Charles Bowden on The War Next Door

Adam Smith's invisible hand meets magical realism on the border

  • A military patrol on the southern edge of Ciudad Juarez.

    Julian Cardona
  • A young girl walks through a makeshift memorial, with pieces of paper marked with the names of murder victims, during a protest at the gates of a military base in Juarez in 2008.

    Julian Cardona
  • A boy at the Anexo de Vida drug rehabilitation center, where in September 2009, men armed with assault weapons murdered 10 residents. A survivor of the massacre said that the center had not received any warning or threats.

    Julian Cardona
  • A woman, surrounded by police, learns that her son has been killed.

    Julian Cardona
  • A girl grieves after her parents, who had been chatting on the street, were gunned down.

    Julian Cardona
  • A blind man begs on the walkway from Ciudad Juarez to El Paso on the Santa Fe Bridge.

    Julian Cardona
  • The windshield of the car in which federal prosecutor Jesus Martin Huerta Yedra, was killed, along with his American secretary, in December 2008. Yedra had been investigating the murder of Diario reporter Armando Rodriguez.

    Julian Cardona

Charles Bowden, whose writing investigated cross-border issues between the U.S. and Mexico, including heavy criticism of the U.S. war on drugs, died Saturday, Aug. 30, 2014, at the age of 69. The Arizona Republic reported his death due to an undisclosed illness. Bowden was a prolific journalist and author who published numerous books on the Southwest, as well as features for national magazines and for High Country News. He penned this story for HCN in 2010.

The man on the 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. Another man watches the film with rapt attention. He 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 1-year-old son, this on top of the $3,000 a month he was paying for simple protection.

I don't ask him 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. People with guns inspire belief because 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."

He's right.

The man talking on the screen was recruited by the drug industry in Ciudad Juarez, 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, Ariz., (he told me the training was very good) 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 the film the man is watching, and he knows this. He is mesmerized by the man talking. 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. Fortunately.

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 aliens, 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, the hinges facing the Mexican side.

What is happening is natural. And like some natural things, deadly.

The man who sits on the couch and watches the killer speak on the screen is a casualty of a world being born that may not include him. Or me. Or you. Or the killer.

The projections say 450 million Americans by 2050, a billion or so by 2100. And 9.3 billion people on this planet by the New Year's Eve of the 22nd century. Tell that to the wolf at your door or the national park in your heart. I am in a weak position here. I have always welcomed the illegal at my door, and beckoned the wolf. I have never reported a drug dealer to the authorities, or an illegal human being. I do not believe the state has the right to regulate what people wish to ingest, and I cannot turn my back on a poor person fleeing doom and seeking a future.

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 migration of the Mexican poor is the largest human movement across a border on the planet. It was triggered by the destruction of peasant agriculture at the hands of the North American Free Trade Agreement, by the corruption of the Mexican state, by the growing violence in Mexico, and exacerbated by the millions of Mexicans working illegally in the U.S. who send money home to finance their families' trips north. It should be seen as a natural shift of a species. We need ecologists on the border; the politicians have become pointless.

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 -- no one really knows, including the people in the industry. 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, which is absolutely dependent on the intake of drug felons, and we 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 since many well-heeled defendants pick mandatory treatment over prison. 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. But then, NAFTA was promoted by presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton as something that would buoy up the Mexican economy and reduce or end illegal immigration -- two claims that now are clearly refuted by facts.

The left seeks open borders or No More Deaths, the latter a protest of 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.

On the border, Adam Smith meets magical realism. Here the market tenets of supply and demand, the basic engine of both the migration and the drug industry, are supposed to be overturned magically by a police state. Consider one simple number: 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 1,387,000 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 bucks a load.

Few discussions about the border come from facts. Most discussions of the border come from fears. We seem to prefer slogans and fantasies: free trade, "just say no," gigantic walls.

Almost certainly, the drug industry and illegal migration are the two most successful anti-poverty initiatives in the history of the world. 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 dollars shipped from immigrants in the U.S. back into the homes of Mexico's poor each year. No government can match these achievements. And tens of thousands of people in the U.S. agencies are earning far better salaries fighting drugs and the Mexican poor than they could ever make in the private sector. After, say, five years, the average Border Patrol agent is knocking down 75 grand a year, plus generous benefits and serious job security. DEA is infested with agents earning six figures. And these industries are literally failure-proof -- the more Mexicans that migrate, and the more drugs that arrive, the more agents that are hired.

The real problem is not these success stories but the fact that 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 I.D. 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. This second reality is already vanishing. The explosion of over-the-counter mood-altering drugs cuts into the illegal market, and bit by bit will cut into the drug traffickers' profits. 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 my fellow citizens seek magical solutions to concrete problems. Already, we have created a nation that would be unimaginable to our ancestors, one where a person often cannot work unless he or she first urinates for a laboratory.

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.

It is early January as I write. This weekend, over 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. The killings -- three of them women -- had little touches. A double amputee was shot in the head and then left on a dirt road wrapped in a blanket. Another man was found with his severed head on his chest -- the tongue, eyes and nose had been removed. A narco-message was left on yellow cardboard and weighted down with two severed arms. 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.

The supply and quality of drugs in the U.S. has not declined, nor has the price gone up. As for the migration of the poor, neither the border wall nor immigration raids of meatpacking plants and other businesses in the U.S. have stanched the flow. Instead, the greatest force temporarily reducing the torrent of people has been the collapse of the U.S. economy. But since the Mexican economy is sinking even faster, the migration will almost certainly resume and grow.

The border should not be an issue in American life, but rather our window on the world. All our foolish beliefs are refuted here. Free trade is creating the largest human migration on earth. Our belief that drugs can be successfully outlawed has created the second-most profitable industry in Mexico and a gulag of new U.S. prisons. Our effort to fortify the border has created a wall and a standing army of agents (now larger than the U.S. army was when we launched our war against Mexico in 1846), and it has failed to stop people or kilos from moving to our towns. Our refusal to even seriously consider the notion of overpopulation (we prefer lethal drones to birth control or legalized abortion) will eventually destroy large portions of the earth's ecosystems. And we are equally reluctant to face one nagging fact about Mexico: Forty percent of its federal budget comes from oil sales, and the president of Mexico has said publicly that the oil fields will be exhausted in nine years. What then?

Someday a history of our border policies will be written. It will require a Marxist -- Groucho, not Karl.

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 whatever is happening to me 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 lives in the Southwest and works wherever he can. He has a book coming out in March, Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy's New Killing Fields (The Nation Books).

See also: A Failed State: Photographer Julian Cardona talks about the demise of Juarez. With photos by Cardona.

Prohibition Sucks!
malcolm kyle
malcolm kyle
Mar 01, 2010 08:26 AM
Prohibition is a sickening horror and the ocean of human wreckage it has left in its wake is almost endless.

Based on the unalterable proviso that drug use is essentially an unstoppable and ongoing human behavior which has been with us since the dawn of time, any serious reading on the subject of past attempts at any form of drug prohibition would point most normal thinking people in the direction of sensible regulation. By its very nature prohibition cannot fail but create a vast increase in criminal activity, and rather than preventing society from descending into anarchy, it actually fosters an anarchic business model - the international Drug Trade. Any decisions concerning quality, quantity, distribution and availability are then left in the hands of unregulated, anonymous, ruthless drug dealers, who are interested only in the huge profits involved.

