How might the USA adjust to “narco-refugees” from Mexico?

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Jan 072012
 

The impacts of Mexico’s “War on Drugs” in recent years have been apparent in many parts of the country, particularly in the Mexico-USA border region. Apart from the obvious and well-documented increased levels of violence in several northern border states, we have looked briefly in a previous post at how some businesses closed their factories or offices in northern Mexico and relocated to the relative safety of Mexico City and central Mexico. Individuals living in the areas where drug-related violence has increased have also had tough choices to make, and many families have chosen to move, either to other areas of Mexico or to the USA or Canada.

Canada recorded a sharp spike in the number of Mexicans entering the country and claiming asylum on the grounds that their lives were in danger if they returned to Mexico. The number rose from 2,550 in 2005 to 9,309 in 2009, with about 10% being accepted as legitimate claims. Canada’s response to the sudden increase in applicants was to impose strict visa restrictions which made it far harder for Mexicans to enter Canada legally. The changes led to an 80% drop in the number of Mexicans applying for asylum in 2010.

Several US border cities have also experienced an influx of Mexican migrants. In Mexico’s “Narco-Refugees”: The Looming Challenge for U.S. National Security, Dr. Paul Kan, Associate Professor of National Security Studies and the holder of the Henry L. Stimson Chair of Military Studies at the U.S. Army War College, looks at how Mexican “narco-refugees” (who leave Mexico “unwillingly”) could influence US policymakers and force them to reconsider national security priorities.

Dr. Kan considers three alternative scenarios, which, he argues, “would force the narco-refugee issue onto the [US] national policy-making agenda”:

  • 1. the “new normal”, in which drug-related violence in the USA and Mexico becomes “a fact of life in relations between the two countries”, as drug gang and cartel activities spread into the USA along the corridors used to transport drugs.
  • 2. an “accidental narco” syndrome developing in Mexico, in which the Mexican government, in order to demonstrate its commitment towards lowering cartel violence,  may collude with one or more smaller cartels to help gain intelligence about the larger, more violent cartels prior to clamping down on them. Such a policy could lead to a sharp increase in the number of narco-refugees, as the core areas of stronger cartels see increasing violence as the cartels fight for survival.
  • 3. the emergence of a “Zeta state.” In this third scenario, a kind of “parallel state” emerges, in which private security firms play a much larger part as wealthy Mexicans seek to protect themselves, relying on their own resources, rather than on the government’s law and order or security forces.

As Dr. Kan emphasizes, these three scenarios are not mutually exclusive, and could coexist in different areas of the country simultaneously. Equally, some parts of the country might escape the effects of all three of the scenarios he analyzes.

Kan repeats anecdotal and other evidence which suggests that “narco-refugees” are becoming an important trend, with serious consequences for Mexico’s economy. For example, “One young Mexican executive at cement giant Cemex SAB, which has headquarters in Monterrey, said he can count at least 20 different families from his circle of friends who have left—nearly all of them for nearby Texas.” Reduced US investment in Mexico is not a good sign. According to the US Chamber of Commerce in Mexico, 25% of its members are “reconsidering their investments in Mexico as a result of worries over security”, with 16% having suffered extortion and 13% having experienced kidnappings. According to J.P. Morgan’s chief economist for Mexico, “the country likely lost approximately $4 billion in investment in 2010 when companies reconsidered such plans because of drug violence.”

At a more local level, in Ciudad Juárez, “more than 2,500 small grocery stores have closed due to extortion or because customers have left the city; the Mexican social security administration believes that 75,000 residents there have lost their jobs since 2007.”

Clearly, the impacts of Mexico’s “war on drugs” are far-reaching. Let’s hope that the situation improves in 2012, despite it being a year of federal elections in both Mexico and the USA.

