“Obama and Calderón shared a lunch of tortilla soup, fish and steak with cilantro, and coconut cream custard.” — La Jornada, Mexico City

…and Obama then ran for the “sanitarios” where he stayed for three hours, if it was the tortilla soup I tried last week. Yes, this week the One was in town, Ciudad Mehico, to talk to President Calderon about Mexican-US relations, or the unholy goodamn mess as it is known.

Pulling out all the stops, the Mexican government honoured the President-elect with a traditional south of the border welcome, hijacking the motorcade and diverting it to a barrio ATM where Obama was forced to drain his account at knifepoint. As a parting gift, the President was given a colourful poncho and three of his security details were executed and decapitated in the desert.

OK OK, a little exaggerated, but pretty much how Mexico is viewed from the US these days, and how the country views itself. Ninety per cent of drugs consumed in the US come through Mexico, and for the last year or so, a crackdown on cartels in the northern border states has principally served to create a vicious turf war between the Gulf and Sinaloa cartels over the easy territory that remains. The result has been a bloodbath in the north, with 6500 murders last year. In the lead up to Christmas, cities like Tijuana and Juarez had weekends of thirty murders each, with torture and decapitation an added plus.

Because la violenza has become so all-encompassing, it has now started to spill into the hitherto untouched tourist areas. A fish restaurant on La Revolucion, Tijuana’s main tequila and donkey s-x show boulevard, was raided a few weeks ago by gunmen looking for a gang rival, with the fanny pack diving out windows to escape the gunfire. Canadians have been particularly unlucky with three deaths last year from crossfire (they are, it is said, slower to duck). Gangs now venture with impunity into San Diego and Arizona to settle scores.

The spread of the violence has pushed the other main issue — NAFTA — to the side to a degree. Mexico is petrified that Obama will act on some of the protectionist rhetoric he deployed to win Michigan and Ohio, and that the whole US, faced with this roiling anarchy of drug lords and s-x murderers (the “femicide” killings of young women in Ciudad Juarez — 700 dead so far — recommenced in the new year, after an 18 month hiatus) will simply withdraw from the brave new world of globalisation.

It’s hard to see how though. The maquiladoras — assembly plants — that sprang up along the border in the wake of NAFTA pay about 80-100 pesos (about $A10) a day for workers to assemble toasters, etc all the way up to car body parts. There’s no level at which the US is competitive, and no-one is suddenly going to pay triple price for a toaster.

Indeed Mexico’s chief worry is that, almost before it’s begun, the NAFTA advantage is over, as China takes over these sectors with wages so low that the extra transport costs are absorbed. Even Mexicans won’t do factory work for $A2 a day, so the country is trapped between two extremes. “Cursed by being far from God and close to the United States,” as one ex-President put it.

What’s happened in fact is that the drug trade and the violence accompanying it has largely sprung up from the impact of NAFTA — from the promise of wealth or betterment extended to many that then withers away. The population shift to the north in pursuit of NAFTA jobs has created a whole underemployed class unwilling to return to subsistence farming, and willing to either chance a crossover to the US, or becoming part of a drug crew.

For years the issue has simmered under Bush but the sopa, a stew like dish (there will be an exam) has never come to the boil. It will during Obama’s term, which is why this visit — a traditional one of presidents-elect — carried a greater than usual heft for people on both sides of the border, a division not merely between nations, but the point where the first world meets the third.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey