A Fighting Chance 1986 Critical Thinking

Social Education 59(3), 1995, pp. 139-143
National Council for the Social Studies

Making Critical Thinking Possible: Options for Teachers

Ian Wright
To develop a curriculum for the teaching of critical thinking in the Social Studies, 1 it is first necessary to determine how critical thinking is to be conceptualized.
If critical thinking is defined as a set of generalizable skills, then it is assumed that any subject matter within or beyond the boundaries of social studies can act as a vehicle, and whatever is learned can be transferred to other subject areas. 2

If, on the other hand, critical thinking differs according to the subject (and there is much debate about what "subject" means [Norris 1992]), then critical thinking has to be taught in each of the subjects (history, geography, economics, etc.), and there is no transfer of what is learned in one subject to another.

A third view is that while some critical thinking components are transferable, not all of them are. If this view is correct, then the question of which are and which are not is vital in determining how critical thinking is to be taught.

Even when we have decided which view is the most defensible, we will still have to decide what to teach, as all of the extant conceptions include a variety of standards, heuristics, skills, and dispositions (i.e., Ennis 1991; Lipman et al. 1980; Siegel 1988; Paul 1990; Baillin et al. 1993; and McPeck 1990). They cannot all be developed in a single course or grade level; choices have to made, sequences decided upon, and teaching methodologies determined.

The three options presented here for teaching critical thinking allow teachers to select a strategy that corresponds to their conceptual assumptions. They consist of a critical thinking module, an infusion approach, and a strategy combining the module and an infusion approach.

A Critical Thinking Module
One obvious way to focus on critical thinking within the social studies is to teach a separate module, either using an existing program like Philosophy for Children's Mark (Lipman 1979), which deals with the philosophy of the social sciences, or designing new materials. What might be envisioned here is a module designed to help students deal critically with the mass media, major political issues, or such topics as historiography or informal logic using examples drawn from the Social Studies curriculum.

There are both advantages and disadvantages to this approach.

Using an existing program has the advantage that it is immediately available and has been created by experts. In the case of the Philosophy for Children program, these experts provide in-service training and support groups. A further advantage is that a teacher can "learn by doing." By teaching the program, he or she will learn about critical thinking; the materials provide instruction for both teachers and students.

A separate module can deal with the really important social problems that do not always appear in the existing social studies curriculum, even though they are clearly part of social studies. As Paul (1990) points out, significant issues are not generally found within the boundaries of one discipline such as history or geography. They tend to be multi-logical-which political party to vote for, what to do about drug use, how to prevent violence in the school, and so on.

A further advantage to the separate module approach is that it may foster a more critical attitude because it is specifically designed to encourage critical thinking, rather than assisting in learning particular social studies content. And if the issues studied are significant in everyday life, then there is a greater likelihood of transfer. For example, the student who learns how to critique advertising may well also learn how to deal with political messages, calls to join particular organizations, and persuasive sales persons. Thus, the separate module approach has a number of advantages. If, unlike Mark, it is designed by teachers, it is more likely to fit the constraints and opportunities of the existing social studies curriculum and the contexts in which it is taught.

A possible disadvantage arises from using existing critical thinking/social studies programs or creating a separate critical thinking/social studies module: there is the risk that what is learned in the module will not be transferred to the rest of the social studies curriculum. This has been seen as a major stumbling block when critical thinking is taught as a distinct course (Kennedy, Fisher, and Ennis 1991; Sternberg 1987). It can be avoided only if there is a concerted effort by teachers to use and build upon what was learned in the critical thinking module (Ruggiero 1988). Thus, what is taught in a separate module has to be coordinated with the rest of the social studies curriculum. Another disadvantage of having a separate critical thinking module may be that it will require a slot in the curriculum at a time when the existing social studies curriculum is already perceived to be overloaded.

Infusion
Another approach favored by some is infusion, in which critical thinking is incorporated into the existing subject matter in a number of different ways. O'Reilly systematically infuses critical thinking in his history materials (1985). Paul et al. (1987/1989) have restructured existing lesson plans in social studies (as well as in other subject areas) to incorporate critical thinking, while Beyer (1987, 1991) focuses on particular skills and uses the social studies content as a vehicle to teach them.

Another way of infusing critical thinking into the social studies curriculum is to base the teaching of it on a procedure such as problem solving (Quellmalz 1987). This involves identifying key problems in the social studies curriculum and using relevant aspects of critical thinking to clarify the problem, assess evidence, judge solutions, and so on. Ruggerio (1988) suggests a model of problem solving with five steps, the last one focusing specifically on critical thinking: Exploration (that a problem exists), Expression (stating what the problem is), Investigation, Idea Production (producing possible answers), and Evaluation and Refinement (ascertaining whether the answer is reasonable). With similar objectives, Schiever proposes the use of Taba's curriculum principles and the application of aspects of critical thinking to concept development, data interpretation, application of generalizations, and resolution of conflicts (1991).

