Like Mali, conflict and violence in México is just now attracting significant international attention despite years of hardship for the people of these countries. There has been a lot of press in the last year, and the last few weeks, that highlights the violence and calls into question the national and international policy choices in México (even though – we hope – the violence may have begun to subside). As far away observers, we have a few narratives to choose from. And for those of us in the U.S., we can have some far-away influence. So, let’s look at what we know.
The challenges of peacebuilding and economic development in México are complex and will likely require years of deliberate action at grassroots, national, and international levels. But increased peacefulness is not impossible or entirely elusive. In México City, a representative from SERAPAZ told me about communities across the country that have used nonviolent direct action to protect their natural resources from organized crime, rejected the ineffective political structure imposed on them by the state, secured their rights to safe and fair work in their mines, and disbanded a corrupt police force, replacing it with community policing and nearly eliminating violence and crime in their community. These grassroots successes, which, I was told, offer hope and inspiration to other Mexican cities, contradict the narrative of Mexican and U.S. state agencies using law enforcement and military to impose order and security from the top-down. The difference between the national scene of appalling violence and local stories of success and possibility calls into question the approaches to security and peacebuilding throughout the Americas.
México is not the only American state facing these challenges, and two different narratives in the history of the hemisphere offer us different possibilities for the future. México and Colombia are different and complicated cases for peacebuilding, to be sure, but they are connected by the violent drug market that has devastated both nations. In one version of the international history, the state of Colombia had a violent drug problem in the 1980s and 1990s, and the state of the U.S., with the program Plan Colombia, brought its military down to the southern continent and solved the problem. Now, the state of México has a violent drug problem, and the Mexican and U.S. governments are attempting to solve it with military approaches once again.
But the same story can be told a different way: in the 1980s and 1990s the people of the southern Americas faced political and economic challenges that led them to use violence as a means to achieve their goals. As they struggled, the people of the northern Americas came to the southern continent with superior technologies of violence and moved their problem northward. The elites from the north and south worked together to remove the violent drug market from the southern continent, and, in response, the people working in this market went to the middle Americas. Today, the technology of elite violence has improved and is being employed on the northern continent, but the people engaged in this market have nowhere else to go.
The first narrative is consistent with centuries of imperial and state-centric political history. But the second offers an alternative, people-centric, nonviolent paradigm for the future. It suggests that by focusing on people, rather than states and militaries, we can build a system for managing competing interests and meeting basic human needs that does not require violence on anyone’s part (the state, the market, or otherwise). Top-down change will be needed to the extent that economic and political structures originate at the state level, but it is not the only option. By understanding the international drug trade as a market, we are likely to discover that peace economics is a much more effective tool in fighting what, truthfully, need not be called a war.