Prohibition ideology is based on lies and the 'War on Drugs' is a de facto 'war on people' (some might even successfully argue that it's a de facto race war). Prohibition has decimated generations and criminalized millions for a behavior which is entwined in human existence, and for what other purpose than to uphold the defunct and corrupt thinking of a minority of misguided, self-righteous Neo-Puritans and degenerate demagogues who wish nothing but unadulterated destruction on the rest of us!
More like a rant than an article...
Jesse Tigner
Jesse Tigner
Mar 01, 2010 03:51 PM
While a very interesting and disturbing topic; that was a lousy article. It read more like a thinly veiled attack on the "evils of America" that like a well researched, even-keeled piece of journalism I'd expect from HCN. As a libertarian, I'm no fan of most big-government policies and don't think the government deserves much of a break, but that was just a rant. What gives HCN editors?
Not ranting; just the unvarnished truth.
Robert Laybourn
Robert Laybourn
Mar 02, 2010 08:47 AM
Especially interesting to me is the necessity of the "Drug War" to the prison industry and all that entails; from what precedes imprisonment, like DEA and " Just Say No!" programs, to the probation and parole system. The US Gulag.
pretty good article
Mar 03, 2010 03:42 PM
America is evil, why thinly veil it.
Drug War
Mar 10, 2010 08:03 PM
I agree with Jesse. It was an informative rant, but a rant nevertheless. Tell me how you believe the legalization, or at least the decriminalization, of crack and other drugs will change the dynamics of the situation. You detailed a problem. Now give me some solutions and tell me how and why they will work. Otherwise, your rant informs me but doesn't really help me or anyone else, and these are problems crying out for help!
Mar 16, 2010 09:33 AM
Has America succeeded in stopping US citizens from consuming drugs? Since the 20's (further back than Nixon), Americans have tried all kinds of prohibitions..Alcohol, drugs, Books, Music..not one has worked, why? Because the people for prohibitions need an emotional knee jerk catalyst, with no basis in truth to hawk to the ignorant public. Look at the Marijuana campaigns, a bunch of rhetoric with no basis in fact. ALL of the studies commissioned by OUR government have said that Marijuana poses no ill health effects and is on par with alcohol, but leads to far less health issues than ANY other drug, yet it is classified up with heroin and cocaine and Meth. Republican presidents live to fill our for profit prisons with people who smoke pot (at a huge cost in tax dollars that could be spent elsewhere.) I'm sorry, but alcoholics get to drive around drunk and kill people (with manslaughter sentences up to 6 years, but if you smoke some pot in your house you go to jail for up to 25 years depending on who busts you and where??) How is that keeping America safe?? And to answer your charges of how decrim or legalization could help in the case of Crack or coke or Meth..It moves the issue of drugs as a crime to a health issue, paid for, by taxation, by the people who use them. Also the 40 billion a year in savings spent by the DEA, who has done nothing to curb drug use or proliferation in the US...This could be a huge business in this country if it was regulated and taxed just like alcohol and tobacco..I mean, you don't see people trying to sell booze on the street corners to our kids, recruiting new users or tobacco, because they are regulated and age appropriate measures have been enforced. If we made pot legal in America, we would see that pot is not a gateway drug (better chance of cigarettes being that one, I have known a few cokeheads and H addicts in my time and their common drug of choice is nicotine, not pot!!) Yes, there will be people who cannot handle drugs. Yes, some people will die from OD's, but isn't that what freedom is all about, the freedom to put on a parachute and jump out of a plane (many people die from this) the freedom to drive your car (even more people die from this), the freedom to eat yummy foods (even more people die from this) and the freedom to smoke cigarettes (and even more die from this) welcome to America, where freedom to choose our pleasures should be more important than anything, but where we trade freedom for fear and hysteria, creating laws that subvert our constitution for the profit of a few. But if we tax them and use some of the money to fund treatment centers for those who can't deal, we begin the movement from drugs as a criminal issue to one of a health issue, which can be treated very cost effectivly and with money left over to hire more teachers. Why is our country so set on having wars on everything that amount to nothing?? Do we have less poor people with our war on poverty? Less drugs with the war on drugs, less terrorism/terrorists with the war on terror?? ABSOLUTELY NOT!! And just a touch on Immigration, let's stop wasting our treasure on imperialism and this righteous fervor that could only exist in a backwards, theocratic state, where fear is the way we enact policy. Remember all you free marketeers, Adam Smith (your crowned god of economics) states specifically that in order for free markets to work, borders need to allow the free flow of workers. Looks like the right would cut off its nose just to spite its face (Right Mr. Dobbs!!)
open your eyes
Oct 19, 2010 07:36 AM
A rant can often be a good thing. The point of this article is to define the reality of the border. Not to solve the problem. Problems can't be solved until they are defined. Bowden does a good job showing how our problem solvers refuse to deal with reality and how their sheep can't get enough of the koolaid. Thus the trouble will persist and all those important and productive government jobs, and the fear that supports them, will be saved.
Reality 101
Chris Elder
Chris Elder
Mar 16, 2010 09:02 PM
Jesse, there is plenty of traditional journalism being done on this subject. What Bowden does is back off a few paces and inject some soul and some clear vision into the issues. He says that all the usual rhetoric is worse than useless, and nobody is listening anyway.
