Much has been written about the similarity between the chaos of Revolutionary Mexico and that of contemporary Mexico in the grip of the brutal drug war. Certainly the militarization of the border increased dramatically in both periods, both as a result of and, in some cases, intensifying frontera violence. A report in Sunday’s Express-News by John MacCormack paints Ciudad Juarez, which lies across the Rio Bravo from El Paso, as “A City on its Knees,” and shows that U.S. efforts to seal the border between the two countries endanger innocent Mexican refugees, who, in trying to flee the violence, get stuck in the squeeze between anti-immigration vigilantes and attitudes in the U.S. and Mexican pro- and anti-narcotraffico politics.
As with the Mexican Revolution, tens of thousands of Mexicans from all socioeconomic strata of Mexican society have fled their country — rich folk buy houses in Stone Oak and send their kids to tony private schools, journalists seek asylum, desperately poor people die on foot in the Arizona desert. And as with the revolution, which brought an end to the orderly, if proto-fascist Porfiriato, today’s deadly power vacuum also comes about from changes at the top; in recent years, it coincided with the fall of the PRI party, which derives its power from its historical role as the revolution’s ongoing political arm. The top-down weakness in both cases brought about violence between not two, but umpteen factions. The drug war isn’t just government-vs-narcos, but between warring factions of the police, who fail to protect and in some cases terrorize the civilian population, and between several heads of the major cartels. Collusion between some government and law-enforcement officials and outlaw bands have made life untenable for those in the crossfire. And as it did during the Revolution, America’s attitude towards our southern neighbor is changing.
“The diplomacy between the Unites States and Mexico has never made much sense,” explains the Witte’s Bruce Shackelford. “Mexico undergoes a major war about every 50 years, and a war with the U.S. about every 100 years. Then, after the wars between Mexico and the U.S., the governments go back to ignoring each other and having no coherent immigration policy, which makes for terrible human tragedies.
“About the only time there was real discussion between the two countries was during the first `George W.` Bush administration; he and `then-Mexican President` Vicente Fox were in talks … then 9/11 happened and American diplomacy got re-directed. A coherent diplomacy with Mexico in any meaningful way has just never been `an American` priority.”
Despite their similarities, the Mexican Revolution presents a battle of multiple opposing ideologies, while today’s narco/cartel struggle has to do with the sheer brutality of supply and demand played to its logical, horrific conclusion. The cartel faction(s) stay empowered by America’s yen for street drugs, and profit from U.S. and Mexican legal systems that force such transactions underground while making them incredibly remunerative. Revolutionary battles were fought according to notions of land reform, education, electoral corruption, distribution of wealth, along clerical and anti-clerical lines, and according to ideals on the left and right (yes, even in the case of the seemingly amoral Pancho Villa; he remained loyal to the liberal ideals of Madero, then Zapata, and truly abandoned the physical fight in 1920 to repair to his rancho in Hidalgo del Parral, Chihuahua). And while the drug war is certainly a consequence of some of the same conditions which plagued Mexico in the revolutionary period — notably poverty — and is a popular uprising of a sort, there’s no forseeable end; cartels aren’t a party, and the cartels’ aims won’t be satisfied by any political development — or at least not a credible one. Which state of affairs has led Mexico into the world of the in-credible. Cartels have become “the de facto authorities,” as the Juarez newspaper El Diario stated in a recent heartbreaker of a front-page editorial, but the shared realization won’t necessarily prompt the Juarez and Sinaloa cartels to behave like benevolent despots. El Diario’s editorial stance is likely a toothless capitualtion.
The Revolution at least reached its stated aims with a constitutional government and the recognition by the U.S. of the Obregón presidency. Who’s going to resolve a purely economic turf conflict? Mexican law enforcement? The Minutemen? While the myriad movements of the revolution may not have made a lot of sense, many stood, as Zapata’s army of the South did, for some hope of change. The drug war is a stand made by those for whom ideology and potential social change seem so impossible — or are so emotionally negligible — that Prohibition-era capitalist thuggery appears more coherent and achievable.
Villa may have been an OG, but he knew his public. He was no secretive capo. There are multiple reasons his legacy remains so potent, not the least of which has to do with his own PR skills — Pancho Villa’s ego, if nothing else, held him accountable to at least some common revolutionary ideals, such as alleviating poverty and resisting dictatorship. Evidence of a less fixed and despairing political context back in the good ol’ days of the Mexican Revolution, Villa sought to garner the attention of journalists, not behead them. •