Big Doin's in Juarez

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Things change. They change. I arrived in Mexico some seven years ago amid dire warnings from all and sundry that I would instantly die of foul disease, trampling by burros, and splashing sanguinary crime. All of this I regarded as nonsense, because it was. The State Department issued travel warnings and similar alarums, but State would regard Massachusetts as hazardous. There was little to fear. Expats traveled at will and walked the streets without concern.

Things change. While crime is hardly epidemic where we live, and in most places mostly involves narcos killing narcos, and takes place mostly away from the agringada regions rife with Americans, these days there is more of it. Before, you could walk home from a watering hole after midnight without worry. Now, no. There’s not a lot of worry, but more than before.

The local people remain as decent as always, small towns tending to be law-abiding everywhere on the planet. The problem is the growing reach of the drug cartels, causing a weakening of the fabric of law. When one variety of violent crime gets out of control, every other kind more easily flourishes.

If Mexico were not next to the world’s most ravening drug market, it would be a corrupt, but functioning and reasonably successful upper Third-World country. If this were not so, Mexico would not have the huge number of American who have come here to retire. But the country cannot withstand a drug business that, by a common figure, brings the traffickers forty billion dollars a year. The money means that the cartels can buy heavier armament than can the government, as well as buy heavier officials on either side of the border. (It is an American conceit that corruption exists only in other countries. Tell me another story, Grandpa.)

It is getting out of hand. The killing of policemen, judges, and mayors is now common. Journalists die in droves. After the murder of another of its reporters, El Diario, the major paper of Ciudad Juarez, published the following editorial, addressed to the drug lords:

“We bring to your attention that we are communicators, not mind-readers. Therefore, as workers in information, we want you to explain to us what you want of us, what you want us to publish or stop publishing, what we must do for our security.

“These days, you are the de facto authority in the city, because the legally instituted authorities have been able to do nothing to keep our co-workers from continuing to fall, although we have repeatedly asked this of you. Consequently, facing this undeniable fact, we direct ourselves to you, because the last thing we want is that you shoot to death another of our colleagues.”

This is astonishing. It is worse. A blue whale singing Aida would be merely astonishing, but here we have the editors of the major newspaper of a substantial city stating candidly, with perfect clarity, that the narcotraficantes, not the national government, exercise sovereignty over the city. The federal government understandably denounced the editorial. No capital wants to be told that it does not control its territory. But this is exactly what the paper said.

Why is this happening? The root of the chain of causation is plain enough: that Americans want drugs, want them intensely, at almost any price — but the federal government doesn’t want Americans to have drugs. Lots of gringos want dope: We are not talking of a few ghetto-blasted crack-heads and William Burroughs types sticking needles in their arms in rat-infested alleys. These don’t have forty billion dollars. The users are college students, high-school kids, Ivy League profs, pricey lawyers, Congressmen, bus drivers, cosmetologists, and American presidents (though they don’t inhale). All God’s chillun wants drugs. Or at least enough of them do to make fortunes for those who sell the stuff.

Let’s admit it: Americans are drug-mad. Legal, illegal, smokable, injectable, edible — hit don’t matter. They would inject plaster of paris if nothing better were available. When I was in Washington, at least half — at the very least, half — of the single women I knew for whom the clock ticked were on lithium, Depacote, Prozac, Xanax, Zoloft, all the gobbled M&Ms of the quietly unhappy. Shrinks regularly prescribed drugs for high-school girls miserable over divorce and uncertainty. Boys were forced to take Ritalin. My parents generation survived on Miltown and Equanil. In the Sixties, hippies took drugs. Now it’s everybody. We have democratized chemistry.

But Mother Washington doesn’t want Americans to have drugs. Nor does it want to imprison half of Yale for droppin,’ poppin,’ and tokin,’ as we once said. In effect the feds protect the consumption (through low penalties and slight likelihood of being caught) while penalizing the sale, thus keeping prices high.

The War on Drugs is of course a farce, having accomplished less than nothing over a half-century. Somewhere the other day I saw a story saying that consumption in the US has just risen by seven percent. This is not surprising since, as a society decays, the escape market prospers. And, despite excited hype about having killed this or that drug lord, there is no hope, no hope at all, of eliminating a business that lets impoverished third-worlders drive BMWs.

None of this would matter if it weren’t causing copious bloodshed in countries like Mexico, and threatening the anarchy that is often called “destabilization.” Absent this creeping hecatomb clotting in the streets, everyone would be happy. The narcos would get their money, consumers their drugs, officials their bribes, and DEA types their salaries. All good. But the bloodshed exists.

Intelligent Mexicans of sound mind, to the extent that humans can approximate the condition, worry that all hell may break loose. Not “will,” but “may.” There is a sense here, as there is in the United States, that something is wrong, and that something will happen. Mexico cannot defeat the traficantes. These are bad, bad boys, willing to ambush police convoys, kill federal judges, and rule towns. By comparison the Italian Mafia was a basket of puppies.

The US had better think about what it wants on its borders. As long as drugs are illegal, they will flow and the gringos will buy and the narcos will roll in dough. Nothing will stop or impede this. American colonels with steely gaze and firm handshakes and the comprehension of flatworms have told me that the Merida Initiative will rid Mexico of corruption, and then the Federales will clean house on the narcos. Is there an adult in the house?

I understand that Americans have no interest in Mexico other than to give jobs to illegals and then complain that they have them. And of course to buy drugs and then complain that Mexicans sell them. But a bit of attention, even of realism, might have its virtues. Afghanistan is somewhere else. Mexico isn’t.

Fred Reed is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well and A Brass Pole in Bangkok: A Thing I Aspire to Be. His latest book is Curmudgeing Through Paradise: Reports from a Fractal Dung Beetle. Visit his blog.

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