA went full force to stop the drug flow that was stemming from Columbia, up through the Caribbean and into the ports of Florida. Massive raids and arrest were made and the drug route from Columbia through the Caribbean and into the Florida Straits was effectively shut down. The demand for the drug however, was as strong as ever and extremely profitable. Rather than cutting off the supply entirely this crackdown shifted the drug routes, funneling them through Mexico, directly putting more money and power into the hands of the Mexican drug cartels. “The Sinaloa cartel can buy a kilo of Colombian or Puervian cocaine for around $2,000…In Mexico that kilo fetches more than $10,000, when it crosses into the United States, its value triples to about $30,000… Once broken up for retail distribution that same kilo sells for upward of $100,000.”[2]

Since the Nixon Administration implemented policies and created agencies like the DEA to take a hold of the drug problems in the United States, Mexico’s leaders have also began to wage their own war on drugs. President Felipe Calderòn declared a war on drugs in 2006 deploying over 20,000 troops across the country to fight the drug cartels that rule the drug and human trafficking routes throughout Mexico. From 2006-2012 over 60,000 people have died as a direct result of the War on Drugs and some 250 people have “disappeared” almost all of which evidence suggest that they were enforced and connected to official government agencies[3]. The entanglement of the drug cartels and government officials ranges from local and federal police officers all the way up to high-ranking military officers and political leaders [4].This intertwined web of corruption is supported by the estimated $19-$29 billion dollars that the drug cartels make off U.S. drug sales annually [5].

The War on Drugs, although fought vigorously on both sides of the border is continuously undermined by policies and actions taken by both the Mexican and the United States government. In combination with the fact that consumer demand for drugs has not declined at all since the Nixon Administration declared the War on Drugs (in fact the numbers have only risen) this war continues to be an upward battle that does nothing but create more violence and breed more addicts. According to the DEA’s official website in 1960 only about 4 million people admitted to using cocaine, today that number is over 74 million. [6]

Another key issue to understanding the power the drug cartels in Mexico possess is knowing the background of the weaponry they use to carry out mass killings, instill fear into the minds of all people who try to oppose them, and force migrants to cross the borders as their drug mules. In a CNN report on the War on Drugs in Mexico they found that there is only one legal firearm retailer in all of Mexico, while in the U.S. right along the border, there are over 6,700 licensed firearms dealers. Of all the firearms seized from Mexican drug cartels by Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms or ATF , over 70% of them were traced back to legal U.S. arms dealers [7]. With these statistics it is evident that these drug cartels are able to move across the border freely. There is a great deal of evidence supporting this from known deals cartel members have made with border patrol officers, and on multiple occasions Immigration and Customs officers have been connected to various drug cartels as well.

Despite all this corruption that stems from the War on Drugs, the United States policies towards immigration for Mexicans has not changed. Although it seems clear that Mexico should qualify as a “failing state” and more Mexicans apply for asylum, their pleas have mostly gone unanswered. As the drug war continues in Mexico, it is becoming more obvious that a primary motivating factor for migrants heading north is fear for their lives and extreme doubt it the Mexican government. “As one asylum applicant stated after her application was denied, ‘I will not hesitate to stay here illegally. I would rather do that than ever go to Mexico again, even if it means illegal re-entry. It’s not that I want to live the U.S. I never did. But I cannot go back. I do not want to die.’”[8] Alfredo Corchado recounts his mother’s explanation of why she ultimately decided they needed to leave their home “The only thing I love more than our family, with all of my heart… is Mexico. Mexico is my homeland, my identity. But I won’t let the government ruin my children like they’re ruining my country” [9].

The other major contributor to the increase of people migrating from Mexico to the United States is the North American Trade Agreement or NAFTA. On December 17th 1992 U.S. President George H.W. Bush, Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, and Mexico’s President Carlos Salinas signed an agreement which essentially lifted all tariffs on goods exchanged between the three countries. The idea was to create more economic growth and freedom by allowing a free exchange of imports and exports between the countries. For Canada and the United States NAFTA has proved to be a very sound investment, however many have argued that NAFTA has had the reversed effect in Mexico.

One of the major sources of criticism of NAFTA in Mexico comes from the Maquilas which are U.S. company-owned factories just over the Mexican border. Although the Maquilas began in the 1970’s the big boom of factories built in Mexico came after the signing of NAFTA. Supporters of these factories claim that the intent of the Maquila was to create more job opportunities for Mexican workers in their homeland, boosting the economy while decreasing emigration to the United States however the results proved to be quite different.

