Ken Salazar, the US ambassador to Mexico, met with the Los Angeles Tiems for more than an hour while visiting California in November. Her was eager to talk up the celebrations surrounding the US-Mexico diplomacy bicentennial. We were eager to talk about the border. The pas de deuk 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 at the time. Many of us were surprised to hear it was so low. 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 US. Apparently that number matters more than those 200 years.
And therein lies the rub.
Instead of sending 300,000 college students to the US like China does, Mexico is being trampled by those two giants: China funnels fentanyl through Mexico to the US market, and the US exports guns to Mexico so the cartels can protect their product. It's an ugly triangle of illicit trade, and Mexico gets the worse end of every deal.
And yet when drugs and guns claim lives on both sides of the US's southern border, Mexico is chastised for not doing more. More what exactly? President Andres Manuel Lopez 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?"
Those remarks came after Mexican authorities rescued the two Americans who were kidnapped by members of a drug cartel in Tamaulipas state this month. Two others were killed.
Does Lopez Obrador sound a bit harsh there?
He raises reasonable questions. American politicians don't have great answers to offer though.
Instead, after the kidnappings, calls for US military intervention have grown in some conservative circles, because there are those who rarely see a problem that an endless war couldn't exacerbate. This on the heels of 21 attorneys general calling for President Biden to designate the cartels as terrorist organizations -- sometimes a useful tool to cut off financing, but also potentially a dangerous pretext for escalation and military intervention.
And can you imagine if the US 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 US each year. The US gun industry has been arming Mexican drug cartels for as long as there have been Mexican drug cartels.
Up to 90 percent of guns used in crimes in Mexico and traced turn out to have originated in the US, mostly Arizona and Texas. Gun proliferation has made mass shootings common at home -- last year was the deadliest yet -- and now our pastime has been exported to Mexico.
The US is the major customer keeping Mexican cartels in business. We're the major supplier of the guns that make them so deadly. This is the relationship we have created with Mexico. 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.
Chinese students benefit from the US educational system because they're paying top dollar. Meanwhile our neighbors, with whom the US is so proud to have had diplomatic relations for 200 years, are barely represented in an educational exchange that could benefit both sides of the border.
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 Lopez 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. -- Ed.
(Tribune Content Agency)