Using these models and guides allows students to be exposed to critical thinking competencies within the curriculum content. It may be seen as an integrated part of learning the content-there is less risk of teaching "inert" knowledge of the kind that is never applied outside of the subject matter (Sternberg 1987). Further, there are some excellent materials available that do not require the creation of a separate timetable slot (see Kruse 1989; Chance 1986; Coles and Robinson 1989; and Idol, Jones, and Mayer 1991).

The disadvantages of the infusion method are that the teaching of critical thinking may lack any sensible sequence or coherence-a little informal fallacy recognition here, a little concept analysis there, etc. While the separate course approach requires teachers who are well versed in critical thinking, it does not necessarily require that all teachers in a school be experts. The infusion approach requires all teachers to be well versed in, and disposed toward, critical thinking, 3 but there are some indications that these are lacking in some teachers (Wright 1991; Onosko 1989; McKee 1988).

Coordination between teachers of different social studies courses is necessary for the basics of critical thinking to be covered in some intelligent way. Beyer (1991) argues that the teaching of critical thinking must be coordinated because

(1) Each teacher needs to know what others are doing.

(2) No teacher can teach everything that is necessary. In fact, some aspects of critical thinking have to be taught in some social studies courses rather than others, and some components of critical thinking (such as dispositions) need to be fostered in all courses (which need to be coordinated).

(3) Skills need to be sequenced.

(4) All teachers need to know the full array of critical thinking competencies and habits of mind, so that they can decide which ones are most relevant to their courses.

Ruggiero's argument that critical thinking should be taught across all subjects because of the need to practice a particular skill in a variety of contexts applies to social studies (Ruggiero 1988). He views the teaching of critical thinking to be akin to the teaching of writing-it must be done across the curriculum (and thus in all social studies courses). Olson and Babu make the point that the vocabulary of critical thinking ("argument," "assumption," the use of logical operators such as "therefore") has to be taught, and that this needs to be infused in all courses (1992). All this will take commitment and time. The latter is often lacking, given the increased role responsibilities of teachers and administrators.

Combined Module and Infusion Methods
A third approach is to combine the single module and infusion methods in an attempt to realize the benefits of both. This allows a serious and systematic focus on critical thinking both in a module devoted to it and in other social studies courses. Transfer is (theoretically) guaranteed. Because experts could teach the separate module, this would benefit teachers not knowledgeable enough to teach it, as well as students.

Sternberg recommends a mixed model in which there are one or more separate modules in critical thinking, and it is infused into the rest of the social studies curriculum (1987). Because there is too much in critical thinking for any one teacher to teach, this approach can expose students to a wide variety of critical thinking standards and heuristics. It also allows teachers to teach to their strengths while being cognizant of what other teachers are doing. With this approach, programs designed by experts can be used alongside locally designed ones that would be best suited to local conditions. Whatever approach is taken will require clarity about purposes; thinking about critical thinking in terms of K-12, not just in one grade level; and taking into account the politics of the school and the community.

This still leaves us with the question of what is to be taught. Should we teach students what an argument is, what informal fallacies are, what the standards are for a reliable observation claim, how to recognize assumptions, or all of these?

It seems to me that the crucial questions for a critical thinking program are "What is true, or plausible in this case?" and "What is a justifiable action in this case?" While commonplace, they are also profound-Is what this advertisement is claiming true? Did X commit the alleged crime? Did this student tell the truth when he said Y? Should I buy a new car or use the bus more often? Should we send more troops to the world's areas of conflict? How should I treat this "problem" student in my class?

We deal with these sorts of questions all the time yet we do not often help students deal with them; we continue to fill their heads with "truths" without questioning these, or even telling students why these might be believable. Yet it is possible for students to focus on truth and to learn some of the standards pertaining to it in various branches of knowledge. O'Reilly (1985) has shown this with his materials while Lipman et al. (1980) and Pritchard (1985) have demonstrated that even elementary students can learn quite sophisticated concepts and principles.

What should be done? In my view, students in social studies should learn the rules of evidence and should begin this process in the elementary grades (Pritchard 1985). They should learn the criteria for judging the reliability of observation claims (Norris and King 1985) and apply these in a variety of situations-when stating what they saw in a particular event, when judging the reliability of claims by a witness to a historical or contemporary event, or when determining how much pollution there is in a river. Students should also begin to grapple with some of the problems surrounding authority/expert claims. To be able to apply all of the criteria for judging the reliability of claims made by an expert (see Ennis 1969) requires a great deal of background information, but a start can be made (Blair 1992). For example, students should learn that a dentist is a better judge (usually) of teeth care than is a movie star advertising a particular brand of tooth paste. They should learn that newspaper reports are biased and that some reports lack objectivity and fair-mindedness. They should learn about conflicts of interest through everyday examples-e.g., telling a teacher what happened in a fight that involved a best friend.

Students should also understand the difference between supporting a claim on the basis of a single piece of evidence and on that of many pieces. Missimer describes a situation in which one of her students claimed that by chanting a mantra, he got what he wanted. His "proof" was that he had found a parking space on a busy street by chanting his mantra. Missimer gave him the job of logging multiple observations of a similar sort. She claims that on the basis of the experiment, the student has given up his belief (1990, 3).

