NAFTA, Insecurity, Power Vacuums and Violence in Rural Mexico

By  |  31 / May / 2014

tlcan-campo-391x252If the fields are burning, it is not only due to the “bad guys”–the drug cartels, hit men and thugs and much less to the self-defense forces, community police groups or farmers defending their territories. Rural Mexico is experiencing a crisis in human security and criminal violence is not the only factor present or even the main cause. The drastic transformation of public policies towards the agricultural sector, induced by structural adjustment programs and trade liberalization, of which the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is the cornerstone, created the conditions for the emergence of multiple forms of violence in Mexican countryside.

The adjustment policies and NAFTA have contributed to deterioration of the diverse forms of security that constitute human security. They have generated power vacuums in government and society and have given rise to the many forms of violence seen today in the countryside.[1]

  1. NAFTA has eroded human security in the countryside

The United Nations Development Program defines human security as constituted by seven components: economic security, food security, health security, environmental security, community security and political security.[2]

Economic insecurity

At a macro level, NAFTA made the economy of the country’s agrifood sector more vulnerable. From NAFTA’s first year, 1994 until 2000, the primary sector grew only 1.8% and the agrifood sector 2.6% , while the general national economy had an average growth rate of 3.4%.[3]

During the PAN administrations from 2000 through 2012, the GDP of the primary sector saw an average growth of 1.4% (agriculture 1.4%, animal husbandry 1.8% and fishing 0%) while the national economy grew at a rate of 2.1%. The role of agriculture in the national GDP has been decreasing: in 1994 it comprised 6% of the total GDP, and in 2012 it had dropped to 3.57%.

The economic insecurity of the agricultural sector is also reflected in the decrease in employment. According to the Mexican institute of statistics, INEGI, the average number of people employed in the sector between 1994 and 1997 was 8,613,000. Between 2002-2006, employment fell to 6,591,000, and in 2012, was 6,714,000[4]. Relying on these numbers, the agricultural sector lost 900,000 jobs created none in net terms during NAFTA’s 20 years of functional existence.

At the same time, the number of people living in the countryside has been increasing in absolute terms: 24,154,775 in 1995, 24,608,507 in 2000 and 26,169,972 in 2010, according to INEGI. The Mexican countryside now has two million more people than when NAFTA came into existence, and has to provide a livelihood for them with almost two million fewer agricultural jobs. This explains why farm families have had to either diversify more intensely their income sources outside of agriculture or migrate to the city or the United States.

Another point of economic vulnerability is the degradation of income within the primary sector of the economy: according to the Mexican government CONEVAL, from 1992 until 2010 at least, the average net total income per capita measured with August, 2010 as baseline, remained practically stagnant between 500 and 600 pesos–less than half the income in urban areas as shown in the following graph:

Graph 1. Average net total Income per capita between 1992-2010. Taken from CONEVAL

Captura de pantalla 2014-05-31 a la(s) 17.51.14

During 2012, the average salary per capita reached 107,219 pesos, or 8,935 pesos/month. The sectors with the highest salaries were: corporate executives with 702,221 pesos per capita; financial and insurance services with 467,877; communications and media with 425, 948 and mining with 292,013 pesos per capita.

In contrast, the lowest average annual salaries per person were the agriculture, animal husbandry, silviculture, fishing and hunting sectors, with 11,405 pesos per person[5].

Economic and productive vulnerability affect each other. Low incomes hinder capitalization of the farm family unit and low capitalization limits productivity and incomes. In this manner, 20 years under NAFTA has perpetuated stratification among Mexican rural producers without any significant changes:

According to the Ministry of Agriculture (SAGARPA), there are 5.3 million rural economic units in Mexico, distributed in the following manner:

Unit Types Number % Net Annual Incomes
Subsistence or limited relationship with the market 3.9 millions 72.6 – 17,000.00
In transition, linked to the market 442 mil 8.3    73,391.00
Business activity with fragile profitability 528 mil 9.9 152,000.00
Rising business activity 448 mil 8.4 562,000.00
Dynamic business activity, productive scale comparable to the industrial sector, linked to the international market    18 mil 0.3 + 562,000.00

Chart 1. Description of productive units in the Mexican countryside. Data taken from SAGARPA: Programa sectorial del desarrollo agropecuario, pesquero y alimentario: 2013-2018.