Previous posts about the geography of drug trafficking and drug cartels in Mexico:

US firms are near-shoring jobs from China to Mexico

 Mexico's geography in the Press, Updates to Geo-Mexico  Comments Off on US firms are near-shoring jobs from China to Mexico
Aug 112011
 

 Near-shoring means “the transfer of business or IT processes to companies in a nearby country, often sharing a border with your own country” (definition from SourcingMag.com). It is closely related to offshoring, now usually limited to similar transfers as near-shoring, but to more distant locations. Among the best examples of near-shoring are the hundreds of US companies that have set up factories and assembly plants in Mexico under the long-running maquiladora program (analyzed in detail in chapter 20 of of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico).

Maria Elena Rigoli, the President of Collectron International Management Inc., which helps companies make the move from the USA to Mexico, was interviewed about near-shoring for the 20 December 2010 issue of Food Manufacturing News. Despite reflecting her obvious vested interests,  the transcript of the interview is still interesting reading for geographers.

Rigoli first explains how Mexico’s maquiladoras work and then lists the major benefits of moving a company’s operations to Mexico:

  • Extremely fast shipping times offered by such a close location
  • Reduced labor costs
  • Trade agreements with many different countries, including NAFTA
  • Decades of experience in manufacturing and exporting
  • Highly-skilled, well-educated workforce

Quotes from the interview:

“Mexico is one of the world’s five largest developing economies. Global market research firm EuroMonitor International forecasts that Mexico will replace Italy as the 10th largest economy in the world within the next decade.”

“The technology used when producing goods in [Mexico’s] maquilas is the same or superior to that in the United States, as technology is typically transferred by the contracted companies individually. Additionally, the large pool of educated technicians coming out of Mexico’s many technical universities are trained to assemble, package, test and manufacture products in a maquiladora setting. This training is either on par or above the average training manufacturing personnel receive north of the border.”

“The growth of Mexico’s share in the aerospace industry speaks volumes about the craftsmanship and quality of products produced in Mexico. Originally, companies like Boeing and Bombardier only outsourced high volume-low tech operations to Mexico, now entire fuselages are designed and built here.”

How do Rigoli’s claims match up to what is happening today?

Well, among the numerous press reports that US manufacturers have started ‘near-shoring’ work from Asia to Mexico, is this one in Asian Shipper., that quotes figures from a survey conducted by consultancy AlixPartners of 80 big US companies.

The survey found that:

  • 9% have already shifted some or all of their operations from Asia to the Americas (= near-shoring).
  • 33% are considering doing it in the next three years

Is Mexico the most attractive location for near-shoring?

  • 63% say, “Yes!”
  • 19% think the USA is better.

What are the major advantages of near-shoring?

  • 30% said lower freight costs
  • 25% said speed-to-market
  • 18% claimed lower inventory costs
  • 16% said time-zone advantages such as easier management coordination
  • 11% liked closer cultural ties with North American managers.

What started as a trickle of US firms moving manufacturing back from China to Mexico seems to be becoming a clear trend. Globalization may have expanded the reach of many such US firms, but near-shoring now seems to be pulling some of them back, closer to home.

Related posts:

Jul 242011
 

This week’s “Sunday short” is about ziplines across the Guatemala-Mexico border, between El Carmen (Guatemala) and Talisman (Mexico). The story was reported by Mexico’s Televisa (a CNN affiliate). What might at first glance appear to be an enterprising form of adventure tourism is actually a means for undocumented migrants to enter Mexico on their way to the USA.

Apparently, there are several ziplines across the Suchiate River, which forms the border in this southeastern part of Mexico. The ziplines are not expensive, either. Whereas a similar ride might cost you US$60.00 in the USA or Canada, whizzing across the Suchiate River will cost you only 15 pesos or 10 quetzals (about $1.25).

Guatemalans normally require a visa to enter Mexico, but here, the local immigration authorities turn a blind eye, according to Rafael Romo, the Televisa correspondent. It is assumed that most of the Guatemalans crossing into Mexico are heading for the USA and the possibility of finding work there.

Too few discussions of the issues surrounding illegal migrants in North America recognize that Mexico faces its own problem of illegals— Central Americans desperate to cross the southern border with Guatemala, travel the length of Mexico and then cross into the USA.