Missimer teaches the standards pertaining to three forms of evidence-speculative evidence, correlation, and evidence from a controlled experiment. Again, students should learn that a correlation does not necessarily show a causal connection, that there are rules for conducting experiments, and that one person's speculative theory can be diametrically opposed to someone else's (Missimer 1990, 4). Thus, standards for truth can be taught and, as Siegel (1993) points out, need to be taught so that students are given some guidance as to how to adjudicate between competing claims and not to descend into an untenable relativism.

A second crucial question involves reasoning about what we or others ought to do. This puts us squarely into the realm of moral education. If one takes the view that education is a moral enterprise (Goodlad et al. 1990; Strike and Soltis 1985), and that critical thinking includes reasoning about moral questions (Weinstein 1988; Coombs 1989; Paul 1990; Wright and La Bar 1987), then one should not avoid raising moral questions in the classroom or treating them as matters that are not amenable to critical thought. The question is (as with empirical matters), are there any standards for truth in matters of moral values? Here, there is not time or space to go into all the arguments for the justifiability of particular moral standards. There is, however, a body of literature that deals with how students can go about dealing rationally with personal and social issues (Shaver and Larkin 1973; Evans 1982; Lipman 1976) and with why certain moral standards are defensible (Coombs 1971 and 1989). To indicate what, in my view, should be taught here, let me outline briefly the approach adopted in materials produced by the Association for Values Education and Research at the University of British Columbia (AVER 1978-1991).

In the AVER approach, first of all, an issue is clarified, alternative positions identified, and evidence collected and evaluated. Students then create arguments for their positions and determine the principles on which their arguments are based. This is essential because, on the basis of particular social/political principles, basic goods (survival, liberty, health, rights, etc.) are distributed in certain ways. As different people put emphasis on different basic goods, distribution of them is likely to be a disadvantage to certain people and an advantage to others. If distribution cannot be absolutely equal (and this, in certain circumstances, might be most unfair [Rawls 1971]), then what principles should be used and how could they be justified?

To justify a course of action, reasoners must identify the principle(s) on which their reasoning is based. Suppose, for example, someone argues that capital punishment is justified because it acts as a deterrent. In this case, the principle appealed to is, "What acts as a deterrent is justified." The next, and crucial, step is to have students justify their principles by applying the following "tests." 4

1. The Role-Exchange test requires reasoners to imagine themselves in the position of the person most adversely affected by the application of the judgment. If they cannot accept the judgment when viewed from this position, then it is not impartial.

2. The New Cases test requires reasoners to consider the application of the judgment to similar situations. If reasoners cannot accept these judgments, then the judgment is not consistent.

3. The Universal Consequences test requires reasoners to determine whether everyone who might want to act in the way condoned by the judgment could do so without producing consequences that would be unacceptable to the reasoners. If these are not acceptable, then the judgment is not universalizable.

4. The Subsumption Test requires reasoners to determine whether the judgment follows logically from their more fundamental ethical beliefs.

These tests cannot "prove" that one's judgment is correct. However, if a judgment "passes" the relevant tests, then the reasoner can have some confidence in its ethical acceptability; the judgment will be both impartial and consistent.

In both of these areas-epistemological and ethical-there should be a focus on the dispositions necessary for good critical thinking, on the knowledge necessary to think critically about the subject matter, the heuristics for arriving at reasonable conclusions, and especially the standards of critical thought (Baillin et al. 1993).

The program outlined is flexible. It could cover content already in the curriculum, or it could focus on new and relevant issues. It could be taught by a specialist who could help other teachers build on what is done in the critical thinking course. The specialist could teach all of the critical thinking modules to all students (if the school is small enough and the time tabling could be so arranged) and could act as in-service leader to the other social studies teachers.

By focusing on the two major questions of empirical truth and moral justifiability, the relevant components of critical thinking (heuristics, dispositions, the recognition of informal fallacies, and so on) can be applied to the content being examined. This might mean that different schools focused on different components at different times, but all would be emphasizing the same sorts of fundamental standards. If an already produced critical thinking program at a certain grade level was used, then all students would cover the same "content."

There is a burgeoning literature in critical thinking, and there are many opportunities for teachers to learn about it. But teaching critical thinking in the social studies needs careful thought. This proposal builds on the evidence and thoughtfulness of many people. It requires evaluation at both the theoretical and practical levels.

