Trump’s Mexico High: Drugs, Migration, and NAFTA

Trump’s assault on all things Mexican began on the campaign trail. There, he declared that he would close the border to all of the “drug dealers, criminals, rapists” supposedly streaming into the U.S. from its southern neighbor. He subsequently hitched his campaign to promises of NAFTA re-negotiations, calling the 1994 trade treaty between Mexico, Canada, and the U.S. a “disaster.” Trump has maintained that it was NAFTA that caused American manufacturing jobs to move southward, forgetting the basic history lesson that U.S. deindustrialization, globalization, and the outmigration of U.S. jobs actually started almost two decades earlier, in the late 1970s and early 1980s. NAFTA merely formalized the already existing cross-border commodity production chain between Mexico, the U.S. and Canada, and brokered supposedly free trade arrangements to allow for greater movement of goods—but not people—across the three nations. At the end of January 2017, Trump signed an executive order mandating the construction of the infamous “border wall,” as well as vastly more restrictive immigration measures. In the vertiginous universe created by Trump’s pathological fabulistic tendencies, it was unclear whether Mexican President Pena Nieto cancelled an upcoming state visit or if the cancellation was mutually agreed upon. Trump continues to lie to the American people and say that Mexico will pay for the wall. They will not. One thing was and is certain: relations between the two nations are the worst that they have been in decades, and this is largely due not just to Trump’s anti-immigration racism, but also his hubris in entirely misrepresenting the intentions, actions, and promises of a prestigious and increasingly powerful nation. One thinks of the embarrassing image of Bush II hunched and saddled over a lectern, while the dignified and aristocratic Mexican president Vincente Fox practiced consummate diplomacy and impeccable English elocution—only Trump is infinitely more embarrassing than even the second Bush managed to be. “Bad hombre,” indeed.

Trump’s racist, xenophobic, and derogatory Mexico rhetoric, unfortunately, represents a revival of the type of disparaging anti-Mexico discourse that has commonly prevailed in this country, albeit cast in new and more openly prejudiced colors. During the NAFTA debates of the early 1990s, Mexico was painted with a broad brush as a corrupt, lawless, backward, and hapless neighbor that needed the tutelage of the U.S. to finally become modern and “mature” (in the words of Jorge Castaneda)—ostensibly like its northern neighbor. Fueled largely by U.S. trade negotiators in the face of environmental and labor opposition in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, this disparaging discourse cornered Mexico as a “third world” nation that needed to hitch its wagon to the U.S. and Canada to enter the hallowed sphere of modernity and “first world” nations. The relative maturity represented by the U.S. government in the mid-1990s has been replaced by the race to the bottom immaturity of Trump, Inc.

In fact, Mexico had been ruled by the authoritarian Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Institucional Revolucionario, hereafter “PRI”) for 70 years, from 1930-2000. The party was, indeed, corrupt and increasingly oppressive through the years. However, the pro-NAFTA discourse conflated the many populations of Mexico with this party, essentially suggesting that corruption was essential to all things and all people Mexican. Furthermore, the pre-NAFTA conviction was that the sequestered status of Mexicans had left the nation’s population uninformed about the workings of democracy and incapable of advocating for themselves from the grassroots. In short, they were shackled by “tradition” and had never experienced the beneficence of democratic political culture and the free market. The environmental and labor side accords of NAFTA were created partly in response to NAFTA opposition in all three countries, but they were also crafted in response to this fundamentally distorted understanding of Mexican history, the state, and its people. The purpose of the environmental and labor side accords, according to NAFTA proponents, was twofold.

On the one hand, the accords would encourage greater conformity with the strong environmental and labor regulations that Mexico already had on the books. On the other, there was a prevailing conviction that the grassroots level petitioning and conflict resolution mechanisms of the accords would encourage the blossoming of democratic political culture at the grassroots of Mexican society.

According to this Pollyanish and historically uninformed logic, NAFTA was a win-win: it would encourage free trade and Mexico’s economic growth, while simultaneously introducing the nation to the ostensibly foreign culture of democracy. Against this background, the U.S. was cast in a tutelary relationship to Mexico, a modern and civilized country that would reach out to its southern neighbor, drag it out from under the weight of tradition, and introduce it to the bright light of modernity, law and order, and democracy.

Mexican society and its people needed no primer on democracy and advocacy. The Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920 was the first socialist-populist revolution of the western hemisphere and, arguably, of the world. The Constitution that was formed in 1917, as well as the country’s Federal Labor Law of 1931, codified legal protections for Mexican workers that were only put in place decades later in the U.S., and largely as bitter government and industry concessions won only after long union struggles. In the 1930s, the country’s beloved President Lazaro Cardenas broke up large landholdings and redistributed territories in partial fulfillment of the Revolution’s promises.

