How NAFTA Unleashed the Violence in Mexico

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The Mexican countryside is not the same twenty years after the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Rural Mexico is on fire, and not just because of the “bad guys”–the drug cartels and groups of hit men and thugs.
Criminal violence is not the only kind of violence, nor is it the factor that unleashed the humanitarian crisis in so many parts of rural Mexico. The drastic transformation of public agricultural policies–brought about by structural adjustment programs and the trade opening whose crowning moment was the passage of  NAFTA–generated the conditions for the emergence of multiple forms of violence in the Mexican countryside.
Mexican presidents since 1983 pushed through a series of economic adjustment polices, including the expulsion of all seasonal farmers from the rural credit system. The price of fuel shot up: in 1983, a liter of gas cost 1.36 pesos; now it is more than 12 pesos. Prices began to drip for crops produced by small farmers since guarantee prices were eliminated. New subsidies were created, like Procampo, but these went mostly to large producers.
In spite of many warnings from farmer organization and researchers, NAFTA was signed when Mexican basic grains producers, especially peasants and medium-sized producers, could not compete–in terms of climatic conditions or subsidies or technology or governmental support program–with the most powerful agriculture in the world.
Without being able to compete with U.S. agriculture under the terms of the trade opening, hundreds of thousands of peasant groups went broke. Migration to the cities and the United States shot up.  According to the Ministry of Labor, since 1994 1,780,000 people left the countryside. The Ministry of Social Development found that each day an average of 600 peasant farmers leave the countryside. Rural communities are being left without young men, converted into populations of women, children and old people. Community life has broken down; many town organizations have closed down. This is violence. Silent, but real.
With expensive input costs and low prices for crops, many farmers had to drill deeper wells for irrigation, overuse agrochemicals or turn to genetically modified seed to increase production. They began to employ technologies that are forms of violence against the environment and its soils, waters, forests and fields.
As a consequence, environmental disaster scars the countryside, with unavoidable and expensive impacts in the cities and for national economic development. Of Mexico’s 196 million hectares, 64% has been degraded, mainly by water and wind erosion. Annually some 10,000 hectares of the best agricultural land is lost due to salt accumulation. This problem affects a surface area of 425,000 hectares that have ceased to be fertile for intensive agricultural production.
Aquifers have been over-exploited, forests that generated water for the country’s rivers and streams have been razed. Faced with the urgency of lowering costs to compete against imported goods, the solution was over-exploitation of the one who couldn’t protest–nature.  Violence against the environment is another of the byproducts of NAFTA and the structural adjustment polices.
After twenty years of NAFTA, Mexican agriculture is far more polarized. Large producers have hogged government Procampo subsidies that should be oriented to enabling poor peasant farmers and medium-sized producers to produce more and better food. The top 10% of wealthiest farmers receive 45% of this subsidy, 80% of “target income” program of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, and 60% of  water and fuel subsidies.
All this has led to greater impoverishment of rural families: In October of 2011 the National Council of Evaluation of Social Development Policy declared that 55.7% of the population–63 million people–suffers food insecurity. Of these 28 million poor live with hunger, and of these 20 million inhabit rural areas. This huge inequality is the nucleus of the violence that today devours the countryside.
In this deteriorating rural environment, organized crime moved in strong in the 1990s.  Cartels occupied the vacuum left by the State when it withdrew government programs that served as financier, buyer, investor, regulator, and promoter of the rural economy. The drug lords establish themselves in rural populations in many ways. They buy property from those who have gone bankrupt to inject resources and launder money, expand their ranches, add technology to their businesses, drill wells, improve livestock, plant orchards and build infrastructure for production.
When development and commercial banks abandoned agricultural activities, organized crime took over financing and lending. They also began to market produce. They didn’t need usurious credit from stingy and speculating banks–they financed themselves to buy harvests, storage facilities and distribution systems.
This was a silent invasion that little by little evolved into the current situation. Once in possession of a good part of the rural economy, organized crime took over other aspects of rural life. It illegally exploits natural resources such as the case of the forests of Michoacán and Chihuahua. It has diversified its business beyond drugs, stealing machinery and equipment, robbing the wages of  day laborers on pay day, requiring extortion payments from farmers and salespeople, requiring a portion of the sale of the harvests.
Organized crime groups have gained territorial control of broad swathes of rural zones, both formally and informally. They control mayors, occupy municipal public security posts, charge quotas and rights to pass through certain areas, etc., etc. To take over territories they first sow terror through executions, mutilations, kidnappings and fires. They apply cruel punishments as an example to those who dare to challenge them, especially against organized groups such as the community police. They co-opt, buy off or enter into partnerships with police forces, the army and the navy. They have become an authentic “societas sceleris” in the rural parts of much of the nation, that is, a society of crime in which farm families live as a population under the thumb of an occupying army, their citizenship restricted, if not annulled completely.
The Mexican countryside is suffering the most terrible crisis of violence since the end of the Revolution of 1910. But as opposed to that revolutionary violence, which generated something new, the violence promoted by the neoliberals with their structural adjustment programs and NAFTA has only generated more and more varied forms of violence, by destroying the ways of production, of association, of community life, of wealth distribution, of relation with the environment that had subsisted until they arrived and facilitated the implantation of the drug cartels and organized crime precisely where the State failed.
February 7 2014
- Victor M. Quintana S. is an adviser to the Democratic Peasant front of Chihuahua and professor-researcher in the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juarez. He is a regular columnist for the CIP Americas Program,

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