The long border between Mexico and the United States has always been a source of conflict and violence. Now Trump is taking it to a new level.
The US-Mexico border is fraught with historical significance and with the stuff of stories. The classic Hollywood Western, for example, brings us the recurring motif of the Mexican villain who tries to reach the Mexican border in one hell of a ride, hounded by a US-American sheriff and a band of eager helpers
A hundred years ago, the insurgent Pancho Villa lured voluntary gringos to cross the border from Mexico to the United States with the promise of “gold and glory.” Ride with Pancho Villa, El Liberator of Mexico! Viva la revolución was his call to action. Villa was also the first-ever person to attack the United States on its own territory. He and his army of soldiers forayed three miles into New Mexico, raided the town of Columbus and captured weapons. His troop was quickly and decisively defeated, and although he himself survived, fleeing back to Mexico, many of his men did not.
The United States then sent some 100,000 soldiers across the border to round up Pancho Villa. After an unsuccessful six months, however, it withdrew its troops—interestingly without invading Mexico City, as it had done six decades prior in the Mexican-American war, when Mexico lost nearly half of its territory to the United States.
All that to say, this 1,954-mile long frontier has always been a hotbed of strife and contention.
Yet, the times, they are a-changin’. Today, it is the new man in the White House who is promising his nation gold and glory, this time in the form of jobs and grandeur. For this he is railing against Mexico, the poor neighbor to the south that is, if anything, struggling with a lack of solid leadership within its own borders. In that context, the slogan Viva la revolución no longer has currency and is, at most, a line dropped by armchair intellectuals when getting together for a Mezcal-Margarita.
Indeed, a Mexican revolution would need to tackle not only its own government but also:
• the new protectionism in the north
• organized crime in Mexico
• the missing common ground
• the corrupt political class
• a filthy rich upper class and extreme income inequality, and
With little prospect for a successful turn of events, then, hope has given way to feelings of anxiety and despair in Mexican society.
Mexico remains weak and divided even in the face of Trumpian threats and insults. President Peña Nieto’s approval ratings have plummeted to 12 percent—making him the most unpopular chief of state which the United Mexican States (official name) have ever had. Nor does it help his approval ratings, we may assume, that his ability to own the room appears rather dwarfed next to Trump’s braggadocio. Finally, the fact that Mexico is now engaging in preparations for new presidential elections, to take place in just one and a half years, is presently doing more to paralyze and divide Mexican society than to unite it.
To his credit, Peña Nieto is countering Trump’s America First with México primero. Yet this effort to secure new export markets for Mexico comes too late, indeed, decades too late. It could involve, for example, crafting bilateral agreements with partners to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the free trade agreement that was cancelled by Trump as soon as he took office.
Mexico’s far-ranging dependency on the United States is reflected primarily in its exports, with as much as 80% going to the north.
The country’s most important source of foreign exchange earnings are:
• Crude oil: sold at a very low cost to the United States, and sometimes bought back at a high cost as gasoline.
• Industrial products: Mexico imports manufacturing parts from the north, assembles them using cheap labor, and sends them back to the north.
• Remesas: The money which migrants, both documented and undocumented, send back to Mexico, and which alleviates Mexico’s poverty at least in part.
However, all of these relatively reliable sources of income are being scaled down significantly since Donald Trump took power.
A love-hate relationship
In that context, tourism remains as the only major source of income. The number of tourists from the United States had been declining in the last few years, attributed to rising fears over drug violence. Yet now, with the peso becoming devalued as a result of Trump’s policies, tourism by US-Americans to Mexico, especially northern Mexico, may see an upswing. After all, travelers come to Mexico not only for the beaches or to party, but also to go shopping, get medical treatments or undergo plastic surgery.
What surfaces too in this time is the love-hate feeling which Mexicans have harbored for decades, probably since the defeat of 1848, for their big neighbors to the north. For example, they’re disdainful about the gringos, but are world champions in drinking Coca-Cola. Or, their own upper class emulates the US-American lifestyle and jets to San Antonio or Miami to go shopping, unfazed by the rampant poverty in their own backyards. Thus, long before Trump, the rich have been building walls: around their mansions, private schools and shopping malls. In their book, too, the definition of security is limited to security forces, barbed wire and armored vehicles and excludes any notion of “social security.”
And, still today, many poor Mexicans see their only chance in the United States. However, contrary to Trump’s invective, it is not the criminals who go to the north. The latter are more prone to join the more lucrative death squads of domestic organized crime. Instead, it is the honest and hardworking young people who are taking on the hardships of migration and its associated challenges. Central American migrants, especially, often flee from death squads, from violence, into the United States.
Thus, the plot of the classic Hollywood Western is actually the inverse. We do not have criminals fleeing from the North to the South, hounded by prosecutors, so much as criminals driving average citizens out of their own countries, from the South to the North, across the Rio Grande. Nonetheless, the America’s First sheriff is not likely to acknowledge the existence of any script other than his own.
This article was translated from the original German.
 The present-day states of Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah and parts of Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming. Texas had already been lost prior to that.