charles bowden
elisabeth handel
elisabeth handel
Jul 24, 2010 12:17 PM
I am now reading "Murder City".. Mr. Bowden's style of writing is lyrical. In a way it skirts the harshness & horror of the subject matter. I have been following the death toll in Mexico in recent years.. his writing brings a different perspective.. I wish that all the people in Mexico who want to come here to live can do so without restriction.. everyone needs to settle their own hash.. they need to do the best that they can for their children and families...
well-written, well supported
marty weiss
marty weiss
Mar 02, 2010 12:55 PM
Charles Bowden deserves praise for a sadly realistic description of our current predicament.
Personally, I believe prohibition is simply a device to raise prices, create an unregulated black market, and generate wealth for the unscrupulous. Prohibition also victimizes those who are already society's victims. The introduction of crack cocaine into the inner cities is a prime example.
By disseminating lies about drug use, our government lures yet more adventurous and rebellious adolescents into using. Now they are 'huffing' spray paint. We do need to protect the naive from permanent brain damage the use of available intoxicants exposes them to, but if they find we lied about pot, they won't believe us about airplane glue.
Prohibition, itself, is criminal. Imprisonment for non-violent drug users aggravates the problem. No viable society can live on lies. The options afforded us by reliance on the military and the use of force will never prevail over human beings that, we must admit, have inalienable rights, among them the right to cut holes in walls, dig tunnels, build ladders, float balloons. Look at the Berlin Wall, the great Wall of China, Hadrian's Wall-- none of them worked.
People will never be controlled, period. Force just hones the edge of the opposition. Containment acts like a rifle barrel. All these policies are counterproductive to humane goals. And if we build an inhumane society, who will defend it?
Building a sustainable economy in Mexico depends on providing the means for the Mexicans to be able to earn their own living. When corn started to be turned into gasoline, tortillas became five times more expensive. Imagine. Mexicans could no longer afford tortillas.
This profit-centered economy has diverged from a life-giving economy to one centered on death, sickness, imprisonment, wage-slavery, stolen pensions, foreclosed homes, and the loss of the rule of law and the Bill of Rights. As Napoleon Bonaparte said, "Money has no motherland. Financiers know no patriotism, no decency, only gain."
Paul Straten
Paul Straten
Mar 03, 2010 12:32 PM
You hit the nail squarely on the head as far as I'm concerned on the whole border mess.
Not a rant/thanks for publishing
John Bateman
John Bateman
Mar 03, 2010 07:26 PM
This article is simply a statement of facts learned at some cost, I suspect. I think the bombardment of information presented here is, in part, a function of the enormity of the real story, and the fact that so little of it reaches public notice. Where do you start? This is a huge story with nearly endless implications, yet who else is covering it, really? The New Yorker? Atlantic Monthly? Hello! Bowden should be read way more widely than he is; he's about as good as journalism gets, in my opinion. Thanks to HCN for publishing this.
Phony War on Drugs
Richard Ellison
Richard Ellison
Mar 03, 2010 07:28 PM
Charles Bowden tells it like it is. There are counties in Texas where the "war on drugs" is the biggest source of revenue - Kimble County (pop. 3,000) in Central Texas being a prime example. The ex-sheriff there built a department from three employees to over 20 in less than ten years stopping vehicles and seizing drug money. It is a big mystery how he seems to have a sixth sense for which car has a quarter million, half million, etc. dollars. Is he tipped off by competitors of the people he stops? Are the stops planned so that for every seizure of cash ten other cars cruise through? There is an unfolding scandal that has already resulted in a state judge and one of the longest serving district attorneys in Texas getting indicted. Meanwhile the poor bastards who are hooked on drugs get caught up in the "criminal justice system." One reason the judge was indicted was for stealing money from the probation fund - money that poor people on probation have to pay every month. The former sheriff is now an "investigator" for the new DA, who has formed his own "District Attorney Police Force." In Denton County (north of Dallas) the DA has used drug money to start his own SWAT force with snipers and machine guns. The "war on drugs" has corrupted Texas and we will soon be no better than Mexico. Read Bowden's book "Down by the River" if you want to see how bad the corruption really is and you can face the truth. It's also very well written, like a good novel.
The War Next Door
phil jordan
phil jordan
Jul 18, 2010 04:21 PM
If people can handle the truth you will concur with Mr. Ellison and author Bowden, I know for a fact that these 2 individuals unlike Brewer in Arizona and Abbot in Texas know first hand what they are talking about and to its credit the Arizona Republic has focused on the truth. Both Abbot and Brewer cannot handle the truth.
Bowden's Story on the Drug War
Bruce Amaro
Bruce Amaro
Mar 03, 2010 09:11 PM
VERY nicely done. Too bad he didn't couldn't get more space to go further into each topic. But nicely done.
illegal immigration
Mar 04, 2010 06:38 AM
Charles, while i agree with your sentiments about over-population and the destruction of ecosystems, some of your other claims are hard to back up. You claim free trade is largely responsible for the current mess, but where are your facts to back this up? Also, you completely ignore that in locations where walls have been built (eg San Diego) and where no-tolerance enforcement policies have been implemented (Del Rio), the numbers of illegals coming in is way down.