Notes
1. My article is premised on the assumption that the only subject with a critical thinking focus is social studies. I do not discuss situations where there are existing critical thinking courses in the school, or where critical thinking is incorporated in other subject areas, even though this would be the ideal I would want to attain. Further, it is assumed that critical thinking is a goal of education (see Siegel 1988, and McPeck 1981), and that the standards of critical thinking can be used to attempt to adjudicate between competing claims and arguments. It is thus assumed here that certain forms of postmodernism must be rejected (see Hatcher 1991; Siegel 1993).References
Association for Values Education and Research. Values Reasoning Series. Toronto: Ontario Institute for Studies in Education Press, 1978-1991.Baier, Kurt. "Moral Reasons and Reasons to be Moral." In Values and Morals, edited by Alvin I. Goldman and Jaegwon Kim. Dodrecht, Holland: Reidel, 1978.Baillin, Sharon, Roland Case, Jerrold Coombs, and Leroi Daniels. A Conception of Critical Thinking for Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment. Victoria, British Columbia, Canada: Ministry of Education, 1993.Baron, Joan B., and Robert J Sternberg. Teaching Thinking Skills: Theory and Practice. New York: Freeman, 1987.Beyer, Barry K. Practical Strategies for the Teaching of Thinking. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1987.-----. Teaching Thinking Skills: A Handbook for Secondary School Teachers. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1991.Blair, J. Anthony. "The Generalizability of Critical Thinking: The Evaluation of Sources." In The Generalizability of Critical Thinking, edited by Stephen Norris. New York: Teachers College Press, 1992.Chance, Paul. Thinking in the Classroom: A Survey of Programs. New York: Teachers College Press, 1986.Coles, Martin J., and Will D. Robinson, eds. Teaching Thinking: A Survey of Programs in Education. Bristol: The Bristol Press, 1989.Coombs, Jerrold. "Objectives of Values Analysis." In Values Education: Rationale, Strategies, and Procedures, edited by Lawrence Metcalf. Washington, DC: National Council for the Social Studies, 1971.-----. "Conceptualizing Competence in Critical Thinking in Morality." Paper presented at the Critical Thinking Conference, St John's, Newfoundland, 1989.De Bono, Edward. Think, Note, Write. Logan, Iowa: Perfection Form Co., 1990.Ennis, Robert H. Logic in Teaching. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1969.-----. "Critical Thinking: A Streamlined Conception." Teaching Philosophy 14, no. 1 (1991): 5-24.Evans, W. Keith, and Terry P. Applegate. Making Rational Decisions. Salt Lake City, Utah: Prodec, 1982.Friedman, Joel. "Response to Professors Arnstine's and Pfeiffer's Criticisms." CT News 7, no. 2 (1989): 1, 6-9.Goodlad, John, Roger Soder, and Kenneth Sirotnik, eds. The Moral Dimensions of Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 1990.Hatcher, Donald. "Can Critical Thinking Survive the Postmodern Challenge?" Inquiry: Critical Thinking Across the Disciplines (February 1991): 8-17.Idol, Lorna, Beau Fly Jones, and R. Mayer. "The Teaching of Thinking." In Educational Values and Cognitive Instruction: Implications for Reform, edited by Lorna Idol and Beau Fly Jones. Hillsdale, New Jersey: Erlbaum, 1991.Kennedy, Mellen, Michelle B. Fisher, and Robert H. Ennis. "Critical Thinking: Literature Review and Needed Research." In Educational Values and Cognitive Instruction: Implications for Reform, edited by Lorna Idol and Beau Fly Jones. Hillsdale, New Jersey: Erlbaum, 1991.Kruse, Janice. Resources for Teaching Thinking: A Catalogue. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Research for Better Schools, 1989.Lipman, Mathew. Lisa. Upper Montclair, New Jersey: Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children, Montclair State College, 1976.-----. Mark. Upper Montclair, New Jersey: Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children, 1979.Lipman, Mathew, Ann M. Sharp, and Frederick S. Oscanyan. Philosophy in the Classroom. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Temple University Press, 1980.McKee, Saundra J. "Impediments to Implementing Critical Thinking." Social Education 52, no. 6 (1988): 444-46.McPeck, John. Critical Thinking and Education. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1981.-----. Teaching Critical Thinking. New York: Routledge, 1990.Missimer, Connie. "Types of Evidence." CT News 8, no. 3 (1990): 3-4.Norris, Stephen, ed. The Generalizability of Critical Thinking. New York: Teachers College Press, 1992.Norris, Stephen, and Ruth King. Test on Appraising Observations. St Johns, Newfoundland: Institute for Educational Research and Development, Memorial University, 1985.Olson, David R., and Nandita Babu. "Critical Thinking as Critical Discourse." In The Generalizability of Critical Thinking, edited by Stephen Norris. New York: Teachers College Press, 1992.Onosko, Joseph. "Comparing Teachers' Thinking about Promoting Students' Thinking." Theory and Research in Social Education 17, no. 3 (1989): 174-95.O'Reilly, Kevin. Critical Thinking in American History. 4 vols. Beverly, Massachusetts: Critical Thinking Press, 1985.Paul, Richard. Critical Thinking: What Every Person Needs to Survive in a Rapidly Changing World. Rohnert Park, California: Center for the Study of Critical Thinking and Moral Critique, 1990.Paul, Richard, A.J.A. Binker, and Marla Charbonneau. Critical Thinking Handbook: K-3., A Guide for Remodeling Lesson Plans in the Language Arts, Social Studies and Science. Rohnert Park, California: Centre for Critical Thinking and Moral Critique, 1987.Paul, Richard, A.J.A. Binker, and Karen Jensen. Critical Thinking Handbook: 4 - 6. A Guide for Remodelling Lesson Plans in the Language Arts, Social Studies and Science. Rohnert Park, California: Centre for Critical Thinking and Moral Critique, 1987.Paul, Richard, A.J.A. Binker, Douglas Martin, Chris Vetrano, and Heidi Kreklau. Critical Thinking Handbook: 6 - 9. A Guide for Remodelling Lesson Plans in the Language Arts, Social Studies and Science. Rohnert Park, California: Centre for Critical Thinking and Moral Critique, 1989.Perry, Thomas D. Moral Reasoning and Truth. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976.Pritchard, Michael. Philosophical Adventures with Children. Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1985.Quellmalz, Edys S. "Developing Reasoning Skills." In Teaching Thinking Skills: Theory and Practice, edited by Joan B. Baron and Robert J. Sternberg. New York: W.H. Freeman, 1987.Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1971.Risby, Bonnie. Logic Countdown. Logic Liftoff. Orbiting with Logic. San Luis Obispo, California: Dandy Lion Publications, 1987.Ruggiero, Vincent Ryan. Teaching Thinking Across the Curriculum. New York: Harper and Row, 1988.Schiever, Shirley W. A Comprehensive Approach to the Teaching of Thinking. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1991.Shaver, James P., and Alan Larkins. The Analysis of Public Issues Program. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1973.Siegel, Harvey. Educating Reason: Rationality, Critical Thinking and Education. New York: Routledge, 1988.-----. "Gimme that Old-Time Meta-Narrative: Radical Pedagogies (and Politics) Require Old-Fashioned Epistemology (and Moral Theory)." Inquiry: Critical Thinking Across the Disciplines 11, no. 4 (1993): 1, 17-22.Sternberg, Robert. "Questions and Answers about the Nature and Teaching of Thinking Skills." In Teaching Thinking Skills: Theory and Practice, edited by Joan Baron and Robert Sternberg. New York: Freeman, 1987.Strike, Kenneth, and Jonas Soltis. The Ethics of Teaching. New York: Teachers College Press, 1985.Weinstein, Mark. Critical Thinking and Moral Education. Resource Publications, Series 1, no. 7. Upper Montclair, New Jersey: Institute for Critical Thinking, Montclair State College, 1988.Wright, Ian. "Critical Thinking: Curriculum and Instructional Policy Implications." Journal of Education Policy 7, no. 1 (1992): 37-43.Wright, Ian, and Carol LaBar. Thinking Critically about Moral Questions. Resource Publications, Series 4, no. 4. Upper Montclair, New Jersey: Institute for Critical Thinking, Montclair State College, 1987.Ian Wright is an Associate Professor teaching elementary social studies at the University of British Columbia. He is the author of the book Elementary Social Studies, and has written widely about critical thinking and moral reasoning.

