“Border Violence Spillover to the U.S. Needs to Be Acknowledged”

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This article: “Border Violence Spillover to the U.S. Needs to Be Acknowledged” has me thinking.

Sylvia Longmire, the author of the article over at Fox Latino, is a former senior border security analyst for the State of California and author of Cartel: The Coming Invasion of Mexico’s Drug War. I’ve seen her around the internet in my research on the drug war, and I know two things about her work: we have different perspectives on this issue, but, as far as I can tell, she knows her stuff.

Longmire generally writes from a security perspective while I advocate a peacebuilding perspective. So when I read her article on border violence spillover, I felt compelled to point out a couple of things.

First of all, wherever we disagree, she’s likely right about this. Longmire is raising a red flag about the escalation of drug-trade related violence and our lack of a framework for addressing incidences in the U.S. She writes:

“DHS officials have even stated in Congressional testimony that the agency doesn’t keep track of crime statistics involving cartel-on-cartel attacks in the U.S. … There is no standardized definition of spillover violence, and this is part of the problem.”

It’s unacceptable that our government would send women and men in uniform and over a billion dollars in taxpayer funds to aid a militarized law enforcement effort in a neighbor state and have no framework for accounting for incidences of related violence inside our borders. Many analysts, myself included, argue that the militarized response to the drug markets is increasing violence and failing to reduce the trade in illegal drugs. And Americans have long feared that this violence would enter our own territory. But how can we know if our government doesn’t define and measure it?

This is where Longmire and I agree – definitions and data matter. We need to use them in our efforts to create a safer society.

But I also have an issue with her article. Much of her article focuses on a bombing incident in Brownsville, Texas, for which police have not yet apprehended any suspects. Presenting as evidence only the fact that the bombing victim was charged with marijuana trafficking, Longmire writes, “There’s no proof the bomb was sent by a drug trafficking organization, but all the existing evidence is definitely pointing in that direction.” She intends to take various U.S. authorities to task for failing to account for possible spillover violence, and does so with the following phrases:

  • “Heads can literally roll in the streets of El Paso or Nogales…”
  • “Mexican cartels and their minions…”
  • “an innocent five year-old was burned to within inches of her life…”
  • Etc.

This sensationalized writing style earns internet clicks and sells papers, sure, but it isn’t objective journalism and it isn’t helping us understand and manage the nuance of drug-trade related violence. It does make people scared, and fear is one of the greatest drivers of violence and conflict. Fear is why we have to take our shoes off in the airport, why we stop and frisk, and why Americans have formed militias on our southern border. None of these tactics have reduced the economic insecurity that leads people to migrate or to engage in illegal economic activity, and none of them have mitigated the fear or the violent choices of those outside our borders. Talking about “minions” and “heads rolling” doesn’t make us safer, it just makes us scared.

We do need to take border violence seriously. And we need to have a calm and honest conversation about why it’s happening. We’re spending billions of dollars each year, in the U.S. and México, shutting down businesses and prosecuting individuals for economic activity that could be legalized, taxed, and safely regulated. Approximately 70,000 people have died as a result of drug-trade related violence since 2006 – some of which comes from the U.S. and Mexican governments – but in that time no one has been directly killed by the use of marijuana. We don’t need to be afraid – we need to be smart. We need to speak responsibly about these issues.

Longmire is not a judge or a law enforcement agent, and she doesn’t know who committed that bombing or why. She does, however, have a large platform from which to speak and a responsibility to choose her words carefully. With yet another double-digit shooting in our country today, on Mother’s day, this is no time to be cavalier in how we discuss violence. This is exactly the time to put our fear, and our guns, away and to get smart about how we make this country and this region safer and more prosperous for everyone.

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