Enforcement does work, the problem is that we have never actually implemented it. If we really started cracking down and deporting most illegals, enforced criminal penalties for employers, etc then the employment market illegals would drop to nil, and they would quit coming. This would have a huge impact on our economy of course, but then that would actually prove hugely benefical to the environment by substantially limiting development.

As for your assertion about legalizing drugs, that has patently failed in other countries where it has been tried (europe). plus your logic for legalizing drugs doesn´t work anyhow as there is no way that american companies are going to be able to undercut prices from mexico and other 3rd world countries because their costs are so much less. And even if they could offer the same or cheaper prices, what would this get us? An even larger percentage of crank-heads and other non-productive citizens who tend towards other criminal activity...just what we need more of.

It may sound draconian, but the only thing that will work is a severe increase in the penalties for dealing drugs. In essence, this means the death penalty perhaps even for first time offenders. Yes, this is harsh but it works as i´ve lived in other countries (china) where it is standard policy.

It would be great if we didn´t have to resort to these measures, but as you have correctly stated our survival as a nation depends on stopping this NOW.
Mar 10, 2010 05:29 AM
"Enforcement does work, the problem is that we have never actually implemented it."

how do you define 'implemented' here? hire 5 times as many cops/narcs/etc? and as the article points out, what do you do then if you DO win, having such a massive amount of employment tied up in such departments?