When the U.S. companies began to employ Mexican workers in their factories, they hired mostly young woman because they were “easier to control” than their male counterparts. Young woman however were not traditionally part of the work force in Mexico, so as far as helping the unemployment numbers, it really did nothing. Nevertheless the men followed the woman into the cities along the border, and when they were not able to get a job, many of them left to find work in the United States, increasing the number of both legal and illegal immigration.

Just before NAFTA was put into play these border factories began spreading like wildfire, by 1993 there were 2,000 U.S. company owned factories employing 550,000 Mexicans (again most of them woman). That all sounds great on the surface, but after NAFTA went into effect pay rates dropped 68% even though productivity rose 41% all while the value of the Paso plummeted by 50% in comparison to the U.S. dollar. By 1995 1 million Mexicans had lost their jobs and environmental issues on both sides of the border from all the new maquilas skyrocketed. NAFTA did not slow down emigration from Mexico to the United States either, in contrary the number of legal Mexican immigrants almost tripled from 1,009,586 in 1989 to 2,757,418 in 1999.[10]

It’s true that in the maquilas the work weeks was shorter (40 hours a week opposed to 48 hours a week) and wages were better than in the Mexican owned factories, however the wages were only marginally better and the effect it had on Mexican owned factories were drastic. Not only was it difficult for the Mexican owned factories to get employees and keep them without strikes happening constantly but without the same amount of revenue as their US counterparts they were not able to offer competitive wages putting many of them out of business.

In the case of Mexico it is clear to see how extreme violence and poverty has pushed millions of people out of their homes and into the United States in search of a better life. In the more recent years since neocolonialism and the existence of conglomerant corporations that have ruled the world economically, socially, and politically, the violence and poverty that is occurring in these nations is more often than not connected in some way to U.S. foreign policies and U.S. corporations. If we as nation want to see immigration reform whether that means more strict policies or more allowance for asylum, it is imperative that we accept our responsibility and role in creating these circumstances and we must understand what is happening in the countries of origins and find out why their people are desperately fleeing their homes by the thousands.


[1] Batalova, Jeanne. “Mexican Immigrants: Number and Share of Total Population of the United States.”Migration Policy Institute. 2012. Accessed October 18, 2014. http://www.migrationpolicy.org/programs/data-hub/us-immigration-trends
[2] Corchado, Alfredo Midnight in Mexico a Reporter’s Journey Through a Country’s Descent into Darkness. Penguin Group. New York. 2013. Pg 44
[3] Steinberg, Nik “Mexico’s Disappeared The Enduring Cost of a Crisis Ignored”. Human Rights Watch Group. Feb 2012. Accessed on 20 October 2014. http://www.hrw.org/reports/2013/02/20/mexicos-disappeared
[4] Corchado, Alfredo Midnight in Mexico a Reporter’s Journey Through a Country’s Descent into Darkness. Penguin Group. New York. 2013. Pg 8
[5]CNN Library “Mexico Drug War Fast Facts”. Cable News Network. 15 October 2014. Accessed on 24 October 2014. http://www.cnn.com/2013/09/02/world/americas/mexico-drug-war-fast-facts/
[6]U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration “DEA History in Depth 1970-1975”, United States Department of Justice. 2014. Accessed on 10 November 2014. www.dea.gov/about/history/1970-1975.pdf
[7]CNN Library “Mexico Drug War Fast Facts”. Cable News Network. 15 October 2014. Accessed on 24 October 2014. http://www.cnn.com/2013/09/02/world/americas/mexico-drug-war-fast-facts/
[8] Longmire, Syliva “How Mexican Cartels are Changing the Face of Immigration”. The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Medford. 2014.
[9] Corchado, Alfredo Midnight in Mexico a Reporter’s Journey Through a Country’s Descent into Darkness. Penguin Group. New York. 2013. Pg 62
[10] Gonzalez, Juan Harvest of Empire a History of Latinos in America. Penguin Group. New York. 2000.

Further Reading

Alexander Main, “The U.S. Re-Militarization of Central America and Mexico” . North American Congress on Latin America. New York. July 2012. Accessed on 8 November 2014.
Drug Policy Alliance “A Brief History of the Drug War” . Drug Policy Alliance. 2014. Accessed on 8 November 2014 http://www.drugpolicy.org/new-solutions-drug-policy/brief-history-drug-war
Office of the United States Trade Representatives ”North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)” Executive Office of the President of the United States. 2014. Accessed on 10 November 2014. http://www.ustr.gov/trade-agreements/free-trade-agreements/north-american-free-trade-agreement-nafta

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