The man on the television screen wears a long black veil. His voice is penetrating, his hands are strong with thick fingers. He is telling of his work, killing people for money, a trade he pursued with some success for 20 years. Watching the film with rapt attention is a fugitive from Mexico who now lives in the United States.
The reason he left is simple: He had to pay a $30,000 ransom for his year-old son, on top of the $3,000 a month he was paying for simple protection.
I don't ask whom he was paying because he probably does not know. People with guns, maybe drug people or simple criminals, maybe the police or the army. He knows of others who failed to pay and then died.
He stares at the screen and says, "I know him. He's a state policeman."
The man on the screen was recruited by the drug industry in Ciudad Juarez and sent to the state police academy, where he got around $150 a month as a student and around $1,000 a month from the drug industry as their sponsored law-enforcement person. He was also trained by the FBI in Tucson and headed an anti-kidnapping squad in Juarez.
And he also kidnapped people, almost all of whom died once their families were drained of money.
I helped make this film, and the man knows this. He is mesmerized. And he is angry at me, because I know such a man, someone like the killers who took his son and sold him back for some money.
If the press reports this sort of thing, it is framed as part of a war on drugs that must be won. These stories are fables at best. There is no serious war on drugs. Rather, there is violence, nourished by the money to be made from drugs. And there are U.S. industries whose primary lifeblood comes from fighting a war on drugs.
The Department of Homeland Security, for example, has 225,000 employees and a budget of $42 billion, part of which is aimed at making America safe from Mexico and Mexicans. Narcotics officers in the U.S. cost at least $40 billion a year. The world's largest prison industry would collapse without the intake of drug convicts and, in recent years, of illegal Mexican migrants. And around the republic, there are big new federal courthouses rising that would be cobwebbed without the steady flow from drug busts and the Mexican poor coming north.
The border now is a bundle of issues: drugs, terrorists, violence spilling across, illegal immigrants, free-trade economists insisting on open borders, humanitarians calling for no more deaths. On the ground, this hardly matters. The giant wall being slowly built across the southern flank of the U.S. hardly matters. In the Altar Valley south of Tucson, the wall was barely in place before gates were cut.
What is happening is natural. And like some natural things, deadly.
* * *
The Mexican border functions as a drum that both the left and the right like to thump. For the left, it means imperialism. They decry the death of migrants, the newly built wall and the tens of thousands of armed agents patrolling the line. The right sees the border as the only thing separating us from the disintegration of our national security. They decry migrants (illegal invaders), violence spilling over the border and, in certain zany moments, see Islamic terrorists crossing the desert and leaving a litter of prayer rugs.
The drug industry is the second-largest source of foreign currency in Mexico, just behind oil. It earns somewhere between $30 billion and $50 billion a year. It also creates enormous numbers of jobs in the U.S.: We spend billions a year on narcs, maintain the world's largest prison industry, and have about 20,000 agents on the border who feed off drug importation. The rehab industry is also a source of a large number of jobs. Many county and local police departments now get fat off of RICO suits based on drug offenses.
The official line of the U.S. government, one most recently voiced by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is that drug consumers in the United States are responsible for drug murders in Mexico. Only someone who is drugged could believe this claim. The sole source of the enormous amount of money in the drug business and the accompanying violence is the U.S. prohibition of drug use by its citizens. Since President Richard Nixon proclaimed the war on drugs 40 years ago, there have been two notable accomplishments: Drugs are cheaper than ever, and they are of much higher quality.
The left seeks open borders and protests the 500 or so migrant deaths per year -- a rather low fatality rate, considering that at least a half-million Mexicans move illegally across the border each year. But the left seldom if ever mentions the slaughter in Mexico during the last three years that has left 17,000 citizens dead, a killing of Mexicans by Mexicans. The right constantly speaks of fortifying the border, as if this could stop a human tide lashed northward by misery. And, of course, the right promotes draconian drug laws even though the failure of such laws is increasingly apparent.
The border is 1,900 miles long. If two people slipped through each mile in a 24-hour period, that would amount to 3,800 people a day. That adds up to 1.3 million people a year. Or consider this: One bridge from Juarez to El Paso handles 600,000 semi-trucks a year. One semi with a freight load of 24 tons could probably tote enough heroin to satisfy the U.S. market for a year. Add to the mix the inevitable corruption of the police agencies: A few months ago, a Border Patrol agent in southern Arizona was busted for running dope in his official car for $500 a load.
* * *
Almost certainly, the drug industry and illegal migration are the two most successful anti-poverty initiatives in history. The drug industry has poured tens of billions of dollars annually into the hands of ill-educated and largely poor people. Illegal migration has taken people who were lucky to earn $5 a day and instantly given them jobs that pay 10 or 20 times that much. It has also financed the remittances, over $20 billion shipped from immigrants in the U.S. back into the homes of Mexico's poor each year. No government can match these achievements.
But the good times are going to end. Obviously, the terrain of the U.S. can only sustain a finite number of people. So eventually migration -- both legal and illegal -- will be curtailed by draconian national ID laws. As for the drug industry, the money depends on two variables: that drugs remain illegal, and that domestic suppliers (meaning the licit pharmaceutical industry) refrain from launching competing products. Without the earnings of the drug industry, the Mexican economy would collapse.
But several things will persist. The environment in the United States will continue to be wrecked as more and more people flee the failure of the global economy. Violence will flourish as human numbers increase and incomes sink. And the police state in the United States will metastasize as citizens seek magical solutions to concrete problems.
But here is the bottom line: The world is rushing in, and we can hardly alter that fact if we continue to believe fantasies. Open borders: a fantasy. The war on drugs: a fantasy. Walling out migrants: a fantasy. Being protected by a police state: a fantasy.
The man sitting on the couch watching the Mexican killer speak is beyond such fantasies. He is here illegally (as is the killer, for that matter) and he is surviving. His old life has ended and he knows it. But then the killer's old life has ended, too; there is a contract on his head for $250,000 because he offended his superior in the drug industry.
In one weekend in early January, more than 40 people were murdered in Juarez, a city once hailed as the poster child of free trade, the city with the lowest unemployment rate in Mexico. Such slaughter usually goes unnoticed in the U.S. press. Should it actually come to the attention of our newspapers, it simply will be written off as part of a cartel war. This is a fiction. Almost all the dead are poor people, not drug-enriched grandees. And though we give Mexico half a billion dollars a year to encourage its army to fight drug merchants, this alleged war has a curious feature: Almost no soldiers ever die. For example, in Juarez, over 4,200 citizens have been slain in two years. In the same period, with 7,000 to 10,000 soldiers in town, the military has suffered three dead.
* * *
Living on the border can cripple a person's emotional range. I grow more numb with each passing day. I find myself staring dazed at photographs, like a recent set from Juarez of two men burned alive. But that is minor compared to what is happening to the Mexican people as their world collapses around them.
One night I get a call from a friend in Juarez. He says a man just put a gun to his head and threatened to kill him. He wants me to call his wife if he turns up dead and explain what happened. I hang up and go back to reading a book. That is what the numbness feels like.
There is a painting on the wall in the house. In the painting, a nude woman reclines. The artist lives in a small town near the border, a place plagued by murder and unrest. He painted it in one night, as his mother was dying of cancer.
The painting haunts me. At first, I see nothing but brown forms. Then the naked woman. Then I see that the sky above her is filled with faces. So is her nude body. I see, at the same instant, a naked woman and a writhing mass of demons.
That is my border.
The one in plain view that my government says it cannot see.
Charles Bowden is the author of Down by the River : Drugs, Money, Murder, and Family
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