On the eve of the summer Olympics of 1968 in Mexico City, students and neighborhood advocacy groups grabbed the international spotlight in order to draw attention to the persecution to which they were subjected under the increasingly corrupt PRI regime. In what has come to be called the Tlatelolco Massacre, state and federal authorities fired into the crowds—not unlike Kent State—killing hundreds and unleashing what came to be called Mexico’s Dirty War. When a massive earthquake struck Mexico City in 1982, the increasingly negligent government told citizens to stay at home while it attended to the carnage and recovery. Of course the city’s citizens had lost faith in the government by that time, and they went out and dug their neighbors out of the rubble themselves. When the Zapotecs of Juchitan overthrew the PRI municipal government in 1981, the city and region were invaded by federal troops; arrests and harassment ensued, and many were disappeared.

Throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Zapatista movement was slowly and quietly organizing among primarily Mayan populations of Mexico’s southernmost state of Chiapas. Mexico’s then President Carlos Salinas de Gortari went to great lengths to ensure that the movement’s opposition to NAFTA did not become news for the international press. On the day that NAFTA went into effect, January 1, 1994, the Zapatistas thrust themselves onto the global stage by overtaking the city of San Cristobal de las Casas. They subsequently became the inspiration of new, identity and economic justice based social movements all over the world. In 2007, the annual “teachers’ strike” in Oaxaca City became the impetus for widespread social and identity based unrest in Oaxaca and other regions of southern Mexico that continues to this day. As this cursory review of peak events makes clear, the NAFTA debates did a great disservice to Mexican history, society, and its peoples. Indigenous, farmer, working class, and other populations have historically advocated for themselves in the most democratic and spirited way possible; they needed no tutelage from their northern neighbor. While it is certainly true that the PRI became increasingly corrupt and authoritarian over time, the broad brush of backwardness and corruption with which Mexico was painted in the NAFTA debates wrongfully painted the country as a nation of oppressed victims who were incapable of lobbying and advocating for themselves. However, this narrative, as well as the negotiating tactics of U.S. trade negotiators, ensured that the U.S. held the upper hand in NAFTA, as well as other aspects of its geopolitical relations with Mexico.

Trump also takes generous liberties in his portrayals of Mexico. According to him, NAFTA has allowed Americans to be victimized by cunning and crafty Mexicans. Here, Mexico and Mexicans are recast as sneaky and underhanded opportunists who have “stolen” American jobs and stealthily managed to export more to the U.S. than the U.S. does to Mexico (e.g., the “60 million dollar trade deficit”). Shame on them for prospering as NAFTA promised they would do. In the meantime, they have also managed to become the source of our nation’s drug addiction problems and, if that were not enough, they “illegally” migrate northward in zombie-like droves. Trump’s answer to all of these alleged assaults? “Build a wall.”

Trump has turned history on its head to create a unique American victimhood narrative.

American exceptionalism has been replaced by American victimization. Although the U.S. stole nearly half of Mexican territory in the U.S.-Mexico war, and foisted NAFTA’s environmental and labor side agreements on our southern neighbor as an eleventh hour surprise, it is now the U.S. that is the victim of Mexico’s vulpine opportunism. As Rosenthal noted in a recent NY Times article, Trump is like the middle school student who blames wildly and indiscriminately, and embraces victim status like a torch. Furthermore, with pronouncements that “the U.S. has been taken advantage of by countries all over the world,” Trump has elevated this uniquely American victim status to a universal level, while at the same time burying the uniqueness of Mexico-U.S. relations in an inchoate heap of global foreign relations.

Trump is correct that NAFTA accelerated the movement of U.S. jobs south of the border. The threat to U.S. jobs and environmental concerns were widely debated in the months leading up to the agreement’s passage as the trade treaty became bound up in presidential electoral campaigns. “NAFTA” became a household word, and U.S. workers picketed on the streets to try and save their jobs. While the Bill Clinton campaign quickly took the lead with the innovative idea of accompanying “soft law” accords to allay environmental and labor concerns, roguish Ross Perot stumped across the country with evocations of a “giant sucking sound.” The “giant sucking sound” to which he referred was the anticipated rush of U.S. manufacturing jobs south of the border, which is exactly what happened. The $20-plus per hour that American manufacturing jobs might earn cannot compare to the $7-$10 per day paid to Mexican laborers.