2. There are a variety of programs that appear to be based on this idea, e.g., Risby (1987) and de Bono (1990).

3. In this regard, there is what Friedman (1989) calls the "hemlock problem"-the opposition of teachers to any questioning of "authority."4. For a justification of impartiality and universalizability on which the "tests" are based, see Baier (1978), Perry (1976), and Coombs (1971).

Newspaper headlines and tabloid pictures tell the story: headless corpses, blood-soaked vehicles, and a growing array of ­victims—­drug traffickers, cops, politicians, journalists, and, increasingly, civilians. The lazy, tranquil Mexico I grew up in is engulfed in the bloodiest drug violence anywhere in the Western Hemisphere.

Nine years after an opposition party came to ­power—­an event that was supposed to solidify the democracy that had been little more than a word in Mexico during several decades of oligarchic rule—Mexico’s rule of law is withering before it takes root. Since 2006 more than 10,000 people have been killed in ­drug-­related violence—1,000 of them in the first 45 days of this year alone. Last year, more Mexicans died in Mexico’s drug war than Americans have died in Iraq since 2003.

To be sure, the Mexican government has scored important victories, though these successes, expressed in numbers, also suggest the scope of the problem. More than 57,000 cartel kingpins, couriers, hit men, and lookouts—known as falcons—have been arrested since 2006. In the last two years, as many as 77 tons of cocaine, 585 kilos of heroin, and thousands of tons of marijuana have been seized. Authorities have impounded more than 33,000 firearms and some 4.5 million rounds of ammunition tied to trafficking.

Many U.S. and Mexican officials say that a crime ­problem—­albeit a grave ­one—­is being overblown. They scoff at a year-end Pentagon report calling Mexico and Pakistan the two countries most at risk of becoming failed states. “Failed states do not have functioning executive, legislative, and judicial branches,” says Tony Garza, former U.S. ambassador to Mexico. “They do not boast the world’s 12th-largest economy, nor do they trade with the United States at a pace of more than $1 billion a day.”

Mexico’s attorney general, Eduardo Medina Mora, said in a recent interview with The Dallas Morning News that Mexico’s president, Felipe Calderón, had to make fighting cartels the country’s top priority upon taking office, but he dismissed the notion that Mexico is on the verge of collapse. “Mexico has never been a weak state,” he said. “It is not today. It will not be in the future. We do have a critical problem that needs very bold, determined action by the government, which is taking place.”