If you find the zipline rates in the USA and Canada exorbitant, and want a less expensive adventure tourism experience, then head for the southern jungles of Mexico, but don’t forget to bring a Guatemalan visa with you if you plan to zipline across the Suchiate River!

Jun 252011
 

Over the past year, the US State Department has issued repeated warnings about travel in Mexico. Some of these warnings are specific to certain stretches of highway; others are broader and focus on cities or regions.

Travel Weekly has produced a handy map showing the areas currently affected by advisories (a version of this map appears below). Resorts colored green are “presumed to be safe”, while yellow means “caution” and red means “warning issued”.

  • Link to the Travel Weekly pdf map with full details, explaining the significance of each numbered location,
Traveler Safety in Mexico. Map Credit: Travel Weekly – www.travelweekly.com/mexicomap/

Note that “Sombrete” on the map, near Fresnillo, should actually be Sombrerete. (Curiously, this is the exactly same mistake made recently by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in the text accompanying a display about silver in Latin America. Sombrerete was a very important silver-mining center during colonial times, and the town is well worth visiting, advisories permitting, for numerous fine colonial buildings).

Given the map, it is perhaps not really a great surprise that Mexico’s federal Tourism Department is currently actively promoting the Caribbean coast and “Mundo Maya” (Maya World), a region well removed from the red-colored zones on the map.

According to a slew of articles in Mexico’s Spanish-language press:

Jun 102011
 

‘War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.”

This quote is commonly attributed to Ambrose Bierce, the American journalist and satirist, who fell off the map in Revolutionary Mexico in 1913, never to be seen again. However, as pointed out by an alert reader (see comments), the quote has never been established as originating with Bierce and may well derive from “War was God’s way of teaching us geography”, a line delivered by comedian Paul Rodriguez in 1987 (quoted in the LA Times).

To ensure that this post has a link to Mexico, In The Devil’s Dictionary, Bierce defined Boundary:

BOUNDARY, n. “In political geography, an imaginary line between two nations, separating the imaginary rights of one from the imaginary rights of the other.”

The changing political frontiers of Mexico are the subject of chapter 12 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico, your handy reference guide to all aspects of Mexico’s geography. Ask your local library to buy a copy TODAY! Also available from amazon.com

Cultural adaptation: the Cinco de Mayo holiday is far more widely celebrated in the USA than in Mexico

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May 022011
 

The Mexican holiday of Cinco de Mayo (5 May) commemorates the Battle of Puebla, fought on May 5, 1862. The battle marks Mexico’s best-known military success since its independence from Spain in 1821.

Today, in a curious example of cultural adaptation, the resulting holiday is celebrated far more widely in the USA than in Mexico.

The background to the Battle of Puebla

The nineteenth century in Mexico was a time of repeated interventions by foreign powers, including France, Spain, Britain and the USA, all of which hatched or carried out plans to invade.

US stamp for Cinco de MayoThe first French invasion, in 1838, the so‑called Pastry War, lasted only a few days. A decade later, US troops entered Mexico City, and Mexico was forced to cede Texas, New Mexico and (Upper) California, an area of 2 million square kilometers, about half of all Mexican territory, in exchange for 15 million pesos.

A new constitution in 1857 provoked an internal conflict, known as the Reform War (1858‑60), between the liberals led by Benito Juárez, who supported the new constitution, and the conservatives. The War decimated the country’s labor force, reduced economic development and cost a small fortune. Both sides had serious financial problems. At one point in this war, the liberals reached an agreement with the USA to be paid four million pesos in exchange for which the USA would receive the “right of traffic” across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec “in perpetuity”. Fortunately, this treaty was never ratified by the US Senate.

The financial crisis deepened, eventually leading Mexico to suspend all payments on its foreign debt for two years. The vote was approved by the Mexican Congress by a single vote. The foreign powers involved were furious; in 1861, Britain, France and Spain decided on joint action to seize the port of Veracruz on Mexico’s Gulf coast and force Mexico’s government to pay. The UK and Spain quickly agreed terms and withdrew their military forces, but the French decided to stay.

