William A. Walker III

Pastor, Professor, Theologian, Spiritual Director


Conference at UNAM in Mexico City: Philosophical and Political Dimensions of NAFTA

Borrowing significantly from my dissertation and drawing on the work of Enrique Dussel and Mark Lewis Taylor, the title of my talk is “Globalization, NAFTA and the U.S.-Mexico Drug War: Twenty Years of Free Trade as Decolonial Struggle.”  I am especially looking forward to hearing from Dussel himself, as he will be giving the keynote address.  I will share details from my presentation afterwards.

NAFTA Colloquium Póster ColoquioTLCAN

A Christian Liberationist Response to the Crisis at the United States-Mexico Border

In this paper I will discuss the problem of violence related to the U.S.-Mexico drug trade as understood within the framework of political and economic globalization.  This will require a brief overview of my political-theological method.  I will then provide a liberationist theological reflection on the problem from a North American Christian perspective.  In closing I will offer a short ethical analysis in light of this theological reasoning.[i]

From the perspective of theology as a discipline, the impetus for this essay is the concern that, while liberation theology as traditionally conceived has perhaps run its course, the usefulness of the tools given to political theologians by liberation theology can only be judged by their continuous applicability.  In more concrete terms, therefore, the intention here is for the application of a liberationist hermeneutic to actually aid in the development of a historical project of liberation for the crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Theological and Socio-analytical Methodology

As Clodovis Boff (2005, p 30) once advised, theology must first of all incline its ear to the social sciences if it hopes to be liberating, while also avoiding the collapse of one distinct discipline into another.  As such, for political theology, the social sciences will be genuinely constitutive of what theology can say and what can be its theoretical organization (Boff 2005,     p 30).  And as with any contextual theology, its historical situation and its particular theological concerns will also be mutually constitutive of each other.  Political theology in general and liberation theology in particular function to sensitize people of faith to what is believed to be God’s will in a specific historical setting, and to inspire their commitment to participating in God’s mission of reconciliation in that setting.  Thus the aim in political theology is to bring faith and action together more effectively (Sousa Santos 2009).

Liberation theology is distinct not only for its content but also for its method.  Undergirding this method is the Judeo-Christian-theological commitment to the preferential option for the poor and the oppressed and to seeing change realized for the people in these circumstances.  Secondly, there is the process of socio-historical analysis and the examination of the structures in place that enable subjugation.  Finally, there is the critical-theological reflection on praxis for carrying out action that contributes to the goal of liberation in light of the unjust conditions in place.  Hence, liberation theology is praxis in history and society – that is, critical reflection on action already enacted and largely informed by the context and concerns of a given situation (Metz 1980, p 73).  As such, it begins by way of socio-historical analysis.

The Larger Context: Globalization

The crisis in Mexico caused by the drug trade is seen here to be exemplary of the more universal context of globalization itself.  Globalization is understood in this case as a process or set of processes that embodies a transformation in the spatial organization of social relations and transactions in terms of increased intensity, extensity, velocity and impact (Held & McGrew 1999, p 16).  These relations and transactions are not only economic and political in nature but also culture and environmental.

They involve changing and complex regimes of differentiation and homogenization that have constructed new paths and limits for global economic flows.  Other common byproducts include the rapid reconfiguration of territories especially with respect to patterns of economic exchange.  The invisibility of economic power structures and their ability to develop independently of legitimate political power is a key challenge brought about by globalization.  This challenge is exacerbated by the permeation and extension of this economic power beyond national borders.

Moreover, the process of globalization is replete with contradictions, uncertainties and unevenness.  For this reason, globalization is not simply coterminous with neoliberalism.[ii]  In other words, few globalizing factors at work are purely economic and therefore cannot be reduced to the logic of free trade and the international division of labor or class.

