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Climate change and violence in Mexico

November 2009

Cab drivers are often a good source of news information, or at least a good barometer of public opinion. Such was the case when I finally arrived in Mexico City this afternoon for visits with Grassroots International’s partners here.

The city hasn’t changed from the last time I came–the same heavy traffic and the same cloud of pollution above our heads. In the cabin of my taxi, I found an old newspaper with photos of damage in Cancun courtesy of Hurricane Ida last week. They are dramatic. Sections of the flat sand beaches of the famous tourist spot were left uneven. A caption on one photo says that the wild waves had carved out a seven-foot high wall in the sand!

I commented about the situation in Cancun with the taxi driver trying to make conversation during an expected 30-minute ride. He said that, according to the radio reports he listens to in his cab, the hurricane was the works of climate change. Even though I share his concerns about climate change, I thought the argument was a stretch and a sign of the fatalistic talk shows he tunes into.

Half way to the hotel, we changed the conversation to a critical subject in Mexico: the growing violence. My friend has seen it all. After several years driving throughout the city, he decided to work for the taxi service company in the airport instead on his own. “Even though I could earn more on my own, I didn’t felt safe. I have a family to feed.” And after a long pause, he added: “And I want to stay alive.” We laughed at his joke, but also understood the real fear behind it.

Like other cities in Latin America, urban violence is a constant concern in Mexico City. From the time you leave your home in the morning to when you return at night, you fear a bad encounter with the police or with gangs.

The government blames all the violence on the drug cartels. Since his highly challenged and possibly fraudulent election in 2008, President Calderon has attempted to portray his administration as in control of the domestic security. In two occasions, he literally dressed up as an Army commander— apparently first time a civilian president in the Mexican Republican has done such thing.

Clearly President Calderon is leading the country in his war on drugs, dressed as an Army official and with the financial backing of the U.S. The Merida Plan, a multimillion dollar initiative approved by the U.S. Congress last year, has turned Mexico into the second largest depository of U.S. weapons aid to curb drug trafficking in Latin America. (Colombia remains by far the largest recipient.)

Mexico is facing a serious threat with the U.S-funded Plan Merida. The funds are largely dedicated to purchasing new weapons; training local police and the Army to counter highly organize criminals; and increasing border control. The plan also includes, among other things, and expands the role of the Army as law enforcers in the streets and rural areas. In other words, the country has turned into a militarized zone where both violence and fear prevail among the local population.

Struggling to feed his family and without other means to escape this situation, my cab driver probably made a good decision. But would he be safe in a militarized country amid growing violence?

Powerful weapons–mostly intended military purposes–are easily smuggled to drug-traffickers, and corruption in the police force and other government sectors has eliminated any chance of success to curb drug-trafficking. The opposite seems to be true, as it is creating the conditions for a long war in Mexico whose battles are claiming thousands of civilian lives every year while fueling a growing industry based on violence and fear.

As we crossed the city, my friend decided it was time to listen to some radio. I am relieved he decided to catch up with a soccer match between America and Toluca, two major rival teams in Mexico. He probably decided to change the topic about violence to not scare the visitor, and, knowing that I am Brazilian, hoped to establish his own climate change, at least in the car.

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