When Trump’s phantasmagoric imagination leads him to claim that he will repatriate all these jobs to the U.S., he fails to account for the fact that most Americans will suddenly be incapable of purchasing the staples of clothes, appliances, and food that they have come to rely on at cheap prices. A T-shirt that now costs $8 could conceivably cost $20 or more, even if produced at the miserably low minimum wage that has been fixed at the lower end of the U.S. economy for years. Tomatoes, strawberries, and avocados will become prohibitively expensive if we have a trade war with Mexico, cheating the already undernourished sectors of food insecure American populations of the opportunities for nutritious food. Tweet that in the early morning hours. Calls for a renegotiation of NAFTA are not new. In fact, the Mexican government or sectors of the Mexican population have repeatedly called for the renegotiation of key provisions, only to have those pleas fall on deaf ears. Most notably, Mexican farmers have called relentlessly for the repeal of U.S. grain subsidies to American agribusiness. The essence of “free trade” is that the government not intervene in the market, instead allowing the proverbial “free hand” to regulate and harmonize both market and society. Something as simple as grain subsidies sits in direct violation of free trade principles, but many features of NAFTA are in fundamental opposition to free trade.

In the case of U.S. grain subsidies, the result has been that U.S. farmers have been able to flood the Mexican market with grains—flour and corn in particular—that are cheaper to purchase than locally grown Mexican grain products. One might counter, “Isn’t that a good thing? ‘Competition’ has driven down grain prices,” but the problem is that this competition has not taken place on a fair playing field. U.S. farmers receive regular and generous subsidies, while Mexican farmers receive little or none. Moreover, Mexican farmers are displaced and unemployed, having witnessed their own local markets for grain or flour dry up. What do farmers or others do when they lack employment or any feasible means to provide for themselves or their families? They migrate north.

The fact of the matter is that “free trade” has never been free under NAFTA.

It also certainly has not been fair, characterized frequently by U.S. strong-arm tactics toward Mexico— not the other way around as Trump, in his Alternate Universe Version of Reality decries. If NAFTA were faithful to the principles of free trade, we would not have borders that prevent the free movement of people (i.e., labor)—and certainly not border walls. Labor power is as much a commodity as a set of eyeglasses, an iPod, or a car. Without borders between the U.S., Mexico, and Canada—or at least dramatically lessened border controls, as in the EU case—labor would have been able to move freely and unionize across the three countries. This type of movement and activity might have created the opportunity for a united labor front, as well as a fair competition for wages that might have driven wages upwards throughout the three participatory NAFTA nations. Instead, the U.S.-Mexico border, in particular, creates a captive labor force that pursues survival through largely two means: either work at slave labor wages that, on balance, have either remained stagnant or have actually shrunk in proportion to the basic necessities Mexicans can purchase since the introduction of NAFTA, or pursue its “free trade” rights through criminalized means—“illegal” migration.

Perhaps Trump wants the border wall in order to keep cheap labor in Mexico, rather than to keep immigrants out.

The disenfranchised white electorate that brought Trump to power has every right to be angry about their impoverished conditions, but it is hardly Mexicans or any other developing nation population that is to blame. On the contrary, they have suffered as much and more than U.S. labor in the global race to the bottom that globalization has introduced. Labor needs to unite across borders, but the very subterfuge of borders makes that impossible for most to imagine.

We have never had free trade between the U.S. and Mexico because the border between the two nations makes that impossible. The border—now threatened to become a border wall—ensures that Mexico remains the province of astonishingly cheap labor and excruciatingly difficult living conditions for millions. Trump is correct that it is to fleeing U.S. corporations that disenfranchised populations should look as the source of their own economic disempowerment.

But the solution is not a wall. A wall will only ensure that Mexicans are more trapped than ever to remain in Mexico and this, in turn, will further ensure that rapacious U.S. corporations have a steady and cheap labor pool upon which to rely. A wall will ensure that they have more economic reason than ever to remain in Mexico and, if the wall is actually successful as a migration barricade, likely more factories than ever will move to Mexico. Why would they not? Perhaps Trump is waiting for some of these multinationals to flip open their humanitarian credentials, but likely not. He made his fortune partly through multi-nationally owned businesses that relied on cheap labor elsewhere, and it is unlikely that he will move his own tie manufacturing factory from China to Iowa anytime soon. Whatever profit he makes would evaporate overnight. The primary reason that these corporations move overseas is that the one production factor over which they have the most control—the cost of labor power—is easiest to manipulate and advantage themselves of on the far side of national borders.

NAFTA was also supposed to create sufficient economic opportunity in Mexico that Mexicans would not be required to migrate—legally or not—for economic survival. In my teaching to undergraduates who frequently suffer the same illusion as Trump—that Mexican immigrants have willy nilly free choice in their decision to migrate—migration is shaped by both push and pull factors. Who wants to pack up, leave their family, move to a foreign country in which you do not speak the dominant language, are hunted down by police, and are clearly the marginalized other?