The French are confident of victory

France’s emperor, Napoleon III (Louis Napoleon Bonaparte) had grand ambitions and envisaged a Mexican monarchy. To this end, he decided to place Austrian archduke Maximilian von Habsburg as his puppet on the Mexican throne. The French Army moved inland from Veracruz and occupied the city of Orizaba. The French commander was supremely confident that his forces could crush any opposition. (Following their defeat at Waterloo in 1815, no-one had beaten the French in almost fifty years.) The Commander, Charles Ferdinand Latrille, the Count of Lorencez, confidently boasted that, “We are so superior to the Mexicans in race, organization, morality and devoted sentiments that I beg your Excellency [the Minster of War] to inform the Emperor that as the head of 6,000 soldiers I am already master of Mexico.”  (Quoted in “Betterment for Whom? The Reform Period: 1855‑1875” by Paul Vanderwood, chapter 12 of The Oxford History of Mexico (edited by Michael C. Meyer and William H Beezley, O.U.P. 2000).

Mexican resistance

Marching towards Mexico City, the French needed to secure Puebla, which was defended by 4,000 or so ill‑equipped Mexican soldiers. Ironically, given the eventual outcome, many of the defenders were armed with antiquated weapons that had already beaten the French at Waterloo, before being purchased in 1825 by Mexico’s ambassador to London at a knock-down price! The Mexican forces, the Ejército de Oriente (Army of the East) were commanded by General Ignacio Zaragoza, a Texas‑born Mexican. Zaragoza dug his forces into defensive positions centered on the twin forts of Loreto and Guadalupe.

The events of 5/05

On the 5 May 1862, Zaragoza ordered his commanders to repel the invaders at all costs. Mexicans received unexpected help from the weather. After launching a brief artillery bombardment, the French discovered that the ground had become so muddy from heavy unseasonable downpours that maneuvering their heavy weapons was next to impossible.

Painting of Battle of Puebla

Bullets rained down on them from the Mexican troops that occupied the higher ground near the forts. At noon, the French commander ordered his troops to charge the center of the Mexican lines. But the lines held strong, and musket fire began to take its toll. Successive French attacks were rebuffed. The Mexican forces then counter‑attacked, spurred on by well-organized cavalry, led by Porfirio Díaz who would subsequently become President of Mexico.

As the afternoon wore on, and the smoke began to clear, it became apparent that the defenders of Puebla had successfully repelled the European invaders. The French troops fled back to Orizaba before retreating back to the coast to regroup. A crack European army had been soundly defeated by a motley collection of machete‑wielding peasants from the war‑torn republic of Mexico….

A few days later, on 9 May, President Benito Juárez declared that the Cinco de Mayo would henceforth be a national holiday.

Aftermath: the French return with reinforcements

Back in Paris, Napoleon was enraged. He ordered massive reinforcements and sent a 27,000-strong force of French military might to Mexico. This strengthened French army (under Marshal Elie Forey) took Mexico City in 1863, forcing Benito Juárez and his supporters to flee. Juárez established himself in Paso del Norte (now El Paso) on the US border, from where he continued to orchestrate resistance to the French presence. Supported by the conservatives, Maximilian finally ascended to the throne in May 1864. By this time, in the USA, the Unionists had taken Vicksburg, and the US government was considering its position. In May 1865, General Philip Sheridan led 50,000 US soldiers to ensure that French troops did not cross the Mexico‑USA border. Diplomatic pressure for a French withdrawal intensified and Napoleon III finally agreed to remove his troops in February 1866.

After the French had departed, President Juárez reestablished Republican government in Mexico, and put Maximilian on trial, ending an extraordinary period in Mexican history.

The significance of 5/05

With the passing of time, the Cinco de Mayo has assumed added significance because it marks the last time that any overseas power was the aggressor on North American soil.

