Tales from Magdalena: Emigration to the United States and the Threat of Drug Cartels

There is a small, quaint town in the Central-Western Mexican state of Jalisco, located 40 miles from the state capital, Guadalajara, that goes by the name of Magdalena. Known more for its opal mining industry than as a tourist destination, Magdalena’s residents (nearly 20,000) sustain themselves through a multitude of import-export economies including but not limited to agriculture, cattle grazing, and subsistence farming.

While walking the streets of Magdalena, it is not uncommon to see groups of young boys engaged in neighborhood soccer games, door-to-door dairy vendors on horseback, and ostentatious Ford model trucks cruising at high speeds while listening to the latest Mexican narcocorridos, or drug ballads, that reverberate throughout the town. And, of course, abuelitas (a colloquial word for grandmothers) can be seen embarking on the daily walk from their homes to nearby markets to buy fresh produce and meats, stopping occasionally to greet and speak with friends and relatives along the way.

It is this tight-knit communal ethos that, for the most part, has driven the pace of life in this town. Most residents, like my own family, have lived in Magdalena or surrounding pueblos for several generations.

But deep roots do not always translate to permanent stay.

Nearly every resident has a relative(s) who lives in El Norte (the United States) or who has recently embarked on the costly, arduous, and often perilous journey towards the U.S.-Mexican border located roughly 1,400 miles north of Magdalena.

This continued out-migration from Magdalena comes at a time when studies show an aggregate decrease in Mexican immigration to the U.S. and a spike in immigration from Central American countries. Yet despite what reports claim, throngs of young people in Magdalena continue to embark on the exodus to the U.S.

A recent high school graduate who after months of unemployment recently found a job as a ranch hand explained the severity of the economic situation for many young people in and around Magdalena:

When someone graduates from high school there is no opportunity for work. So they move to Guadalajara, or head to the United States. From my graduating class of twenty, twelve left to the U.S. to find jobs. And I don’t think they’re ever coming back. But this isn’t just happening in Magdalena; it’s taking place in other pueblos around here as well. Oh, and six of those who stayed have joined the plaza.

The plaza is a drug cartel.

This is the other reality in Magdalena – one that impacts nearly every resident. Even if you obey the law and play by the rules, according to one person, “the drug trade is a permanent fixture in this town and affects you whether you like it or not.”

Plazas use Magdalena to grow, harvest, and package marijuana, known colloquially as hierba. They are highly organized, technologically savvy, and thrive on coercion and clandestine networks that involve local and state police in their daily operations.

Contrary to many reports, the mere presence of a plaza does not incite violence, according to locals. In fact, many believe that a stable drug cartel keeps order and stimulates local economies by offering small business owners low interest loans that would have otherwise been denied by loan agencies.

But multiple jostling plazas do lead to violence.

In recent years, Magdalena has been the site of at least 140 reported deaths and kidnappings related to the drug cartel. Today, only one plaza controls the town, which, locals claim, is the reason for the decline in violence. Membership in plazas is almost entirely composed of young men who were either victims of coercion and forced to join, or who were enticed by the lucrative narcotraficante lifestyle that promises fame and fortune to the bold and daring. As a result, young people are often confronted with the searing reality: join a cartel or emigrate to the U.S

The U.S. and Mexico have stepped up efforts to increase security and combat and decrease the power and influence of Mexican drug cartels like those in Magdalena through a series of policies, but, still, sophisticated drug networks remain.

So is there a viable panacea?

Above all, the lack of economic opportunity is the unquestionable genesis of out-migration and drug cartel involvement. But it is also this same out-migration that injects millions of U.S. dollars into national, regional, and local Mexican economies. Economic remittances from the U.S. to Mexico makeup the second largest contribution to Mexico’s foreign income according to a report by a multinational Spanish banking group. In 2013, according to the Banco De Mexico (Bank of Mexico), Mexican residents received more than $21 billion dollars in remittances.

But some studies suggest that remittances do more than assuage economic hardship. A paper published in May of 2014 linked homes that received remittances to lower crime and homicide rates. The report also claimed that homes that received higher rates of remittances were less susceptible to participate in illicit and illegal activities.

Although economic remittances provide temporary relief for poverty stricken homes and potentially decrease crime, the Mexican government cannot rely on these forms of foreign aid. It must provide more for its citizens by sustaining its transparency reform, investing in the growing energy and oil industry, and expanding state sponsored initiatives for local and regional secondary and primary educational infrastructures.

While the U.S. must also take accountability for Mexico’s shortcomings – particularly as the largest consumer of Mexican drugs and the manufacturer of weapons, which find their way to Mexico – it is time for Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto to fulfill the promises he made to his country at the outset of his presidency.

Last month, Peña Nieto traveled to the White House to meet with President Obama. Together, they spoke about issues related to immigration, security, and economic development. On the drug cartel issue, President Obama stated, “Our commitment is to be a friend and supporter of Mexico in its efforts to eliminate the scourge of violence and the drug cartels that are responsible for so much tragedy inside of Mexico.”

A cursory reading of Obama’s remarks suggests that the Mexican government has taken the necessary steps to eliminate drug cartels.

But U.S. drug consumer culture, continued emigration, and stories of towns like Magdalena paint an entirely different picture.

Failing to act towards new and sustained progressive governance as we embark on this new year will only continue to tarnish the beauty and potential of towns like Magdalena throughout Mexico, which continue to be sullied by the continued legacy of loss, violence, and departure of young people.

Photo (unmodified) by Alex Lomix / CC BY-NC 2.0

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