The chart reveals that there is a two-speed countryside, where at most just 20% of productive units show profitability. Only 18 thousand units out of almost a million are large, dynamic and profitable businesses with export. On the other hand, some 3 out of 4 units barely have enough to subsist: this is the bulk of indigenous and peasant agriculture, the most economically and productively vulnerable.

Personal insecurity and nutritional insecurity

Poverty: According to the latest poverty measurement, 61.6% of the population in rural areas in 2012 lived in poverty, 21.5% in extreme poverty and 40.1% in moderate poverty. These numbers are well above the recorded values for urban zones, where 40.6% of the population lived in poverty–6.3% in extreme poverty and 34.4 in moderate poverty[6].

Although rural poverty decreased slightly in the first 18 years of NAFTA in percentage terms as measured by the three main components of nutrition, capabilities and assets, the absolute number of people living in poverty increased, as displayed by the following chart:

  % People
  Nutrition Capabilities Assets Nutrition Capabilities Assets
1994 37.0 49.5 67.3 13,263,492 17,022,854 24,824,766
2012 30.9 40.2 63.6 13,629,454 17,707,867 28,023,268

Chart 2: Nutrition, capabilities and asset poverty in Mexican rural areas in 1994 and 2012. Data taken from CONEVAL.

Chart 2 shows that while poverty reduction as a percentage is significant in terms of nutrition and capabilities, there is no decrease and in fact an absolute increase in the number of people in poverty by any of the three standards. This means that NAFTA, in spite of all its promises, did not achieve poverty reduction in absolute terms in the Mexican countryside.

Community insecurity

The loss of jobs, the stagnation or actual regression in family incomes stimulates migration of one or more family members. Information regarding migration in the countryside during the NAFTA decades vary considerably. According to the Ministry of Labor, 1,780,000 people have left the countryside since 1994. However, according to Pew Hispanic Center Project numbers released in 2008, from 1994 through the first third of 2008, 6,051,000 people that were born in Mexico became United States residents, in other words 403,400 annually[7]. These numbers are not broken down, but it would not be unreasonable to suppose that even if only one out of four migrants came from a rural area, this would yield a minimum number of two million people forced out of the countryside since the beginning of NAFTA.

The countryside, gravely strained by the process of emigration, has been experiencing a series of vulnerabilities that affect community security and have repercussions on the proliferation of violence: the male population is significantly reduced, mainly youngsters and young adults; the number of single women in charge of families rapidly increases; and children and old people–the most vulnerable age groups–have more demographic weight. As a result, community life gradually weakens due to work overload from those that are of working age and the social fabric and community ties break down.

However, NAFTA not only caused greater insecurity in rural actors. The way in which it was conceived and how it has been applied has generated serious insecurities also for consumers and the nation as a whole.

Insecurity in food production

Between 1990-1992 and 2009-2011, the area sown in oilseeds decreased by 40%, with just soybeans dropping from 324,000 to 167,000 hectares. Rice went from 120,000 to 37,000 hectares during the same period. The national production of wheat remained practically stagnant from 1990 until 2011: 3.8 million tons. Bean production, a basic food in the Mexican diet, went from 2.1 million hectares in 1990 to only 1.6 million in 2009-2011.[8]

Insecurity due to food dependency

When NAFTA went into effective, Mexico was importing around 24% of its total food consumption. NAFTA made imports of basic foods grow vertiginously: today, indicators reveal that these imports are above 42% of consumption. In 2012, Mexico imported 79% of all domestic rice consumption, 93% of oilseeds, 58% of wheat and 82% of corn used for industrial and livestock feeding purposes[9]. Similarly, the FAO estimates that between 2009 and 2011, imports to cover local consumption spanned over 95% for soy, 40.2% for pork meat, 34.5% for beef, 18.3% for poultry, 13.5% for bean and 13.2% for corn.[10]

The following chart by the FAO is revealing:

(Thousands of tons)
1990-92 1995-96 2000-02 2005-07 2009-11 b/ 1990-2011
Rice 569.0 730.0 863.0 1023.0 945.0 2.4
Wheat 4522.0 4856.0 5955.0 6275.0 6431.0 2.2
Sorghum 8794.0 7651.0 10835.0 8256.0 8784.0 -0.2
Bean 1240.0 1231.0 1260.0 1152.0 1033.0 -4.2
Sugar 3915.0 3760.0 4660.0 5302.0 5190.0 1.4
Raw coffee beans 136.0 129.0 148.0 174.0 152.0 1.5
Soy 2183.0 3056.0 4382.0 3837.0 3677.0 2.5
Import Participation in Aparent Consumption
Rice 53.4 61 78.3 79.1 89.2
Wheat 14.4 34.3 52.4 55.3 51.3
Sorghum 40.9 27.3 45.8 30.4 26.1
Bean 9.7 5.6 7.9 8.8 13.5
Sugar 15.1 0.7 0.7 4.6 9.5
Raw coffee beans 1.0 3.2 7.3 0.4 4.6
Soy 71.1 97.2 97.7 96.9 95.5