In Mexico, the Cinco de Mayo is still celebrated with lengthy parades in the state and city of Puebla, and in neighboring states like Veracruz. There is at least one street named Cinco de Mayo in almost every town and city throughout the country.

In the USA, the Cinco de Mayo has been transformed into a much more popular cultural event, and one where many of the revelers think it commemorates Mexican Independence, not a battle. (Mexico’s Independence celebrations are in mid-September each year).

Many communities in the USA, especially the Hispanic communities, use Cinco de Mayo as the perfect excuse to celebrate everything Mexican, from drinks, music and dancing, to food, crafts and customs. The Cinco de Mayo has become not just another day in the calendar, but a very significant commercial event, one now celebrated with much greater fervor north of the border than south of the border.

Where to go to see more — Texas

General Ignacio Zaragoza died on September 8, 1862, only a few months after the Battle of Puebla. In 1960, the General Zaragoza State Historic Site was established in his birthplace, near Goliad, Texas, to commemorate his famous victory. In Zaragoza’s time, the town was known as La Bahía del Espíritu Santo.

Where to go to see more — Puebla

The Guadalupe and Loreto forts are in parkland, about 2 km north‑east of Puebla city center. The Fuerte de Guadalupe is ruined. The Fuerte de Loreto became state property in 1930. It is now a museum, the Museum of No Intervention (Museo de la No Intervención), complete with toy soldiers. The park has an equestrian statue of General Zaragoza and is the setting for the Centro Civico 5 de Mayo, with its modern museums, including the Regional Museum (history and anthropology), the Natural History Museum and the Planetarium (IMAX screen).

Geography research in Oaxaca funded by the US military stirred up a storm of protest

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Feb 282011
 

In 2005, a geography research project known as México Indígena, based at the University of Kansas, received 500,000 dollars in funding from the US Defence Department to map indigenous villages in two remote parts of Mexico, in collaboration with the Autonomous University of San Luis Potosí , Radiance Technologies (USA), SEMARNAT (Mexico’s federal environmental secretariat) and partnered with the US Foreign Military Studies Office (FMSO).

Under some circumstances, this might not be a huge problem. After all, the large-scale survey maps of many countries were developed primarily by military engineers with military funding, in the interests of national security. In the past, several countries, including France and the UK, extended their map-making to cover their colonies or dependent territories.

What sets México Indígena apart is that, between 2005 and 2008, under the guise of “community participatory mapping”, US researchers, funded by the US military, collected detailed topographic, economic and land tenure information for several villages in Mexico, an autonomous nation, whose people have long viewed their northern neighbors with considerable suspicion. After all, in the mid-19th century, the USA gained a large portion of Mexico’s territory.

The indigenous villages mapped were in the Huasteca region of San Luis Potosí, and in the Zapotec highlands of Oaxaca, the most culturally diverse state in Mexico. The villages mapped in Oaxaca included San Juan Yagila and San Miguel Tiltepec.

México Indígena is part of a larger mapping project, the Bowman Expeditions. In the words of the México Indígena website:

“The First Bowman Expedition of the American Geographical Society (AGS) was developed in Mexico…  The AGS Bowman Expeditions Program is based on the belief that geographical understanding is essential for maintaining peace, resolving conflicts, and providing humanitarian assistance worldwide.”

“The prototype project in Mexico is producing a multi-scale GIS database and digital regional geography, using participatory research mapping (PRM) and GIS, aiming at developing a digital regional geography, or so-called “digital human terrain,” of indigenous peoples of the country.”

Mexico’s indigenous communities are the poorest in the country, beset by poverty, poor access to education and health care, and limited economic opportunities. Among the common concerns voiced by protesters against the mapping project were that the information collected could be used for:

  1. Counter-insurgency operations
  2. Identification and subsequent acquisition of resources
  3. Biopiracy

Despite attempts at clarification by the project leaders, some communities remain upset, claiming that they were not made aware of the US military’s funding, and have demanded that all research findings either be returned to the community or destroyed (see, for example, this open letter from community leaders in San Miguel Tiltepec).