At the same time, globalization can still be conceived in many respects as a context in which “devising alternatives to neoliberal market capitalism has become increasingly difficult” Alcoff & Sáenz 2003, p 200).  International deregulation through trade agreements is one of the chief ways the empire of global capitalism is expanded.  In the case of the U.S.-Mexico border, NAFTA brought about increases in foreign-direct investment, but the tradeoff has been a less developed and more dependent Mexican economy in many respects.  Mexico has been forced to move away from an agriculturally dominant society to an economy represented by manufacturing, commerce, and services (Camp 2007, p 247).  The overall impact has varied tremendously depending on the region.

With regard to drug trafficking, just as production has been outsourced in the age of globalization, so too have many aspects of organized violence.  States have a monopoly on the ability to legitimize violence but cannot monopolize violence itself.  With the extraordinary coercive power of illicit cartel networks, the drug war is one example of this kind of violence.

The Mexico Drug War Itself

The major impetus for unrest in the border region depends on the demand for drugs in metropolitan centers in the United States and the supply from Columbia.  Once a kilo of cocaine reaches the streets in the U.S., it will be worth $100,000, or about $100 a gram.  In the Columbian countryside the same substance is worth $3,000, or about three dollars a gram.  The single greatest contributor to this giant surplus value is believed to be the illegality and therefore added political risk of the production, transport and consumption of the drugs themselves.              Investigative journalist John Gibler (2011, p 35) explains that, “[i]llegality also requires that one [bolster] the moral discourse of prohibition with massive infusion of funds into armies and law-enforcement agencies.  These infusions in turn require the production of arrests and drug seizures.  Competitors in the drug economy use this need as a way to eliminate opponents and rivals, tipping off federal authorities to the whereabouts of [enemy stashes and hideouts].”  In this context, illegality adds another more blatant complication: every dispute within the industry must be settled outside the law.  Rather than merely engaging in a competitive price war, the most common method of conflict resolution in an illegal business culture rampant with cash is contract murder (Gibler 2011, p 38).

As of 2011, the polls taken by the Transborder Institute at the University of San Diego estimate that approximately 50,000 Mexicans have died since 2006 as a result of the conflict, and as a result of the competition at the border for trade smuggling routes between the different DTO (drug trafficking organizations) to secure their gain from the multi-billion dollars-worth of narcotics that cross the border every year (USD TBI, Drug Violence 2011).  Significantly more killings have happened in the border city of Juarez than anywhere else.  Less than five percent of these cases have been or are ever likely to be investigated.  Moreover, many of the murders are spectacular, stylized, and torturous in nature.  For this reason, it is not uncommon for the violence of the drug war to be called “narcoterrorism” – though this kind of terrorism differs markedly from others in that it seems to be primarily motivated by competition for control of revenue in the industry.

Most critics of the drug war believe that the drug trade and the present laws against drug trafficking are mutually reinforcing.  Gibler (2011, p 43) argues that “[t]he blood and chaos that accompany drug trafficking from Mexico into the United States are inextricably related to the simultaneous demand within the U.S. population for the [drugs], and the insistence of U.S. politicians on an ideological commitment to prohibition that seeks to veil prohibition’s use for social control.”  In response, though U.S. policy has not stopped the flow of drugs, it has managed to outsource most of the killing (Gibler 2011, p 203).  With dozens of reporters in Mexico gunned down or disappeared since 2008, the DTOs are especially skilled at silencing those who speak out.  The targets seem to be anyone with access to major media channels, or anybody who annunciates facts that could be bad for business (Gibler 2011, p 23).

Narcoterrorism is essentially an effort to coerce the media and scare others away from cooperating with law enforcement.  Furthermore, it is estimated by Mexico’s own government that the DTOs have infiltrated as much as half of the municipal police force.  At the same time, “[p]roducing arrests is a necessary feature of the industry, and so, like murder, arrest becomes a way of settling accounts or invading territory” (Gibler 2011, p 23).  Thus, the culpable and the innocent are confused, and the hybridity of the drug war zone is highlighted.

