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“Abajo! Rapido!” My dance teacher shouted on a Wednesday afternoon. I was 14. “Hide! Fast!” 

In the middle of warm-up, a firework-like-sound brought everyone in Ms. Rosa’s hip-hop class to a standstill. I did not realize what was happening until I saw armed men on the rooftop of the adjacent building. 

I had heard of shootings between the military and the Mexican gangs—the “War on Drugs”—in my hometown of Matamoros, Tamaulipas in Mexico. Now, I was caught in the crossfire. As my teacher pulled me to a corner away from the windows, my head spun with confusion. The incident must have only lasted a few minutes, but it seemed like an eternity. 

As one of the main producers and exporters of illicit commodities, Mexico is notorious for its public insecurity and blatant inequalities. Mexican drug cartels such as Los Zetas, the largest and most dangerous criminal organization in Mexico, challenge the fabric of my community, and hundreds of others. I was able to reunite with my family that Wednesday afternoon when I was 14, but very few Mexicans possess the same luck I did. 

Mexico’s reality, however, is one exploited by more than just drug lords. According to Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, Associate Professor at George Mason University and author of Los Zetas Inc., the Mexican violence is caused by both the government and groups like Los Zetas. Corruption networks include government officials at all levels of state and local government. Criminal transnational organizations mask the crookedness that is deeply engrained in the nation’s politics. As Oswaldo Zavala, Professor at City University of New York and author of Los Carteles No Existen, describes, “Our ideas about drug trafficking are the result of a tricky narrative conceived by the governments of Mexico and the United States. There is violence, but to a large extent perpetrated by the same State that should be protecting us.” 

There are scores of reasons to which the Mexican government tolerates, promotes and bargains with cartels. One major reason is that violence extends way beyond the drug trade. As Correa-Cabrera mentions, criminal organizations are professional transnational corporations that are money-driven and strongly led by economic interest. The “War on Drugs”―or perhaps the war on natural resources―is based on monetary agendas that involve both the cartels and government institutions in both Mexico and the United States. Such economic opportunity correlates to the territories that are rich in hydrocarbons. For instance, the main zone of natural gas extraction is the Burgos Basin located in northern Mexico. This area of high concentration of coal and shale gas registered the highest levels of violence in the country. Thus, it is clear that politicians are economically benefiting from the war rather than helping it end.

The longstanding crisis in Mexico should not be viewed as a civil matter, but rather a larger international conflict. It is then ironic that the American government claims that Mexico’s violence will “spillover” to their homeland when the U.S. also plays a key role in the war.

What many fail to recognize is the immense impact that U.S. reforms have on Latin America. The guns that sustain the Mexican “War On Drugs” for example, come from the United States. American domestic policy is inciting a war on its own border through its unwillingness to alter gun control laws. American law enforcement both funds and profits from the war. Does that not make the United States an accomplice of the violence? 

We need to dismantle the rhetoric of the “War On Drugs” to foster understanding and solidarity about what happens south of the United States border. As a Mexican-American who has lived in both respective countries, I find it imperative to know the truth about the reality in which I grew up in. Is the “War on Drugs” really about drugs? And if so, who are these infamous drug lords really working for? What are the true incentives of the American government? We can better comprehend drug-related violence in Mexico by accepting that it’s time for the country to completely rebuild its official institutions from scratch, as corruption is too deeply ingrained in the government. Similarly, we must admit that it’s time for America to own up and reconsider its gun laws. It is the responsibility of both Mexicans and Americans to be informed and to recognize that the repercussions of American policies travel south. We must ask ourselves who is truly responsible for the endless deaths and human rights violations in Mexico, so that we may begin to address the real immense corrupt problems in front of us.

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above guest column shows Tamaulipas Governor Francisco Garcia Cabeza de Vaca speaking at a news conference about border security in Hidalgo, Texas, in June. Pictured on his left is Manuel Padilla, Jr., chief of the Rio Grande Valley Border Patrol Sector and commander of the Joint Task Force – West, South Texas Corridor.

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