Choose the conclusion you prefer:

1. Mexico’s indigenous peoples face enough challenges already. Their best way forward is if US military funding for mapping beats a hasty retreat, or

2. Mexico’s indigenous peoples face enough challenges already. Their best way forward is to welcome and embrace offers of help from outside their community.

Further reading/viewing:

The México Indígena controversy is the subject of a short film entitled, “The Demarest Factor: US Military Mapping of Indigenous Communities in Oaxaca, Mexico”. The film investigates the role of Lt. Col. Geoffrey B. Demarest ( a US Army School of the America’s graduate) and the true nature of the mapping project. It discusses parallels between US political and economic interests within the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and a US military strategy designed to secure those very interests.

Things to think about:

  • Should academic research in foreign countries ever be funded from military sources?
  • Does the right of self-determination mean that indigenous peoples can refuse to cooperate with academic researchers, even when the research may bring benefits to the community?
  • Should researchers ever be allowed to collect information from a community without the community’s express consent?

The irony about the choice of “Bowman” for the AGS research expeditions.

Isaiah Bowman (1878-1950), born in Canada, was a US geographer who taught at Yale from 1905 to 1915. He became Director of the AGS in 1916, a position he only relinquished when appointed president of Johns Hopkins University in 1935. He served as President Woodrow Wilson’s chief territorial adviser at the Versailles conference in 1919. Bowman’s best known work is “The New World: Problems in Political Geography” (1921). His career has been subject to considerable scrutiny by a number of geographers including Geoffrey Martin (The life and thought of Isaiah Bowman, published in 1980) and Neil Smith who, in American Empire: Roosevelt’s Geographer and the Prelude to Globalization (2003) labels Bowman an imperialist, precisely the claim made by many of its opponents about the México Indígena mapping project.

USA agrees to “bank” some of Mexico’s entitlement of Colorado River water

 Mexico's geography in the Press  Comments Off on USA agrees to “bank” some of Mexico’s entitlement of Colorado River water
Jan 222011
 

In an earlier post, we described a 1944 treaty that guaranteed Mexico would receive at least 1750 million cubic meters of water  each year along the Colorado River (via the Morelos diversionary dam in the Mexicali Valley). However, in April 2010, the Mexicali area was rattled by a large earthquake, so powerful that it moved the southern part of California,  and severely damaged the irrigation infrastructure used by Mexican farmers on land in the lower Colorado River valley and the Colorado River delta. In all, 640 kilometers of irrigation canals were damaged, affecting 60,000 hectares of farmland.

The damaged infrastructure meant that Mexico was unable to use effectively its total annual allocation of water. Even as urgent repairs were begun on pumps, pipelines and irrigation channels in the Mexicali region, Mexican authorities opened talks with the USA to discuss the possibility of deferring receipt of  some of their annual water quota.

The two governments have now agreed “Minute 318” which permits Mexico to decrease its consumption from 2010 to 2013 and then receive the “saved” water later when the irrigation channels are all operational again.

Another major related development concerning the Colorado River is also now getting underway. The two governments are starting talks this year towards a comprehensive new long-term bilateral agreement covering the management of the Colorado River.

Mexico’s water resources and water-related issues are the subject of chapters 6 and 7 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico. Ask your library to buy a copy of this handy reference guide to all aspects of Mexico’s geography today! Better yet, order your own copy…

Mexican drug traffickers expand their influence to Central America

 Mexico's geography in the Press  Comments Off on Mexican drug traffickers expand their influence to Central America
Jan 182011
 

According to an article by Nacha Cattan in The Christian Science Monitor, one of Mexico’s most violent drug gangs, the Zetas, have now expanded into Central America. It is yet another instance of the shifting allegiances which require another redrawing of the “map” showing the cartels’ competing and partially overlapping spheres of influence.