The temptation on the part of U.S. citizens is often to dismiss organized crime as outside the “clean legal system,” rather than to recognize how interwoven official government is in drug trafficking on both sides of the border.  This is what makes the U.S. government’s deployment of the phrase “war on drugs” so misleading.  It is well known by even some DEA officials that the drug war machinery suffers from an industrial complex that to some extent causes the very disease it aims to cure, but this is a powerful sector of government that employs thousands of people and can easily lobby for itself (Campbell 2009, p 10).

For Mexico’s antidrug campaign, on the other hand, which was amplified by President Felipe Calderon in 2006, the most important audience is the United States – both its media and political representatives.  It has even been argued that, despite what looks like an intense turf battle on the surface, politicians at the national level in Mexico might have good reason not to substantially disrupt DTO operations for the risk of having their past collusions exposed before an election (“Mexico’s Presidential Election,” 2012).

So at one level, victims sometimes become victimizers.  Those immediately impacted by declining employment opportunities, for instance, can end up on the Sinaloa or Zeta cartel payroll.  This makes them servants to the system in which their fate is often sealed, as many low-paid traffickers and snitches are brutally executed after being intercepted by rival gangs.  Videos of these executions circulate on the internet to incite fear, and bodies are left on public display.

Meanwhile, however, those uninvolved in trafficking are commonly caught in the crossfire.  At another level then, some binaries remain, and it may be possible to make a few general distinctions between the oppressors and those being oppressed.  It seems clear that free trade zoning coupled with continued illegalization – all of which is encouraged or permitted by a corrupt legal system in parts of Mexico – has largely contributed to the creation of a deregulated capitalist “laboratory,” which, in the words of author Charles Bowden, has become “the global economy’s new killing field” (Bowden 2010).  The oppressor then, appears to be a structural economic and legal framework that is bolstered by consumers, misinformed or self-seeking political stakeholders, and ruthless DTO leadership.

Conversely, the oppressed are the low-wage dealers and transporters, the addicts without treatment, the overly incarcerated minorities in the United States, the displaced Mexican migrants, and the thousands who have been abused or killed mostly due to a lack of lawfulness in general (poor teenage women and their activist mothers, among others).  Furthermore, this list notes that the two groups are not simply separated by their citizenship.  The border is significant but by no means an all-determining factor.  In sum, the weight of these asymmetrical relationships falls heaviest on the socially and materially impoverished, which makes a liberationist theological consideration especially appropriate.

A Brief Theological Reflection

From a Christian political-theological perspective, there are two tasks.  First, there is a response to the cry for liberation from the current oppressive situation in view of a preferential option for the poor and the victimized.  Christians of conscience and conviction about the need for solidarity of Mexicans and Americans will be led to heed the demands placed on them by the voices of these persons being erased from history and those of their orphans and widows left behind.  Secondly, one can speak about the solidarity that Christians profess God to have with the suffering victims of this crisis through the person of Jesus Christ.

Jesus is known through the hermeneutic of liberation in living, dying and being resurrected as God incarnate who embodies solidarity with those whose lives have been disappeared in this battle (Sobrino 1994, p 315).   By announcing both judgment of unjust power and freedom for captives, the poor and the marginalized, Jesus stands firmly within the Jewish prophetic tradition as one who was shunned for criticizing the political and religious status quo.  In his death, Christ’s blood exposes and protests the violence and injustice of the drug lords and all other complicit actors, reflects the sin and wickedness of their deeds, and yet also declares forgiveness and justification to the penitent (Park 2009, p 74).  Jesus cried out from the cross against the torture, murder, exploitation and injustice of the Mexican drug war, just as he denounced the rest of history’s atrocities (Park 2009, p 75).