Calderón’s administration insists that much of the country remains immune to the ongoing violence. Federal officials stress that more than 60 percent of the killings are confined to three of Mexico’s 31 states: Baja California, Sinaloa, and Chihuahua. And they say that 90 percent of the victims are people tied to drug traffickers, though this number invites skepticism, as so few crimes are ever solved.

Since the 1930s, cartels have been a fact of life in Mexico. Sinaloa, a state on the Gulf of California that today is known as the country’s narco-capital, was home to the first cartel, established by a single family. Over the years, other regions with gateways to the United States gave rise to their own organizations. These include Baja California’s Tijuana cartel, controlled by the Arellano family; the Juárez cartel, controlled by the Carrillo Fuentes family; and the Gulf cartel, with the paramilitary group known as Los Zetas serving as its armed enforcers and eventually spawning their own criminal ­organizations.

Accommodation between cartels and political leaders was common, as it has been in other Latin American countries, including Colombia. Ultimately, however, such an arrangement cannot hold. Greed takes over. In 1986, Colombian president Virgilio Barco described the three stages of narco-power that had gripped his country: “The first phase was the amusement. It was the period of the grand orgy with the drug dealers, when everybody was in bed with them and nobody paid any attention. . . . The second phase was the discovery period, when drug bosses no longer could depend on that more-or-less peaceful coexistence,” and violence erupted. “The third phase began when the drug bosses wanted to take over the state.”

From all indications, Mexico is in phase two, and is within sight of phase three, as midterm elections loom this July. The possibility that drug money may influence the candidates’ campaigns is yet another sign that Mexico’s democracy hangs in the ­balance.

For too long, Mexican officials turned a blind eye to the growing menace in their country. Today, an estimated 600,000 people participate in organized crime. The foot soldiers, or hit men, who come to mind when we think of drug trafficking compose fewer than 10,000 of that number, says Raúl Benítez, a professor at the National Autonomous University in Mexico who specializes in security issues. The rest are marijuana farmers, truck drivers, money launderers, and other ancillary ­criminals.

Their numbers will likely grow. The deepening economic recession has already left more than 350,000 Mexicans unemployed, and jobs that were once plentiful in the United States are scarce. Mexico’s mammoth underground economy offers a cornucopia of lucrative occupations—kidnapping (for ransom, to intimidate rival criminals, or to collect on debts), extortion, or murder for hire. In Mexico, crime pays.

This is the massive problem Calderón inherited when he took office in 2006 and decided on a policy of confrontation with the cartels. Local law enforcement—corrupt or simply stretched too thin—is overwhelmed. Some former policemen serve as drivers for the cartels. Many others are suspected of collusion with traffickers and have been fired or jailed. Still others have fled for their lives and now live in cities across the U.S. Southwest. In El Paso, I’ve met former Mexican cops working as ­fast-­food cooks, gardeners, and ­roofers.

Just days after he took office, Calderón sent some 25,000 federal troops to regain control of areas beset by drug violence. In the three years since, that number has increased to about 45,000. In March, 5,000 new soldiers arrived in Ciudad ­Juárez—­now the epicenter of the country’s violence—to take charge of security. Today, more than ­three-­quarters of the soldiers in Mexico’s army work simply to keep peace in their own ­country.

Recently, the U.S. State Department issued travel alerts for the northern state of Coahuila, which borders Texas, and even for my native state of Durango, farther to the south. My hometown in Durango traditionally had local human smugglers, people who vouched for the safe passage of emigrants along established routes into the United States. No more. Those routes, which have been taken over by ruthless drug traffickers who often use migrants as mules to smuggle locally grown marijuana or heroin, sometimes resemble killing ­fields.

The story of drug violence and cartels overwhelming vulnerable democracies is one of the oldest tales in Latin America. Indeed, Mexico is ­proving—­as have Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia—­that the war on drugs is unwinnable as long as Americans fail to curb their insatiable appetite for illicit drugs.

“If Mexico is the springboard, the United States is the swimming pool,” remarked Mexican ambassador Arturo Sarukhan in a recent talk at Harvard. Mexican drug traffickers earn anywhere from $15 billion to $38 billion from U.S. consumers every year. It’s ­American-­style capitalism at its most effective. Supply and demand are bound like magnets, operating according to the “just-in-time” delivery concept that has made billions for companies such as ­Wal-­Mart. Some of the narcotics are grown in Mexico; the rest arrive at this gateway to the United States from elsewhere. About 90 percent of all cocaine originating in South America—much of it from Colombia—passes through ­Mexico.

Mexico doesn’t rely on the United States only for consumers. More than 90 percent of the weapons used to generate terror in Mexico, where gun laws are more restrictive, are believed to be of U.S. origin. America also originates most of the bulk cash drug proceeds smuggled into Mexico. More than half of this hoard is used to bribe law enforcement officials, politicians, journalists, even administrators of homeless shelters, where cartels often hide their hit men. The corruption extends to the U.S. side of the border, where a growing number of law enforcement officials have been busted for ­complicity.

In Mexico, corruption of top officials is pervasive. In a particularly glaring example, drug czar Noé Ramirez Mandujano was detained last November for allegedly receiving about $450,000 a month to share U.S. and Mexican intelligence with drug kingpin Arturo Beltrán Leyva. One U.S. intelligence official lamented that the war against drug traffickers is often really a war within the government ­itself.

