The U.S.-Mexico Hyperborder: The Boundary Between a Superpower and a Developing Nation
Cars headed north in the Otay Mesa border crossing in Tijuana.
The border between the United States and Mexico is the world’s longest contiguous international divide between a superpower and a developing nation. Long-standing differences between the standards of living and economies of the neighboring nations — as well as their geographical proximity — have provided the framework for a border shaped by numerous complexities and unique levels of hyperactivity. Crime, corruption, free trade, urbanization, resource scarcity, migration, border control, death, and environmental degradation are just some of the influences that have come to define the nature of the hyperborder, making the boundary unique in the contemporary world for the breadth of issues confronting it.
With the intention of fostering economic stability and regional development, NAFTA, which established a free trade bloc between the United States, Canada, and Mexico, went into effect on January 1, 1994. As neoliberal free trade agreements advocate, regulations pertaining to labor, the environment, and trade were all liberalized to facilitate an efficient market system, and the free flow of goods and capital across borders began immediately. The positive effects of NAFTA are considered controversial. Although foreign investment in Mexico has swelled, exports to the United States have surged, and employment in the export-oriented manufacturing companies — known as maquiladoras — has doubled, many would claim that the overall effects of the trade agreement on Mexico, the us, and the border region have been largely detrimental and have not brought widespread prosperity and development. 28 Arguably the most significant impact of NAFTA has been the increase of immigration flows between Mexico and the us since its implementation. When NAFTA was up for debate in the early 1990s, many academic and political advocates claimed that the quintessentially neoliberal economic policy would decrease migration between the neighboring nations. It was argued that MNCs would create jobs for the Mexican people and thus eliminate the need to migrate for survival’s sake. However, since NAFTA’s introduction, contrary to the arguments made by its supporters, the us has been witness to an increase of migration from Mexico. Real wages in Mexico are lower since NAFTA came into effect,29 and between 1994 and 2003 9.3 million people entered the Mexican job market while only 3 million jobs were created.30 These harsh realities have fanned the fire of both the informal sector in Mexico and immigration rates to the United States.
In Mexico, farmworkers exemplify a sector of society that has been especially affected by the free trade agreement. As trade barriers on agricultural goods were lifted, us exports have made their way into the Mexican market and have effectively saturated it. Currently, us wheat products represent 75 percent of the Mexican wheat market, up from 56 percent before NAFTA’s inception.31 In 2001, statistics showed that approximately 6.2 million tons of us-grown corn were exported to Mexico annually — a particularly low blow for the southern nation, considering the crop’s sacred value for the country where corn originated an estimated 4,000 years ago.32 Furthermore, crops grown in the us are often genetically modified, and thus appear to be of better value due to their size, an issue that angers many Mexican farmers and activists who prefer their crops — particularly corn — in their most natural form.33 us government-subsidized crops allow American farmers to keep prices low, crippling Mexican farmers’ ability to compete with the imported goods. At a loss for alternatives, farmers must opt for survival, leading them to migrate, join the informal sector, or increasingly to enter into partnerships with Mexican drug cartels as cultivators of illegal narcotics heading to the us market.
Farmers and other Mexicans that choose to migrate in search of economic opportunities contribute to the urbanization of the border region. Currently the border population (90 percent of which lives in the fourteen sister cities) stands at around 12 million, yet by the year 2020 that statistic is expected to nearly double to 24 million.34 Since NAFTA’s implementation, border cities have become destinations for rural-to-urban migrants seeking employment or staging areas before crossing, a pattern that has created expansive slums around city limits throughout the border region. The rapid population growth in border cities has made it difficult for infrastructure to keep up and has led to water scarcity, a lack of funding, increased vehicle and factory pollution, a degrading environment, health issues such as tuberculosis and a shortage of health-care workers, and higher crime rates. All of these challenges and issues contribute to the hyper state of the region.
Due to economic disparities between the two nations, the us-Mexico border has become a breeding ground for illegal activity. The trafficking of illegal drugs has become a multibillion dollar industry for the Mexican drug cartels, who utilize their geographical proximity to cater to the lucrative us market. Most illegal substances come from Mexico, which has recently displaced Colombia as the us’s key supplier of narcotics. This change of power has been dubbed by many as the “Colombianization of Mexico,” partly because the newfound market control has brought an upsurge in violence that is currently plaguing the nation, particularly the border region. Crimes connected to the drug cartels have reached unprecedented levels: between January and October of 2005 145 people, including 21 police officers and government officials, were killed in drug-related incidents in the border city of Nuevo Laredo alone.35Despite heightened border control, narcotraffickers have successfully increased the drug trade in recent years, exposing a dangerously intricate and perceivably impenetrable web of corruption. Due to the thriving nature of the business, money abounds for bribery and coercion. In order to complete and sustain illegal transactions, payoffs are made at every level, from politicians to police officers to border control officials, thus from the perspective of numerous players, incentives to dissipate the Mexican narcotrafficking industry are absent.
In 2005, deaths on the us side of the border reached unparalleled numbers: at least 464 immigrants perished by the end of the fiscal year, which was a 43 percent increase from 2004. This is largely due to the strengthening of the border control, which in the wake of September 11th has received increased funds from the us government. The funding has been allocated to improve technology and to hire more border personnel, making it more challenging to cross into the us illegally. Traditional crossing points have shifted from more urban, safer routes to rural, hazardous areas, requiring migrants to maneuver unknown, perilous territory and creating a boom in the human smuggling industry.
28. Sandra Polaski, “Jobs, Wages, and Household Income,” in John Audley et al., ed., NAFTA’s Promise and Reality: Lessons from Mexico for the Hemisphere (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2004): 24.
29. Alejandro Nadal, Francisco Aguayo and Marcos Chavez, “Seven Myths About NAFTA. Three Lessons for Latin America,” Interhemispheric Resource Center. November, 2003, (accessed Dec. 30, 2006).
30. Debbie Seidbend, “us Wheat and Corn Exports to Mexico Thrive Under NAFTA-North American Free Trade Agreement,” AgExporter, Jan. 2004, (accessed Sept. 5, 2006).
31. Mark Stevenson, “Mexicans Angered by Spread of Genetically Modified Corn,” Dec. 29, 2001, Associated Press, http://www.genet-info.org/genet/2001/Dec/msg00039.html (accessed Sept. 5, 2006; the original link no longer available, but the article can be found at www.organicconsumers.org.)
33. James Peach, “The Long-Run and the Energy Sector in the us-Mexico Border Region,” in David A. Rohy, ed., The us-Mexican Border Environment: Trade, Energy, and the Environment: Challenges and Opportunities for the Border Region, Now and in 2020, SCERP monograph series no. 7. (San Diego: Southwest Center for Environmental Research and Policy, San Diego State University Press, 2003).
Alfredo Corchado and Tracy Eaton, “Is Mexico Turning Into Colombia?” Dallas Morning News, Oct. 16, 2005.
35. Ted Robbins, “Illegal Immigrant Deaths Burden Border Towns,” All Things Considered, NPR News, Oct. 6, 2006, (accessed Sept. 5, 2006).