In his life, Jesus proclaimed the basilea theou, or reign of God, which might be more appropriately termed “God’s economy” or the “divine commonwealth.”  In this economy, power is not granted de facto to the materially powerful, but rather to the one whose way is anchored in justice for everyone.  The hegemony and ordering of the drug trade economy is abolished by this alternative vision – a vision that refuses to ignore the plight of the oppressed in the pursuit of its goal and regards no human being as less than a fellow subject.

Jesus’ crucifixion is yet another symbol of God’s solidarity with the victim of the drug war.  In one sense, it can be treated simply as a prophet’s fate.  Jesus’ death came as a consequence of the kind of life he led and because of what he said and did.  He got in the way of political and religious leaders with imperial agendas.  Many other human beings have been “crucified,” and they too are called sons and daughters of God by Jesus.  By participating in human nature and suffering like so many others have, Jesus demonstrates something about what God is like.  God in Jesus’ humanity is a fellow-sufferer.  Through Jesus, God understands the plight of the victimized.

More specifically, the manner in which Jesus died is astonishingly analogous to the execution practices of the drug cartels.  “Criminals” were crucified at the time not so much for what they did, but for the degree to which they were perceived as a threat to Roman security and sovereignty (Crossan 2007, p 137).  Jesus was replacing Barabbas, the insurrectionist.  The crucifixion was meant to be a public and fear-inciting inscription of Roman territory on anti-imperial bodies.  The drug cartels are similarly interested in intimidation and leaving their signage on victims’ mutilated corpses.  “This is what happens to all those who oppose us,” they warn.

Thirdly, by confessing the resurrection, God’s mission in Christ is not only one of compassion and solidarity but of salvation as well.  Here the nature of God’s power is contrasted with that of the empire, exerted conversely in a just and righteous fashion.  Moreover, this power is not reducible to the political realm alone.  Rather, it is ontological and vital, and it mysteriously raises Jesus from the grave, as the scriptures and the creeds of orthodoxy testify.  For the victims of the world throughout history in general and of drug-related violence in Mexico in particular, some recourse to hope can be found in this promise.

In his life, Jesus broke down social barriers and included the outcast – those like the drug dealer, the prisoner, the addict and the victimized woman.  Jesus’ suffering and death makes it clear that the victims of violence are not all dying because of their guilt or uncleanness (Park 2004, p 75) –– unlike much of what the popular media and the Mexican government would lead the public to believe.  Jesus’ willingness to lay down his life is inspiration to all of the families and friends of dead journalists, and reminds that their sacrifices have not been in vain.  Finally, the resurrection eases the fear of mortality, giving survivors the courage to resist and make sacrifices while also instilling the hope that death might not get the final word.

Of course this represents just one type of theological response in what is otherwise now more broadly called an interreligious stream of liberationist thought, so others must also be urged to give their own interpretation.  The point is that these Mexican brothers and sisters are the suffering neighbors of U.S. citizens, and in the words of economist Ha-Joon Chang, we have been bad Samaritans (Chang 2008).  Nevertheless, blaming the right group is less important than recognizing the justification and need for solidarity from one’s particular vantage point – and responding by living with greater economic responsibility.

Ethical Response

Upon preliminary observation, it seems that any kind of liberating political action will probably require breaking the taboo on debate and reform of drug and free trade policy.   Utopian visions are of little use in this predicament, and a theological criticism must eventually be grounded in practical terms lest it function to re-inscribe the domination of political indifference.  Juarez did not become possibly the most violent and deadly city in the world overnight.  Nor is its current condition accidental.  Despite many other enabling factors, the crisis appears to be most basically a result of the sheer power of unregulated market forces and its ability to bring out the worst in people – driving some to value recreational psychoactive stimulus, the securitization of cash flow, or the appearance of civility over human life itself.

