by Vanessa Johnson
Posted on June 14, 2008
I used to smuggle drugs into Juarez.
I used to smuggle a lot of other things too, which was why my car was usually messy and I had a semi-plausible explanation for why something was in my trunk. I didn’t get paid, and I wasn’t asked to do it. I took over things that people needed, things that were unavailable or prohibitively expensive, and for which there was plenty of demand.
I used to flirt with them, and even when I got the green light, Mexican customs would sometimes wave to me. One day, they were apologetic but firm, and told me that the next time I crossed with so many “samples,” I would be arrested. I thanked them, and from then on, stopped.
Mexico has some strange laws about what you can take into their country. Too many clothes, too many cigarettes, and your car will be confiscated; you must be part of the sinister garment trade or nicotine cartel. “Personal use” takes on a whole new meaning. Charitable contributions of medical equipment or supplies are routinely barred entry, and are often perceived as a sort of insult, insinuating that Mexico’s government can’t take care of its own people.
I never smuggled drugs into the United States, but I know people who have. If you are from El Paso, you probably do too.
Juarez today is at a turning point, and although most people have not been affected firsthand by the violence, it has taken a tremendous human and psychological toll. What has curiously been largely absent from local and national reporting on the violence is an examination of the now decades-long War on Drugs, and its link to this carnage.
Along the border, the demand for drugs has created unprecedented wealth for some. For many others, the unintended consequences have been devastating. Prohibition creates a mark-up on any product, whether it be agricultural or chemical. No risk, no reward. Along the way, from the farmers to the pilots to the mules to the barons, drug money has been a destabilizing and corrupting influence. It’s also created a tremendous amount of wealth in El Paso and Juarez, and perhaps that’s why we so seldom acknowledge the insatiable demand.
“Successes” in this war are calculated bizarrely. U.S. law enforcement takes pride in the huge tonnage of drug seizures, the money frozen, and the millions of people who have been incarcerated. Many are simply people whose lives have been ruined by prosecutors and judges with no sense of perspective. We’ve gotten to the point where we welcome the building of new prisons, because they create jobs. We hypocritically force patients who rely on medical marijuana to break federal law, even though its use is almost entirely noncontroversial. And it’s still easier for teenagers to obtain illegal drugs than alcohol or cigarettes. It is hard for me to see how our effort at prohibition has not been a colossal failure.
The opponents of relaxed drug laws, for reasons of conviction, expedience or direct benefit, include most politicians, most social conservatives, the judiciary, the prisons, the “sin” industries, the pharmaceutical companies, and the multi-billion-dollar drug-testing industry. With the well-intentioned but misplaced Merida Initiative, the defense industry can now be
added to that list.
Who supports relaxed drug laws or even legalization? Many citizens quietly do, and it’s time for more people and more leaders to say so. It’s time to try something else, and something that preferably doesn’t involve Blackhawks. It’s going to take more judges who routinely refuse to prosecute cases of simple possession. It’s going to mean taking a hard look at the disease of addiction and providing support and compassion for those who suffer. It’s going to take a discussion about what should be under the purview of the government, and what should be left to individual choice.
There should be no crime in debating these ideas.
Right now, I feel (and I am) far from Juarez. However, I still keep in regular contact with many Juarenses about the state of their city. I know a wide variety of people there, and in the past few months I have been struck by the uncertainty that they express to me, not knowing if the worst is over or if the violence is just beginning. There is also a feeling of inevitability due to the amount of money involved; the cartels with their personal armies are excessively entrenched in Mexican society, and it might take an army to root them out. In other words, the war is shifting from symbolic to actual.
Mostly, all this violence saddens me. Calderon is certainly courageous, but he’s fighting an uphill battle. The U.S. seems to be a long way away from acknowledging its complicity, as Americans continue their habit of ignoring the consumption side of an uncomfortable but simple economic equation.
Why should El Pasoans care? Long-term outcomes of protracted instability could be dire, and a Mexico undermined by criminal organizations presents all sorts of wider problems. But for me and for a lot of border residents, the war on drugs is inevitably personal. Juarez is a gritty and vibrant city that many people love, and its residents are some of the most resilient people on Earth. I sincerely hope they’re up to facing this current challenge, because in the short run, there appears to be little alternative.
Meanwhile, I send my friends there love, and I wish them courage.
* * *
Vanessa Johnson is the former publisher of Newspaper Tree. She is currently living in Douglas, Alaska.
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