When President Joe Biden lands in Mexico in a few days, he will find a country polarized, with many dead, growing control by narco-cartels and a powerful and popular president who insists in imposing his agenda, and in the process is becoming increasingly authoritarian and divisive.
But Biden also will see a young democracy fighting to remain that, a nation that is creative, combative, happy, alert and given to questioning things, which sees the United States as an opportunity when things go badly in Mexico. For many Mexicans and for many decades, the United States has been an aspiration, an escape valve and the best option for a second life.
The ties between Mexico and the United States are deeply profound. Not just because of the obvious territorial proximity but especially because of the 38 million people of Mexican descent who live in the north.
And yet we are so different.
“Probably nowhere in the world do two countries as different as Mexico and the United States live side by side. As one crosses the border into Mexico from, say, El Paso, the contrast is shocking – from wealth to poverty, from organization to improvisation, from artificial flavoring to pungent spices. But the physical differences are least important. Probably nowhere in the world do two neighbors understand each other so little.”
That is the opening paragraph of the book Distant Neighbors, written in 1984 by New York Times correspondent Alan Riding. And it remains valid, almost four decades later. Mexico and the United States still have enormous differences in salaries and economic growth. And they usually have opposing views on migration, weapons and drug trafficking, among many other issues.
We are very different, but the destinies of both countries are tied to together.
The United States and Mexico share a border that is not a border. Millions have crossed it by swimming, walking across deserts or mountains, or with tourist visas that later expire. An all-time record of 2.7 million people crossed illegally into the United States along the southern border during the past fiscal year.
The border between Mexico and the United States was drawn with a pencil. It is porous because of its very nature, history and habit. It is full of gaps and holes. No one can seal it off. It was created – invented? — after the 1846-1848 war between the two countries and all efforts to mark it, secure it and close it have failed. “Little by little, there have been agreements that qualify the war as one of conquest and expansion against a weak and disorganized enemy,” historian Roger Díaz de Cossío wrote in his book Los Mexicanos en Estados Unidos. It is a border imposed by force, during which Mexico lost half its uncomfortable and frequently violated territory.
The border, for all practical purposes and despite the declartions of politicians, is semi-open. Yes, many are detained and deported. But whole bunches manage to enter. Not even Donald Trump, who bet his presidency on building a great wall that Mexico would pay for, could significantly stop the flow of undocumented migrants.
The United States is the refuge of desperate Latin Americans. And there’s nothing unusual with the poorest and most vulnerable people in the continent leaving for the richest country. That is the natural flow of migration around the world. Who would dare tell the father of a sick child, a single mother without a job or a teenagter threatened by gangs, that they cannot enter the United States.
And like migrants, drugs come in.
With the United States having the largest drug market in the world, it is inevitable that drugs will flow in from the south. More than 59 million people in the United States used illegal drugs or abused prescription drugs in 2019, according to a report. More tha 80,000 died from opioid overdoses in 2021, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. And the great majority of the heroin and methamphetamine consumed in the United States passes through Mexico, according to the non-government Washington Office on Latin America. Those drugs are smuggled into the United States through established border crossing points – curiously, the areas most closely monitored.
Distant neighbors? Sometimes we push each other off, and sometimes we embrace.
After 176 years of forced living next to each other, few things from the neighbor can surprise us. Drugs, migration, the new trade agreement (together with Canada) and weapons trafficking from the United States to Mexico are permanent issues in the tense and long relationship between both countries. Biden and President Andrés Manuel López Obrador will have a lot to talk about. But disagreement is normal. Each one of them answers to different interests and histories.
In the end, Biden and AMLO know what is essential: that Mexico and the United States are tied so tightly together that the only solution is to learn how to live together.
The border is just a thin line.