As anthropologist and sociologist of the drug war Howard Campbell summarizes, “the consuming countries clearly have the most power in this context – power to cut domestic drug demand, the power to pressure the policies of drug-producing countries and otherwise meddle in their internal affairs, the power to demonize and otherwise stigmatize producers” (Campbell 2009, p 10).  From a liberationist standpoint, the social and structural sins of the conflict should be named, which, in addition to denouncing the cruelty itself, should entail a new stigmatization of casual drug use and of failure to open the floor for dialogue about different regulatory strategies at the mainstream political level.  Right now in most of the country and in most instances, to consume these substances illegally is to at least indirectly participate in fueling the bloodshed.  What should be instilled in the minds of American consumers, therefore, is a self-critical ethic that uncovers the illusion of personal, private sin associated with social use of narcotics and conversely underscores the urgency of the collective harm done by funding this ruthlessly profit-seeking industry.  Change in U.S. policy toward narcotics and trade might lead to the reduction of rampant murder, the impunity of entire regions, mass incarceration, disguised repression, excessive spending to fight the war, and the pretext for U.S. interference in drug-producing countries.  This is reason enough for the discussion to be welcomed and for experimentation with new policies to be encouraged, because whatever the most just and liberating solution is, the policies currently in effect are not achieving it.

There are many things that Mexicans and the Mexican government can and should consider doing.  Responsibility for this crisis falls on both parties, and obviously the U.S. and its population is in no place to unilaterally advise the Mexican people.  Nonetheless, given the preceding assessment, the most pressing and potentially liberating steps to be taken are likely only possible from the northern side of the border.  For the U.S. to initiate this sort of neighborly action would be a revolutionary measure in the direction of solidarity with Mexico and international economic responsibility.

[i] What is presented here does not exhibit a rigorous empirical study of all the best data available, and this would certainly need to be part of the larger project.  The purpose then is not to make detailed recommendations for policy change so much as to raise awareness, introduce the topic, and broadly explicate the key structural features and likely causes of the conflict so as to signal toward possible paths forward.  In doing so, however, certain suggestions regarding which political issues are most pertinent will nonetheless be clearly insinuated.

[ii] Neoliberalism is understood here as the dominant Western economic ideology that is characterized by trust in self-interest-driven free market competition with very limited government interference as the best strategy both domestically and internationally for bringing about the greatest good for the greatest number of people in the long run.


University of San Diego Transborder Institute Drug Violence Report for 2011. http://justiceinmexico.org/resources-2/drug-violence/. Viewed on December 13, 2011.

Stratfor Global Intelligence, “Mexico’s Presidential Election and Cartel War.” http://www.stratfor.com/weekly/mexicos-presidential-election-and-cartel-war/. Viewed on February 16, 2012.

Alcoff, Linda Martin, and Mario Sáenz. Latin American Perspectives on Globalization: Ethics, Politics, and Alternative Visions. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2003.

Boff, Clodovis. Theology and Praxis: Epistemological Foundations. Eugene: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2005.

Bowden, Charles. Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields. Asbury Park: Nation Books, 2010.

Campbell, Howard. Drug War Zone: Frontline Dispatches from the Streets of El Paso and Juárez. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009.

Chang, Ha-Joon. Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2008.

Crossan, John Dominic. God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now. New York: HarperOne, 2007.

Gibler, John. To Die in Mexico: Dispatches from Inside the Drug War. San Francisco: City Lights Publishers, 2011.

Held, David. Global Transformations: Politics, Economics and Culture. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999.

Metz, Johannes Baptist. Faith in History and Society: Toward a Practical Fundamental Theology. New York: Seabury Press, 1980.

Park, Andrew. Triune Atonement: Christ’s Healing for Sinners, Victims, and the Whole Creation. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009.

Park, Andrew S. From Hurt to Healing: A Theology of the Wounded. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2004.

Sobrino, Jon. Jesus the Liberator: A Historical Theological Reading of Jesus of Nazareth.  Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1994.

Sousa Santos, Bonaventura. “If God were a Human Rights Activist: Human Rights and the Challenge of Political Theologies,” Law Social Justice and Global Development Festschrift for Upendra Baxi, 2009.

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