Chart 3. Import participation in the apparent consumption of grains and cereals. Taken from the FAO: “Panorama de la seguridad alimentaria y nutricional en México, 2012”

The has been a very significant increase in imports for livestock-related products in beef, pork and poultry, while the imports of milk and eggs have decreased:

1990-92 1995-96 2000-02 2005-07 2009-11
Beef 8.6 6.0 22.2 16.9 34.5
Pork 5.5 3.8 29.7 33.5 40.2
Poultry 7.0 9.1 10.8 13.2 18.3
Milk 21.1 19.0 15.7 14.9 13.2
Eggs 1.0 0.9 0.7 0.6 0.4

Chart 4. Import participation in the apparent consumption of meats, eggs and dairy. Taken from the FAO: “Panorama de la seguridad alimentaria y nutricional en México, 2012”

Food sovereignty was another of the illusions: agrifood imports hiked from $1,790 million in 1982 to $15,984 million in 2006 and $27,774 million in 2012. The trade balance of the agrifood sector in 2012 had a $4,969,000 deficit. From the beginning of NAFTA, the trade balance in the agrifood sector has had a deficit of over $45,000 million, almost twice the federal budget for all programs aimed at the countryside.[11]

Health and nutrition insecurity

Although there have been advances in these fields, there is still a large degree of insecurity in terms of access to food, mainly in the countryside, where one out of three municipalities faces these problem (33.9%), compared to only 22.9% of all urban municipalities and only one out of four (24.9%) municipalities nationwide, as shown on the following graph:[12]

Captura de pantalla 2014-05-31 a la(s) 18.03.58

Source: Author’s estimations based on the Population and Housing Census 2010

Even though child malnutrition has decreased since NAFTA came into effect, 14 out of every 100 pre-schoolers have a small size for their age, representing almost 1.5 million children below the age of 5–an indicator of chronic malnutrition. In the indigenous population, this prevalence is twice as high–33.1%. Overweight and obesity in children, teenagers and adults has become a serious public health problem.[13]

With NAFTA, not only did food imports from the United States spike, but Mexico also imported U.S. eating habits. The Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health reported on the severe increase in obese and overweight people in Mexico–12% between 2000 and 2006. The spike coincides with the application of NAFTA. During this period, the consumption of processed foods, sodas, and other foods with high levels of fat and sugar increased in Mexico, while more American companies strengthen their presence in the whole range of production and processing, and in restaurants and food sales. All this transformed the food environment, and caused an increase in the rates of obesity.

Some 34.4% of children between ages 5 and 11 suffered being overweight and obesity in 2012, while this number was 34.8 in 2006 and 25.9% in 1999. For teenagers between 12 and 19, the rates were 33.2% in 2006 and 34.9% in 2012, whereas for adults over 20, 73 out of 100 women and 69 out of 100 men presented some degree of overweight in 2012. In 2006, these numbers were slightly inferior to those currently recorded: 71.9 for women and 66.7% for men.[14]


The deregulation and liquidation of state entities or state-owned enterprises propitiated by the policies of structural adjustment, and the way these policies were applied generated large governmental and social power vacuums, which have been exploited by “de facto” legal or illegal powers in the Mexican countryside. The main power vacuums generated include:

  • The Mexican state practically withdrew all financing from farming activities. Currently, only 6% of all units of primary sector production have access to institutional credit. As a result, among producers this has generated a vacuum in public financing to the rural sector that producers have had to fill with migrant remittances or work outside agriculture, or has been filled with loan sharks or in may cases by organized crime seeking to launder money through production credit.
  • The guaranteed prices for basic grains were phased out and during the Ernesto Zedillo administration, the public institution CONASUPO was completely shut down. CONASUPO regulated producer and consumer prices and guaranteed a market for basic crops. As the government moved away from marketing functions, it claimed that this would encourage the formation and operation of producer-owned marketing firms. But the promise has not been fulfilled. Most harvests are bought by the large intermediaries and big buyers like Cargill, MASECA, LALA, etc. Organized crime commonly buys crops too, due to its great liquidity.
  • There were 25,000 agricultural extension agents in Mexico two decades ago. Today, this task is done by 6,000 professional service providers, many of whom are not professionals in the field, receive low wages and face a lack of incentives, which yields a “condemned-to-mediocrity” system, according to the Analysis of Agricultural Extension in Mexico, written by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). This has led to stagnation in productivity and innovation in the countryside.
  • The bankruptcy of many producers, unable to compete with imports mainly from the United States, led to the massive sale of land and ranches that were acquired by organized crime to set up businesses to launder money or for cover.
  • New laws, such as the Federal Agrarian Reform and the new Mining Law both from 1992, significantly reduce the regulatory power of the State and limit communities’ ability to avoid pillage of their natural resources in their territories. The main actors of NAFTA–transnational tourism, agriculture, mining and silviculture corporations–have ably exploited these governmental and social power vacuums. This creates tremendous environmental devastation and devastation of the water supply, such as the case of the Mennonites in Chihuahua, foreign mining companies throughout the country and tourism megaprojects.

After 20 years of the imposition of NAFTA, Mexican agriculture has become polarized. The government subsidy program called Procampo is being monopolized by large producers, while it should be aimed at dynamizing poor and medium-sized farmers to produce more and better quality food. The richest 10% of all producers hogs 45% of this subsidy, a full 80% of the support program of the Ministry of Agriculture known as “objective income” and 60% of all subsidies for energy and water.

Furthermore, 50% of the total value of agricultural and livestock production is concentrated in seven federative entities: Jalisco, Veracruz, Sinaloa, Michoacan, Sonora, Chiapas and Puebla. Two groups of units out of the 5.3 million Rural Economic Units (REU) represent 8.7% of the total of REU, and generate 74.2% of its sales. Fifty percent of these REU are also concentrated in seven states: Sinaloa, Sonora, Chihuahua, Jalisco, Guanajuato, Tamaulipas and Baja California.[15]

  1. NAFTA contributes significantly to the sharp increase in violence in the Mexican countryside

The power vacuums created by government withdrawal and the weakening of civil society and the need to face the fierce competition from imports, often in dumping terms, generates several forms of violence in the Mexican countryside:

Environmental violence against natural resources

Facing expensive inputs and low prices for their crops, many producers had to intensify water use and drill new wells, overuse agrochemicals or even turn to genetically modified seed to boost their yields. They began to use technologies that harm the environment–the soil, water, streams, forests, fields, etc.

Consequently, the number of natural disasters in the countryside has increased, with unavoidable and high costs for cities and for national economic development. Of Mexico’s 196 million hectares, 64% are degraded mainly by water and wind erosion. Some 10,000 hectares of the best irrigated lands are lost for cultivation annually due to saline accumulation. This adds up to 425,000 hectares that have ceased to be useful for intensive agricultural production. Water sources have been over-exploited, as half of the 731 catchment areas in Mexico face a water deficit. The forests that generate the water of the main rivers have been exhausted. Responding to the urgency of lowering costs to compete with imported goods, the brunt fell on those who cannot defend themselves–the natural resources. Environmental violence is one of the by-products of NAFTA and the structural reforms.

Criminal violence

Criminal violence was a silent penetration that gradually evolved into the current crisis. Organized crime now controls a large portion of the rural economy and has taken over other features of life in the countryside. It illegally exploits natural resources, as in Michoacan and Chihuahua. It has diversified its operations beyond the sale of narcotics. It steals machinery and equipment, takes the payroll from those who hire agricultural workers, extorts producers and traders and asks for a share of the sale of crops.

Organized crime has gained territorial control over vast rural zones, formal and informally. It controls mayors, manipulates the municipalities’ public safety offices, charges fees, rights of passage, etc. To control territories, it has spread fear through executions, mutilations, kidnapping and arson. The criminals punish those who dare to defy them as an example, especially if they do so in an organized manner such as community police forces. It co-opts, buys or simply colludes with the police forces, the Army and the Navy.

A true “societas sceleris” is established within the rural parts of many states of the Republic, a society of crime in which farm families live as a population oppressed by an occupation army, with limited–if not annulled–rights of citizenship.