The Zetas started out in the 1990s as a group of ex-military strong-arm enforcers who had previously worked exclusively for Mexico’s Gulf Cartel. The Zetas rapidly established a reputation for extreme brutality, leaving severed heads as a sign of what they would do to anyone who opposed them. By the start of 2010, the Zetas had grown into an independent force controlling ever-increasing areas of north-eastern, central and western Mexico. They were pushed further west and south by an unlikely coalition of the Sinaloa cartel, the Gulf cartel and La Familia Michoacana, known as the New Federation. The Zetas have not limited themselves to drug trafficking, but have gradually extended their field of operations into many kinds of organized crime, especially kidnapping, extortion and the sex trade.

Now it seems that the Zetas have garnered support in Central America, where they have used local former military agents to keep their brand of discipline as they snare poverty-stricken youth into their organization. In Guatemala, the Zetas accused Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom of accepting millions of dollars in drug money, and threatened a sharp rise in civilian casualties if authorities continued to target their activities.

Honduras and El Salvador are also reported to house Zeta cells. This has prompted Mexico and several Central American countries to discuss forming anti-cartel alliances. The links between the Zeta cells in Central America and the hard-line Zeta forces in Mexico remain unclear. While some analysts claim the Zetas move to the south is because of successful law enforcement efforts in Mexico, others suggest that the Zetas are expanding in order to exert complete control over supply routes that originate or cross Central America.

Related posts about drug cartels in Mexico:

Mexico and USA agree to talk about oil rights in the Gulf of Mexico’s “Western Doughnut Hole”

 Books and resources, Mexico's geography in the Press  Comments Off on Mexico and USA agree to talk about oil rights in the Gulf of Mexico’s “Western Doughnut Hole”
Nov 152010
 

In 1970, the UN Law of the Sea Convention formally awarded each country the right to natural resources in its 200-mile (322 km) Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Where claims overlapped, the Law of the Sea requires the competing countries to negotiate separate bilateral or multilateral agreements.

By 1979, the US and Mexico had agreed a treaty governing the basic delimitation of their respective EEZs. However, the treaty was never ratified by the US Senate. While the treaty had fixed seven points on the boundary, there were still two areas where the countries’ claims overlapped. The two portions were called the Western and Eastern Polygons (or Gaps), but were quickly nicknamed the Doughnut Holes. Together they straddle about 200 km of border.

The Western Doughnut Hole has a surface area of 17,467 square kilometers (6,744 square miles). The Eastern Doughnut Hole is about 20,000 square kilometers (7,720 square miles) and partially overlaps with the EEZ of Cuba.

location of doughnut holesTo date, no deposits of hydrocarbons have yet been found which straddle the maritime boundary, even though the Western Doughnut Hole is thought to hold untapped reserves of oil and gas. However, oil wells on one side of the boundary would likely extract some oil from the other side, hence the potential for conflict. In a parody of US politician Ross Perot’s famous 1992 line about the likely impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) which would cause “a giant sucking sound” as US jobs moved south to Mexico, Mexican journalists have described the likely result of drilling in the Doughnut Hole as a “giant sucking sound” as US firms used their superior deep-water technology to suck up Mexican oil from the other side of the border.

Presidents Calderón and Obama agreed in May 2010 to extend the moratorium on any oil exploration drilling in the Western Polygon until January 2014, giving both sides time to hold joint discussions towards a permanent agreement.

The major oil spill from Deepwater Horizon has helped drive both governments to prioritize joint regulations governing oil and gas activities close to their shared border. Discussions are expected to cover not only deep water oil extraction, but also shallow water activities, including resources other than oil and gas.

For more details, see these two articles by Javier H. Estrada Estrada, Analitica Energética S.C.:

The changing political frontiers of Mexico are the subject of chapter 12 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico. Oil reserves and exploitation are discussed in chapter 15.  If you have enjoyed this post, please consider purchasing a copy of Geo-Mexico so that you have your own handy reference guide to all aspects of Mexico’s geography.