The majority of Mexican migration that has taken place over the past 20 years since the signing of NAFTA has taken place as a survival strategy—and often the only strategy left to economically disenfranchised and poor Mexicans. If I had to break the law to feed my family, I would damned sure do it as well. Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric vis-à-vis Mexico amounts to a criminalization of the poor with racist under or overtones that are essential to all American criminalization discourses. His heartfelt embrace of wanton ignorance about basic geopolitics, globalization and NAFTA is embarrassing to a fault, and one wishes that perhaps he practiced some bathroom reading rather than bathroom tweeting.

As if “crafty” Mexicans’ alleged offenses in the areas of trade and immigration were not enough, they are apparently responsible for America’s drug addiction and opioid crisis as well.

This might well be the ultimate criminalization, because drug addicted persons and dealers are considered the ultimate “other” to mainstream American society. According to Trump’s alternative facts universe, Mexico is the dealer and American addicted persons are merely the unwitting victims. In reality, it is big Pharma that is responsible for the U.S. opioid crisis and public health threat. According to the CDC, over 33,000 people in the U.S. alone died of opioid overdoses last year. People frequently become addicted to opioid-based painkillers after being prescribed them by medical professionals. When the prescriptions run dry, they frequently turn to heroin sold on the streets. Sure, Mexico is a trafficking route and a producing nation for everything from pot to crystal meth, but if Trump wants to play the blame game for America’s addiction crisis, he should be looking at the pharmaceutical companies who got opioid based painkillers fast tracked through the FDA. It has been known for decades that opioids are one of the most addictive of all drugs and, as many of the U.S. veterans who were overprescribed these poison pills by the VA as a method to deal with their PTSD will tell you, detox and recovery requires several days of projectile vomiting and ungodly sickness. Addicted persons frequently keep taking opioids or any other drug not because they want to, but to, understandably, avoid the febrile sickness that ensues in their absence.

To a great extent, the drug wars that ripped Mexican society asunder for almost a decade were fueled by the poverty and disenfranchisement created by NAFTA. It is not news to say that when there is economic disenfranchisement and lack of opportunity, people—especially virile youth—migrate toward the black market. Mexico’s cartel wars claimed an excess of 50,000 lives, and introduced a level of barbarous violence into Mexican society that was simply unheard of before. NAFTA inadvertently helped with that as well. The trafficking routes that were opened up by the sudden increase in commerce across the U.S.-Mexico border made the temptation to traverse directly through Mexico—rather than around it—too much of a temptation. If Trump thinks that a wall will deter drug traffickers or quell American appetites for opioids, he should recall that the Sinaloa Cartel’s leader, El Chapo, made his most recent escape from a top security prison through a hole dug underneath his cell shower. He then breezed through a mile long tunnel on a motorcycle. Walls are for toddlers, not big boys.

Finally, for all of its faults, NAFTA introduced a new era of relative stability and hospitality in diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Mexico. While Americans are often oblivious to this historical fact, Mexicans live every day with the knowledge that they once owned Texas and much of the western territories of the contemporary U.S. Considering the tremendous economic and social costs of NAFTA—costs that have been born largely by the poor, working classes, and shrinking middle classes of both nations—one would think that a judicious president would not want to sacrifice what could nominally be considered a new era of diplomacy between the two nations. To insult the current Mexican president with petulant demands and threats to put “boots on the ground” to capture “bad hombres” reaches heretofore unscaled heights of realpolitik stupidity. Mexico and Mexicans are not the cause of U.S. economic or social problems.

The one percent—like Trump and his cohort—are. Corporations choose to move to Mexico and other countries of the “Global South” because the costs of labor there are a fraction of that in the U.S.—a consequence of labor protectionism blended with highly racialized and gendered ideas about the labor performed by the west’s proverbial “others.” These profits line the pockets of global financial elites like Trump, not the pockets of poor Mexicans, Chinese, or Indonesians.

I conducted anthropological fieldwork among factory workers in a Mexican border city for almost a year and a half; most of these workers barely have a pot to piss in, face chronic food insecurity, and use the pallets discarded from imported production materials to build roughshod shelter. They advocate for themselves every day— partly just by staying alive. Trump’s racist rhetoric criminalizes Mexicans in general, Mexican immigrants in particular, and the nation as a whole as an unwanted corner drug dealer.

His proud ignorance and distaste for diplomacy are putting relations between the two countries at risk when, for all the faults of NAFTA, these relations are the best that they have been in the entire history of relations between the two neighboring nations. Finally, the Mexican economy has, indeed, grown under NAFTA and Mexico, as a nation, has become a critical player on the world stage and in the western hemisphere. Trump is foolish to bully what he ignorantly believes to be a weak southern neighbor because this southern neighbor might finally lose patience and punch back. And rightfully so.


Suzanne Simon is assistant professor of anthropology at the Univerity of North Florida and author of Sustaining Borderlands in the Age of NAFTA.