"As for your assertion about legalizing drugs, that has patently failed in other countries where it has been tried (europe)."

where do you draw that conclusion from? which states in Europe?

as far as ive seen the experience in Portugal has been a success in terms of reduction of users (not a larger % of 'crackheads' as you claim) OD deaths, general crime rates, addiction rates and HIV/hep/etc rates. you will ALWAYS have non producing members of society; i would argue thats a pretty poor metric of success in this instance. have a look at the Portugal report here

the ONLY thing that increasing the penalties (to the point of death penalties) will do is drive up the cost of drugs (more risk=greater reward expected) and therefore line the pockets of the narc groups faster. the US already has a burgeoning prison population as it is - i seem to recall Death Row inmates spend several years in their cells, waiting for their turn in the queue. how do you propose to deal with that? this situation isnt something you can sort with a few simplistic policies as youve suggested.
Mar 10, 2010 08:43 AM
There is plenty of evidence that globalization has caused untold human misery and created mass economic refugees. Big agri-business has moved into the country side using GMO seed and agri-chemicals crowding out millions of local farmers and villages. These people have had to migrate to try to survive. Start with the movies, Food Inc. and Corn King to understand what globalization has done to the third world. Local production of food and goods has been concentrated into huge consolidated areas with the cheapest labor. The United States of America is a profound victim of globalization having lost our manufacturing base and small family farms. Now that we have been looted by Wall Street and jobs are scarce, the people of THIS nation have only begun to suffer.
How has it failed?? (legal drugs in Europe)
Mar 16, 2010 01:42 PM
 I wasn't aware there was a problem in The Netherlands. Spain has a minor problem with Cocaine use, it also has super high unemployment they could be linked for all we know.

 Having spent time outside the country I can tell you that there is not violence in the streets of Amsterdam over the Marijuana trade. In fact your bike is more likely to get stolen than some drug related crime. There biggest social problem is gray area prostitution, the kind that happens outside the Red Light Districts.

  You speak of a reality that doesn't exist, get your facts straight.

 This shh doesn't work the only way out is to legalize it all (tax it!) and stop the war on drugs, but of course we would need to re-think NAFTA as well otherwise Mexico would likely go broke as the STATE is heavily involved the drug trade.

 So what if its a rant, its based in FACT and TRUTH what's wrong with a rant, maybe it belongs in the editors page or something but since that doesn't exist here, stop bitching or don't read it, your choice.

A Respected Authority, on prohibition
marty weiss
marty weiss
Mar 16, 2010 04:37 PM
Here are two quotes from none other than Honest Abe Lincoln:

"Prohibition goes beyond the bounds of reason in that it attempts
to control a man's appetite by legislation, and makes a crime
out of things that are not crimes."
Abraham Lincoln

"A prohibition law strikes a blow at the very principles upon which
our government was founded."
Abraham Lincoln

Amen to Scott's reply
Mar 05, 2010 04:40 PM
I am with Scott. Drugs are ruining this country. I am also tired of paying for the health care, including babies, for all of these aliens.
Our environment is on the decline. More and more people just keep progreatin selfishly and add to the problem.
Mar 10, 2010 08:53 AM
DRUGS are NOT ruining this country. Drug PROHIBITION is causing the ruin. It is inherent of human nature to seek pleasure and relief from pain. You can not stop it using the criminal justice system and fear. It is using our own humanity against the people to perpetuate this misery. Did prohibition stop people from drinking alcohol? This is the same. It is human nature to seek intoxication and has always been before history was even recorded. Even other species seek intoxication because altered states, pleasure and relief from pain is universally sought by all that lives.
Most important article I've read this year
Bill Beavis
Bill Beavis
Mar 06, 2010 07:18 AM
Charles Bowden has done an awsome job. Having spent the better part of my life going to and from Juarez I think he has accurately captured the horrors of what is on not only on our doorstep, but increasingly in our neighborhoods.

However, his analysis falls a bit short. if we look closely at history: NAFTA resulted in tremendous economic development in Mexico in the early and mid-90s; walking the streets of Juarez in 1995 were millions of excited and employed middle class Mexicans. Now, instead of “Hecho en Mejico”, we have “Made in China”. And it was NOT the new market of ethanol for corn that fueled speculation and price spikes of a basic food, it was a billion Chinese expecting a meat-based diet immediately prior to their Olympic showcase. If this were not so, then the prices would have remained inflated.
Why it won't change
Mar 06, 2010 07:16 PM
Excellent, thought-provoking article. We are deeply caught in multiple levels of Catch-22 with our immigration and illegal drug situations:

- Too much of our industry relies on cheap immigrant labor. An ugly fact that we don't want to admit, but if we want to get serious about the issue, we must start with this reality. Simply put - people may love ranting about "illegals" and all the costs we have to burden as a result, until they have to pay $5 for a head of lettuce.