Mexico’s drug problem has become an urgent American domestic one as well. The magnitude of the violence and the powerful reach of the transnational cartels, coupled with the help of a vast network of gangs across the United States, have strengthened distribution routes from El Paso to Boston, and from Tijuana to Anchorage. Mexican drug cartels are even using U.S. public lands in the West to cultivate marijuana. A recent Justice Department report declared that Mexican cartels, with a presence in at least 230 American cities, represent the United States’ single greatest organized crime ­threat.

Kidnappings in Phoenix are rampant. In total, 368 people, the majority of them suspected of involvement in the Mexican drug trade, were kidnapped there last year. In Texas cities such as Laredo, McAllen, and El Paso, kidnappings are also common, and rarely reported to U.S. authorities. In Dallas, suspected murders tied to Mexican drug cartels are a frequent ­occurrence.

Meanwhile, an influx of refugees, ranging from business owners to law enforcement officials, is flowing into cities from San Diego to El Paso. Mexican citizens, once hopeful that Calderón and the military were up to the job of restoring order, are losing faith. In cities such as Ciudad Juárez and Nuevo Laredo, many residents and local politicians tell me that what they want most is a peace pact between the cartels and the ­government.

One canary in the coal mine is the Mexican news media. More than 30 journalists have disappeared or been killed this decade. The result: growing ­self-­censorship, particularly along the Mexican border. “The essence of Mexico’s young democracy is under attack,” warned Carlos Spector, an attorney representing Mexico’s new class of refugees, including three reporters who formed an organization called Periodistas Mexicanos en el Exilio (Mexican Journalists in Exile). “Journalists, the cornerstone of any democracy, are the targets. Democracy is slipping away.”

Consider Chihuahua, Mexico’s largest state, which borders both New Mexico and Texas. In the 1980s, I began my journalistic career by covering Mexico’s nascent democratic movement in Ciudad Juárez, across the Rio Grande from El Paso. There, Mexicans who opposed the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) were staging hunger strikes, bridge takeovers, and other acts of civil disobedience in support of the National Action Party. It was a long, sometimes bloody fight. In 1992, Chihuahua finally elected its first opposition-party ­governor, but many of its underlying political maladies remained.

When Vicente Fox won Mexico’s presidency from the PRI in 2000, he promised that the rule of law would follow. I had my doubts. The PRI was leaving behind a massive power vacuum, and many pressing problems remained. Perhaps the largest was Ciudad Juárez’s inability to solve the killings of hundreds of women beginning in the mid-1990s, an issue that has galvanized international human rights organizations. Nonetheless, I left for Washington to cover U.S. policy toward Latin America, thinking that the relationship between Fox and President George W. Bush would lead to a more fruitful approach. But the attacks on September 11, 2001, dashed all expectations of increased U.S. attention to Mexico, as America’s focus shifted to Iraq and ­Afghanistan.

Mexico is proving that the war on drugs is unwinnable as long as Americans fail to curb their insatiable appetite for illicit drugs.

In late 2003, I returned to Ciudad Juárez to investigate the murders of these women. By then, democracy seemed a distant promise. My investigation fingered drug traffickers in some of the killings, though getting proof was impossible, as much of the case paperwork had been destroyed or had disappeared mysteriously. In one case, an employee at a forensics lab washed the remaining clothes of a victim, thus removing bloodstains, hair, and other evidence. Why? Because, the employee told a U.S. investigator, the clothes smelled ­bad.

Today, Ciudad Juárez, with a population of 1.6 million, is the most violent city in Mexico. Two cartels, Juárez and Sinaloa, are fighting for control of routes into El Paso. Last year El Paso recorded 16 murders; Juárez, more than 1,600. The city is slowly dying. Texas state senator Eliot Shapleigh estimates that as many as 10,000 people from Mexico’s northern region have migrated to El Paso since January 2008. That number is nearly impossible to confirm since many of Juárez’s ­well-­to-­do already commute between the two cities. Shapleigh has called for El Pasoans to help accommodate these newcomers, much as Houston took in refugees from New Orleans after Hurricane ­Katrina.

A few examples illustrate the gravity of the situation in Ciudad Juárez. Mayor José Reyes Ferriz owns homes in both El Paso and Juárez. Today, people close to him say, his family spends much of its time on the U.S. side. His children are enrolled in El Paso schools. Reyes, who has been threatened with decapitation because he has allegedly defied traffickers, shuttles between the two ­cities.

Jorge Luis Aguirre fled to El Paso after a colleague, crime reporter Armando Rodriguez of El Diario de Ciudad Juárez, was slain outside his home. As he was returning from Rodriguez’s funeral, Aguirre says, he was threatened by a state employee with ties to the Juárez cartel. “I was told I would be next,” Aguirre recalls. “And I believe him. Because in Mexico today anyone can kill you at any time and nothing ever happens.”

A Juárez cab driver charged me three times the normal fare because, he explained, “only crazies or desperate people drive the streets of Juárez on this day.”

