I thought that this topic required its own thread seperate from T6's "Collapse of Mexico" thread.
August 15, 2009
In Mexico, Outgunned and Underpaid
By KELLY M. PHILLIPS
LAST weekend, President Barack Obama, the Canadian prime minister, Stephen Harper, and the Mexican president, Felipe Calderón, met in Guadalajara to discuss the state of the continent and what to do about the drug war in Mexico. Plenty of policy makers agonize over the issue, but having lived on a military base in Mexico as the wife of a Mexican officer, I know that the biggest problem is simple — underequipped, unsupported and absurdly underpaid sailors and soldiers.
I met my husband, Juan Castillo, on a tall ship called the Cuauhtémoc. At the time, I was serving in the California Army National Guard. For a while we wrote each other polite, professional letters, but when I was honorably discharged, we pursued a different kind of relationship, and married. Before we moved to our new home — a naval base an hour south of Tijuana — I naïvely assumed that life in the service was relatively uniform from one country to the next. It didn’t take long for me to find out how wrong I was.
In November 2005, we moved into a house on base infested with cockroaches. They spilled out of holes in the walls and watched us from the tops of the door frames. We paid for the fumigation ourselves and then for curtains for the bare windows. The kitchen had only a sink and one counter, so we bought our own stove and refrigerator. We paid for utilities — which included space heaters in the winter and gas tanks that lasted a month and ran out midshower, and we spent a fortune on phone cards for the pay phone down the street. In the summer, we just opened the windows for a breeze. A green mold grew all over our clothing in the closets, and a black mold grew on the concrete walls.
Members of the Mexican military do not receive the housing allowance that troops get in the United States, where electricity, water and heating in military housing are also mostly paid for by the government.
Even health care is unreliable in the Mexican military. When our base’s medical clinic ran short on medicine or services, which happened often, families had to pay to get treated off base. When I was pregnant, I had to go elsewhere just for an ultrasound. The clinic equipment looked 30 years old, and we held monthly fund-raisers to help buy supplies like sheets.
As an officer, my husband earned about $1,000 a month. Although our family of four struggled financially, the sailors suffered much more. Their salaries, which despite recent increases are frequently under $600 a month, often have to support a wife, children and the occasional elderly parent. Many of them make extra cash sending their children door to door selling tamales and cookies that their wives make. Some take on second and third jobs.
In the spring of 2007, a Mexican marine walked up to my husband and said, forcefully, “Lieutenant Castillo, look at me!” Juan was surprised that the soldier had spoken so disrespectfully until he noticed that something about the man’s bulletproof vest looked odd. Upon closer inspection, he saw that the marine was not wearing a bulletproof vest at all, but instead had been given a life jacket that had been painted black to look like one.Juan was livid, and the next day he saw to it that the man was given real body armor, but he couldn’t have been the only soldier whose life was put at risk.
The M-16’s the sailors and marines were given weren’t much better. I’d spent enough days carrying one around in basic training to recognize that many of them were so badly maintained that they’d probably misfire if they were ever used. I had seen weapons in the same shape filled with concrete and used as dummies in training exercises in the United States.
This was the force that President Calderón deployed at the end of 2006 and early 2007 to rid the states of Michoacán and Baja California of corrupt police officers and fight the drug dealers directly. I thought it was the right move, despite the military’s shortcomings. The police force is notoriously corrupt, but the navy and the army are relatively free of infiltration by the cartels.
Still, a navy official once told my horrified husband that two men had offered him a large sum of money in exchange for information about the navy’s boat movements and patrol schedule. He told the men he didn’t have that information and that if they wanted it, they should go and ask the commandant of the base. When Juan tried to find out more, the official said, “The less involved you are, the safer you’ll be.”
A navy lieutenant had been kidnapped and murdered outside Acapulco not long before, and we were already frightened. He had worked in intelligence, which we’d all assumed made him untouchable. Eventually, Juan and I decided to move to the United States, where we live now.
What would make us all safer is straightforward — higher salaries and better weapons for the Mexican military. After all, the cartels already have money and weapons, which they use against those who stand in their way — to buy the ones who can be corrupted and brutally murder the rest.
Kelly M. Phillips is a petty officer third class in the United States Coast Guard.