"Poor Mexico," former Mexican president Porfirio Díaz is said to have remarked. "So far from God and so close to the United States."
In 2017 Mexico suffered its worst year in modern history for homicides. Government reports state there were 29,168 murders. That brings the national homicide rate to 22.5 per 100,000 inhabitants.
Although US president Donald Trump's claim that Mexico is "now rated the number one most dangerous country in the world," is exaggerated, these figures are indicative of the public safety crisis in Mexico.
Public safety issues are no new theme in Mexico, but rhetoric regarding the source of instability usually centres around drug violence. While this is a factor, the primary contributor to this violence is the flow of cheap and accessible weapons smuggled in from the United States. The US is not only the world leader in firearms manufacturing but is also one of the largest arms importers. Since 2004, when the Bush administration lifted previous bans on the sale of automatic weapons, US-origin weapons have been imported into Mexico at enormous rates.
Cartel weapon seizures in previous years have found almost 90 per cent of arms come from the US. According to Mexican research organisation CESOP, weapons move into Mexico at a rate of almost 2,000 units per day.
Mexican-based drug trafficking organisations obviously play a huge role in the importation, distribution, and use of these weapons. The 'War on Drugs', initiated by President Calderón in 2006, militarised the conflict. As the US and Mexico ramped up cartel conflict, criminal groups imported more weapons to compete. These weapons are filtering down to all levels of criminal conflict in Mexico and Central America.
Liberalisation of bilateral trade through NAFTA meant that while the border opened up legitimate trade, drug smuggling operations were allowed to expand. This meant weapons and cash would flow back south. Wholesale of arms with few restrictions along border states means that US arms can be easily mobilised.
As such, US gun policy is not only harming its own citizens, but it is a major contributor to Latin American insecurity. The regional impact is devastating, especially when the rates of gun violence that flow into Central America are considered.
Once weapons are in Mexico, it is easy for them to be shifted further south. These nations posses staggeringly high annual homicide rates, with El Salvador the highest at 60 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, followed by Honduras (42.8), and Guatemala (26.1). Of these homicides, the Pan American Health Organization and the World Health Organization found that around 75 per cent were committed with firearms. For perspective, the US averages around 4.8 per cent, while Australia averages just 1 per cent.
Framing this as either solely a gun control issue or a drug trafficking issue is unhelpful. The two are inextricably linked, as are the negative effects of NAFTA on regional security. It is necessary to v
iew these issues from their roots. Relaxed gun policy in the US makes it tremendously easy to transport military-grade weapons over the border. At the same time, as the world's largest consumer of narcotics, there is never a shortage of cross-border cash flow. The economics of the situation compliment the conditions for criminal activity.
Public safety policy has been relatively similar over the last decade. Gun violence rates shot up in 2006 when Calderón began the 'War on Drugs'. President Nieto had success between 2012 and 2014 in reducing violence, but recent surges in 2016 and 2017 have indicated a regression. It seems 2018 will top the 2017 record.
Public safety is high on the political agenda, and this year's elections saw 629 federal seats up for grabs, including the presidency. In total, 82 per cent of Mexicans agree that public security has worsened in the past year, and this played a role in Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s election win. He easily won the race against the historically-dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).
President-elect López Obrador is the leader of the left-wing National Regeneration Movement (Morena) Party and has made pledges to increase public spending, raise the minimum rage to improve economic inequality and end the drug war in three years time. His projects are optimistic, and they provide a much-needed source of hope for an embattled Mexican public. He is not without his critics. Many are wont to point out his ties to ultra-conservative Social Encounter Party (PES) and staunch pro-NAFTA party officials as primary obstacles to these objectives.
Emmett Howard is the International Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.