Ken Salazar, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, met with the Los Angeles Times for more than an hour while visiting California in November. He was eager to talk up the celebrations surrounding the U.S.-Mexico diplomacy bicentennial. We were eager to talk about the border. The pas de deux featured a lot of platitudes, a couple of tense moments, and a number I can’t shake: 13,000.
That was the estimate Salazar gave for the number of Mexicans who were studying at our universities. We’ve been friends with Mexico for 200 years, and that’s all our diplomacy could muster? By comparison, our geopolitical adversary China had north of 300,000 on our campuses.
The reason for the gap between the two nations is obvious: Chinese students bring in an estimated $15 billion to the economy each year. Mexico’s economy is robust — the 15th largest in the world — but China is second only to the U.S. Apparently that number matters more than those 200 years.
And therein lies the rub.
Instead of sending 300,000 students to the U.S. like China does, Mexico is being trampled by those two giants: China funnels fentanyl through Mexico to the United States, and the U.S. exports guns to Mexico so the cartels can protect their product. It’s an ugly triangle of trade.
And yet when drugs and guns claim lives on both sides of the southern border, Mexico is chastised for not doing more. More what exactly? President Andrés Manuel López Obrador had his own critique for Americans this month: “Why don’t you take care of your young people? Why don’t you take care of the serious problem of social decay? Why don’t (you) temper the constant increase in drug consumption?”
He raises reasonable questions. American politicians don’t have great answers to offer, though.
Instead, calls for U.S. military intervention have grown in some circles, because there are those who rarely see a problem that an endless war couldn’t exacerbate. And if the U.S. were to send troops into Mexico? They would face a vast arsenal of weapons made in America.
That’s not Mexico’s fault. The nation has no equivalent to the 2nd Amendment. Roughly 50 gun permits are issued per year. There’s only one store in all of Mexico where it is legal to buy a gun, and it is controlled by the military. Legal gun sales in Mexico are not the problem.
However it is estimated that over 200,000 guns are trafficked into Mexico from the U.S. each year. The U.S. gun industry has been arming Mexican drug cartels for as long as there have been Mexican drug cartels. It’s a sad reality that was only driven home by the ambassador’s numbers from our conversation in November: 300,000 students from China, 13,000 from Mexico.
This dynamic exposes the inherent flaw in our approach to foreign policy. We expect other nations to be the ideological purists we lack the fortitude to be. And every now and then a world leader reminds us of our hypocrisy.
Sometimes it comes from an enemy like Russian President Vladimir Putin, who recently called out America’s own social ills after critiques from Biden.
Sometimes it’s a friend like López Obrador.
We supply most of the world’s guns. We have long been the most prolific drug users in the world. And what do we do? Blame one of our oldest friends for the trouble we’ve caused.
LZ Granderson is an Op-Ed columnist for the Los Angeles Times.