Borders are artificial lines. Even when they follow natural divisions such as rivers or mountain ranges, borders are still artificial. They are imaginary lines that different governments (or other official groups of people) have decided marks the place on the earth where the authority and power of one group ends and the power and authority of the next group begins.
Borders are in general a good idea because they tend to reduce the overall amount of violence in the world by dividing potential combatants into different regions. The fact that wars are a constant in human society demonstrates that borders are too porous to stop all violence. But borders that were absolutely closed would prevent all trade, which would be catastrophic. The United States and Mexico do not want an end to trade. The governments want an end to trade in illegal drugs (or at least a dramatic reduction in this trade) and thus a dramatic reduction in terms of the accompanying violence.
While it is also the case that while borders tend to separate people who might otherwise take up arms against each other, it is also the case that those who live the closest to the border can be drawn into (or perpetuate) bloody warfare themselves. Such has been the case along the different borders that at different points in history have divided the United States from Mexico. The fact that this border has shifted several times as a consequence of shifting political power is something that suggests that this particular border would be less than stable. Indeed, a border that has shifted repeatedly over time is often the home to drug trades, such as in Afghanistan, Russia, and Pakistan.
History of the Border
Historical animosity has long existed between the United States and Mexico. The people of the latter country something believing that the citizens of the former have stolen land that is rightfully theirs while the people of the former believing that since the U.S. defeated Mexico politically and militarily there should be no further competing claims about the land. The specific cause of animosity has changed from one thing to another over time and the intensity of the violence has also waxed and waned, but it has never disappeared.
In part, one might argue, that the United States and Mexico will always find some reason for skirmishes of various sorts along its border. The current primary point of conflict between the two countries over the border region as we enter the second decade of the 21st century is the drug wars that have become ever more deadly over the passing few years. As more and more gangs have entered the fray, the violence has increased dramatically. While drugs remain at the heart of the violence, in large measure the violence has become an end in itself, with different gangs killing both rivals and civilians as expressions of their power more than as a means to the end of smuggling drugs.
The roots of the violence that consumes regions of the border are varied. The enduring poverty of much of Mexico is one of the reasons that the drug trade flourishes. The degree of corruption that has historically plagued the Mexican government is another reason: In a country where people feel that they cannot get ahead by honest means, they will often turn to dishonest methods. The resentment that some Mexicans feel against the U.S. no doubt plays into this equation for some people.
But the most important factor underlying the drug trade that moves "product" from the south to the north is that there is a market in the United States for drugs. This too has a number of different causes. Drug use has been a part of human society for millennia and exists in every region of the world, under every form of government, in every form of culture and religious background. When drugs are relatively unregulated (as they are in Portugal and the Netherlands), there is reduced violence around the use of drugs. When there are significant legal sanctions about drug use, there is a rise in accompanying violence, as in the United States.
That Americans are willing (and often eager) to take drugs that originate south of the border is a slightly different issue than why the current border drug war has turned so violent. It is possible that drugs can flow illegally across a border with relatively little violence. For example, when alcohol was smuggled to the United States from Canada during prohibition, there was little violence along the U.S.-Canadian border. However -- to extend the analogy just a little farther -- there was substantial violence during prohibition in the United States itself. Gangsters in the United States took advantage of Prohibition to expand their territories, their power, their wealth -- and their opportunities to kill off their opponents.
Whenever a great deal of money can be made from trafficking in an illegal substance, there will arise turf wars. The following gives a glimpse into the current ones. Gangs that trade drugs across the border engage in what might be considered to be internecine battles because the members of the different gangs are strikingly like each other in background, in methods, and in ideology.
Columbus, a settlement of 1,800 people clinging to a wind-swept patch of high desert in southern New Mexico, was a picture of tranquillity.
But less than three miles south, in the once-quaint Mexican town of Palomas, a war is being waged. Over the last year, a drug feud that has killed more than 1,350 people in sprawling Ciudad Juarez has spread to tiny Palomas, 70 miles west, where more than 40 people have been gunned down, a dozen within a baseball toss of the border. More -- no one knows how many -- have been kidnapped, and the Palomas police chief fled across the border last year and has asked for political asylum (Kraft 2009).
Columbus and Palomas, like so many paired towns that align along the U.S.-Mexican border, are intimately linked. Their economies have long flourished or suffered together. These historical ties have been threatened and in many cases by the drug wars. Ironically, many of the U.S. towns along the border have profited from Americans going to Mexico to buy prescription drugs, which are often much cheaper in Mexico and may be the only way in which Americans without health insurance can buy the medications that they need. This aspect of the "drug wars" is one that is mostly hidden.
Farming has been the economic backbone, supplemented by tourists who came to see Pancho Villa State Park, Villa's death mask at the depot museum or the restored buildings on Broadway that figured in Villa's raid. A few came to see City of the Sun, a commune where residents live in homes built from rusted car parts, jalapeno barrels, tires, bottles and other recycled material. ("They're different up there, but they're nice people," said Linda Werner, the town librarian.)
But most tourists came to take advantage of inexpensive medical care and pharmaceuticals across the border. That trade has mostly evaporated with the drug violence (Kraft 2009).
America's Drug Appetites
A number of different types of drugs enter the United States illegally from Mexico. These include a large number of drugs that require a prescription in the United States but that can be easily purchased without a prescription (or with only a token nod at a prescription) in Mexico. These include everything from antibiotics for childhood ear infections to powerful narcotic pain medications. However, while some of these medications present a number of potential public health (as well as legal) problems for Americans, the major concern of the American government and the focus of law enforcement is the drug trade in drugs that are always illegal in the United States. (As opposed to those that are legal with a prescription and only illegal without a doctor's consent.)
The drugs that are important from Mexico to the United States include primarily cocaine, methamphetamine, and marijuana, but also include heroin. While some of the drugs that are smuggled from Mexico to the United States are actually produced in Mexico, a great deal of the drugs are actually produced somewhere else and simply transported through Mexico. To be more specific, Mexico is the major foreign supplier of marijuana to the United States (a great deal of the marijuana used in the United States is grown domestically). Mexico is a relatively minor producer of heroin in terms of the international market; however, it is a relatively major producer in terms of the percentage of heroin that enters the United States. According to the U.S. States Department, almost three-quarters of the narcotics that enter the United States illegally come into this country through Mexico and about 90% of the cocaine that enters the United States comes through Mexico, although most of it originates in countries to the south of Mexico (Associated Press, 2008).