Down by the River

Posted in: Uncategorized | By: | March 04, 2009

Borders everywhere attract violence, violence prompts fences, and eventually fences can mutate into walls. Then everyone pays attention because a wall turns a legal distinction into a visual slap in the face. We seem to love walls, but are embarrassed by them because they say something unpleasant about the neighbors -- and us. They flow from two sources: fear and the desire for control. Just as our houses have doors and locks, so do borders call forth garrisons, customs officials, and, now and then, big walls. They give us divided feelings because we do not like to admit we need them.” – Charles Bowden, author

More than a decade ago, I spent some time in El Paso and Ciudad Juarez with a couple of TV crews. I had long been fascinated with the border culture after living in Laredo and the Rio Grande Valley and lately had been wondering if the stories about the drug problem were embellished. A colleague prompted the trip by saying he was going to find out and I ought to come along and we could share our technological resources.

On our first day, we came across families on both sides of the border with gut-wrenching stories. Two parents sat in front of our camera in a hotel and told of how their daughter was swept up out of a parking lot downtown and disappeared. El Paso police and the FBI had no clues. A father described how his son and daughter-in-law were walking across the plaza in Juarez and two black Suburbans with dark windows stopped and men with machine guns pulled the couple inside and drove into the darkness. Neither was ever heard from again nor was their bodies discovered. They left behind three daughters that are being raised by their grandparents.

The two preceding anecdotes do not even begin to give a sense of what is happening in Juarez. In the past decade, estimates of the dead and disappeared range from 5 to 10,000. Single women without transportation, who work in the maquiladora factories, often take the bus to work the late shift and many are required to change buses at the plaza. If they are pretty and alone as they walk to their connecting bus, they are in danger of being snatched. Locals think the narco-trafficantes are taking what they wish, doing what they wish with the victims, and leaving their bodies in the desert outside of the city. Thousands have been found desiccated by the sun. While we were present doing our reporting, almost a dozen people were killed in assassinations, five in one restaurant.

The problem for Mexico is much greater, though, than even those sadnesses. Federal and state chiefs of police are being discovered decapitated and few survive in office more than a couple of weeks before they are gunned down in abject ignominy. The US State Department has issued various types of travel warnings for Mexico and there is reason to exercise caution but the danger south of the border appears to be in standing between the cartels fighting for business dominance and the law enforcement attempting to stop the flow of drugs and money.

The question, of course, is how close to anarchy is Mexico and how much blood is on the hands of those of us who live north of the border? An ex-pat friend of mine who lives in the mountains in central Mexico says there are simple issues for the Mexicans. Most are poor, hungry, and disenfranchised and often their only choice for an income is to get involved in the cash-rich enterprises. Actually, the option is described as an either-or equation, which, in Spanish is “plomo o plata?” If the narcos decide they need your assistance to grow or transport or take chances then they give you a choice between “lead or silver.” How hard is it to pick money over death? My buddy equates Mexico with Prohibition Era Chicago when Capone was lining the pockets of cops being paid barely enough to sustain their families.

Mexico’s tragedy is connected to America’s behavior. We are the grand market for marijuana and cocaine and brown heroin and that turns into about $50 billion in cash annually that goes back to Mexico. Drugs, my friend insists, are recession proof and a form of capitalism at its purest and as long as there is a demand there will remain a supply.

And on the matter of corruption, there is more than enough on this side of the Big River that requires attention that we are hardly able to cast judgmental eyes across the water. Starr County is famous for janitors and small business owners living in mansions and not many years ago a sheriff in west Texas worked out a deal for traffickers to leave a trailer parked on the local rodeo grounds. He made nice money for not noticing when it arrived, or disappeared, or inquiring as to what might be inside. The sheriff’s in prison now but he’s hardly the only person of trust that has made money violating the law on the US side of the border.

We also seem to be wasting our time and indulging in symbolic nonsense like busting the two-bit smuggler to make a point. But we ruin a life and do nothing to stop the problem. Why do we waste resources trying to bust every individual pot smoker or the casual user of something harder when the more relevant questions go ignored? Most likely, it’s because the political side of our culture wants to claim progress. But nailing the little guy one suspect at a time is not a method for ending the madness. Maybe there is nothing meaningful that can be done.

Is it possible the War on Drugs is over – and drugs won?

1 Comment for this entry:

  • JP Oddo

    Thanks for the conclusion that the drug war is over and drugs won. I wonder how many millions the drug cartels are pouring into lobbying US lawmakers to keep this fruitless war alive?

    If only all the so-called morally correct would examine what really goes on in the cartel regions, they may have some understanding that simple, casual drug use is not the problem, but keeping it in the black market is what breeds the instability and insane violence.

Leave a Reply