Last summer, 12-­year-­old Alexia Moreno and two other girls walking near her home were picked up by two panicked gunmen on the run from rival traffickers. Alexia, according to local press accounts, had told her parents she felt increasingly unsafe and wanted to move to El Paso. Days after that conversation, she became a human shield for two strangers. Shots rang out. The two gunmen were killed, and Alexia was found crunched in the back seat of the car with a bullet in her ­head.

While the innocent aren’t the vast majority of victims, the impact of their deaths is magnified for ordinary Mexicans. The cartels play on that fear by posting threatening messages in city streets, on walls and statues, on the bodies of victims. YouTube, blogs, and Internet websites are also popular forums for spreading fear. “The tactics used coincide with what we know as terrorism,” explains Phillip Heymann, a Harvard law professor and terrorism expert. “In Mexico it’s called ­narco­terrorism.”

One ­e-­mailed message last year warned of the bloodiest weekend in Ciudad Juárez’s history. Residents were urged to stay away from the city’s streets, restaurants, and shopping malls. On the designated Saturday, a cab driver from El Paso refused to take me to the Juárez airport. So I walked across the ­border—­and found an empty, lifeless city on the other side. A Juárez cab driver charged me three times the normal ­fare—­a hardship ­rate—­because, he explained, “only crazies or desperate people drive the streets of Juárez on this day.”

Washington clearly has been jolted by the violence. Veteran congressional aides can’t remember so many hearings about Mexico on Capitol Hill as have occurred this year. President Barack Obama supports the Mérida Initiative, a multiyear, $1.4 billion ­anti­narcotics plan introduced by his predecessor. Much of the aid goes to Mexico, though some Central American countries will also receive money. The plan aims to provide new technologies, training, and intelligence-gathering mech­an­isms, and to fortify Mexico’s weak judicial institutions. Perhaps now that the hypocrisies are exposed and Latin America’s drug war has reached the United States, real progress is possible. Maybe now, the two sides will talk as partners and not point ­fingers.

After nearly 40 years, U.S. drug policy, at a cost of $40 billion a year, is generally viewed as a failure. In a recent report by the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, three former heads of state, of Mexico, Colombia, and Brazil, called for a new approach, namely, decriminalizing ­marijuana.

Yet any proposal that smacks of decriminalization is taboo, even political suicide, in the United States.

Consider El Paso city councilman Beto O’Rourke. Concerned about the violence in Ciudad Juárez and spillover into El Paso, O’Rourke proposed in January that the city lead the nation in debating whether to legalize or decriminalize drugs. A motion to discuss the issue was approved, but Mayor John Cook vetoed the measure, expressing concern that a vote to decriminalize drugs would send the “wrong message to Washington.” His action forced a second vote a week later. What followed in the intervening seven days was a ­free-­for-­all of personal attacks on O’Rourke. Some even questioned whether he was “smoking something,” he recalled. The proposal was eventually voted ­down.

Privately, some officials from both governments entertain the possibility of moving beyond intelligence sharing to joint military operations, particularly if top Calderón administration officials are targeted for assassination. President Obama told The Dallas Morning News he has no intention of militarizing the border, but he didn’t rule out calling on the National Guard to help police it. That possibility isn’t altogether palatable to Mexicans, who don’t fancy having U.S. troops breathing down their ­necks.

The parallels with Colombia grow ever more striking. Since 2000, the United States has spent roughly $5 billion on the drug war there under a program called Plan Colombia. Violence decreased dramatically, but today drug traffickers are still very much a part of Colombia’s socioeconomic fabric.

“Cocaine production remains mostly unchanged,” says Álvaro Jiménez Millán, national coordinator of an ­anti–land ­mine program and a former member of the guerrilla group known as M-19. “Pablo Escobar is dead, but you have dozens of smaller drug lords who are now supplying Europe and Africa. So what Plan Colombia did was transfer the violence to Mexico and move cocaine to Africa, Europe. Is that success?”

A few months ago I spent a day touring the Mexican state of Tamaulipas with a source, someone in good standing with Los Zetas, some members of which were once elite soldiers in the army before deserting to do paramilitary work for drug traffickers. I was on a journalism assignment, seeking to confirm the existence of mobile camps near the Texas border where young Americans and Mexicans are trained as assassins. My agreement with my source was that I would not reveal exact ­locations.

Before entering any community on the Mexican side of the border, my source had to clear our vehicle so that there would be “no confusion, which could lead to bullets directed at us.” We drove endlessly, and he repeatedly phoned ahead to check with sources he didn’t identify. I saw Mexican policemen helping traffickers by calling in license plate numbers to ensure that vehicles didn’t belong to rival cartels. More than once, I spied an altar to Santa Muerte, or St. Death, a pre-Christian folk deity, by the roadside. The faithful, some loaded with high-powered weapons, leave candles, bottles of tequila, and other offerings. They pray for protection and for the destruction of their enemies.

* * *

Alfredo Corchado is a Nieman fellow at Harvard University on leave from his job as Mexico bureau chief of The Dallas Morning News, for which he has covered Mexico for the past 15 years. He is a frequent speaker at the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute.

Photo courtesy of John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

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