Violence against resisting communities

Both organized crime and government forces exert violence against communities that resist the looting of their natural resources or invasion of their territories. Unfortunately, cases abound: ecologist farmers in Guerrero, Cheran and Ostula in Michoacan, communities that fight against companies that exploit wind energy in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the murder of Ismael Solorio and his wife Manuelita because of their defense of the Rio del Carmen and the territory of the Benito Juarez community against the Mag Silver mining company in Chihuahua. The list goes on.

Violence against the genetic heritage

This is the best way to name the invasion of transgenic seeds, mainly corn, that has happened since the arrival of large transnationals like Monsanto, with the tolerance or complicity of several government agencies. Not only are they attempting to obtain more permits for experimental plantings, but the government looks the other way as transgenic seeds are smuggled into the country, and harvested, causing serious damages to native seeds and the local ecosystem.

The Mexican countryside is experiencing the worse violence crisis since the end of the 1910 Revolution. However, unlike that revolutionary violence that created something new, the violence promoted by neoliberals through structural adjustment programs and NAFTA has only led to violence that destroy productive models, associations, community life, distribution of wealth, and the relationship with the environment that had persisted until before they arrived and facilitated the implementation of the drug cartels and organized crime precisely where the State failed.

Beyond the Crisis

Twenty years after NAFTA came into effect, Mexico has sacrificed its food sovereignty and lost billions of dollars in profits to buy foods that the country can produce itself. Mexican natural resources have been overexploited and degraded and thousands of people have been displaced, deeply affecting the life of hundreds of thousands of families and thousands of rural communities.

What for? Not so that the country can become wealthier, more fair, less unequal, more independent. No, rather it has been so that a handful of large agri-food companies and giant national and foreign producers concentrate even more wealth, while the vast majority of the rural population has experienced stagnation, if not a decline, in their quality of life.

This alone is a process that involves a high degree of violence, and that has simultaneously provoked many kinds of human insecurity through the action of illegal powers that are regulated by law or society, and that have generated violence against people, against communities and against nature.

This dark side of globalization has also sparked multiple, scattered forms of resistance that are proliferating and linking up. Farmers are demanding public policies that support their agriculture and subsidies to be able to produce and not just survive. Indigenous communities are resisting to defend their territories and natural resources. Commercial producers are resisting to block food imports at dumping prices. The Yaquis are resisting to defend their rivers. The raramuris and purepechas are resisting to defend their forests.

The potential of these resistances–the constitution of many effective social and community counter-powers; the accumulation social, legal and political advances by of farming communities, indigenous populations, and producers committed to national progress will gradually stop the “dark side of globalization” in the place where it has been felt the most: the Mexican countryside.

Victor M. Quintana is an adviser to the Democratic Peasant front of Chihuahua and professor-researcher in the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juarez. He is a regular columnist for the CIP Americas Program,

Translation: Daniel Rodriguea

Editor: Laura Carlsen


[1] The structure and the main concepts of this essay are taken from BUSCAGLIA Edgardo; “Vacíos de poder en México”, Debate, México, 2013.

[2]Cited by BUSCAGLIA, “Vacíos de poder…”, op.cit.p.16

[3] Data taken from the data base of National Accounts of the INEGI and SAGARPA (double check acronym in English): Programa Sectorial de Desarrollo Agropecuario, Pesquero y Alimentario 2013-2018, on Diario Oficial de la Federación, Friday, December 13, 2013. Web. Consulted on April 12, 2014 on:,%20Pesquero%20%20y%20Alimentario%202013-2018.pdf

[4] Data taken from INEGI, Encuesta Nacional de Ocupación y Empleo, and SAGARPA, Programa sectorial….

[5] INEGI; Sistema de cuentas nacionales de México, cuenta de bienes y servicios 2012. Press bulletin 408/13, October 22, 2013. Web. Consulted on

[6] SAGARPA:Programa Sectorial del Desarrollo….loc.cit.

[7] GARCIA ZAMORA Rodolfo: TLC y migración internacional, 20 años después en Brújula Ciudadana, No.54. Web. Consulted on:

[8]Data taken from SIAP-SAGARPA


[9] SAGARPA: “Programa sectorial del desarrollo…..” ,op.cit.


[11] SAGARPA: Programa sectorial…loc.cit.

[12] FAO: ¨Panorama de la seguridad….

[13] Idem

[14] FAO: Panorama de la seguridad….with data from the National Survey of Health and Nutrition 1999, 2006 y 2012.

[15] Idem

One comment

  1. It is good these basic statistics have been made available.
    Thank you

    Comment by Alan Donohue on March 15, 2015 at 5:50 am

The comments are closed.