- Our current methodology for dealing with illegal immigration is a joke. In typical American fashion, we throw lots of "enforcement" and fancy technology at the problem. But there are no such solutions for the basic, economic disparities behind rampant illegal immigration. Our approach does nothing to address the underlying causes.

- As pointed out above, targeting employers with serious penalties would make a huge dent in the problem, but this doesn't happen in any significant way, and never really has. It's much easier to target those without political leverage, or basic rights, than to go after employers who are American citizens. And thus we target the immigrants, rather than the people who give them jobs once they are here. This alone tells you how serious we really are about stopping it.

- The amount of money made off of selling drugs to us, combined with the amount of money sent back by those working here illegally, is staggering, and is precisely why we can't expect serious change to come from south of the border. This isn't a value judgment - it's a purely economical equation from the point of view of a poor country living next to an extremely wealthy one.

- There are very persuasive arguments for how much money and resources we would save through drug legalization. And, in general, I support legalization - I don't believe the government has the right to tell me what I can and can't ingest. Yet, if it truly is economically advantageous to do so, why hasn't it happened? I don't believe that the archaic, moralistic posturing about "drugs are bad" has been the real inhibitor, it is merely the convenient cover story that gets politicians elected and fills the coffers of agencies who have obvious incentive to keep the situation just the way it is.

- No, the reason why legalization isn't happening is the 880 lb. gorilla that no one wants to admit - because there is simply too much money being made by keeping drugs illegal, on every side of the equation. Legalization would represent a net loss of profit, regardless of the money that would be saved by not having to worry about keeping up this whole charade of enforcement. As pointed out above, even if legalization were to happen, domestically, we simply can't produce a cheaper product, on the scale needed to meet demand, and so cheaper versions from abroad will continue to undercut this hypothetical market. Not to mention the devastating (and I don't use that word lightly) hit that it would be to the economy of our neighbors to the south, further exacerbating the economic disparity that underlies the illegal, migratory workforce.

- And then, there are all the other residual economic benefits tied to continuing to wage a perpetual war on drugs that no one wants to talk about - profits to be made off of supplying technology for such a war, government agencies whose funding depends on perpetuating this never-ending situation, border politicians who need such issues to grandstand on, the list goes on.

- Drugs, terror, etc. - we have perfected the art of concocting the never-ending wars necessary to continually fuel the military-industrial complex that our economy, and our government, have come to depend on.
labor costs
Clayton E. Cramer
Clayton E. Cramer
Mar 13, 2010 11:19 AM
"Simply put - people may love ranting about "illegals" and all the costs we have to burden as a result, until they have to pay $5 for a head of lettuce."

How, exactly, can this happen? How much labor do you think there is in a head of lettuce? I would be surprised if it takes more than a minute of labor per head of lettuce. I would think it is probably well less than a minute. Let's say that we required employers to hire only legal residents or citizens, and doing so caused a rise from minimum wage to say, $11 an hour. (Not a great wage, but better than minimum wage.) $3 extra per hour, spread over at least 60 heads of lettuce extra 5 cents per head of lettuce. Where's that $5 head of lettuce coming from? Do you expect wages to rise to $100 an hour for farm workers?

What amazes me is how many people pretend that stopping illegal immigration is going to make food expensive. There just isn't that much labor in food processing.

Of course, the net effect would be to improve the pay of farmworkers, and cut off a lucrative little system where by some businesses enjoy the benefits of cheap labor--while the taxpayers get stuck with the costs of providing emergency room medical care to illegal aliens. Remember, also, that of the 33 million or 44 million (whoever you want to believe) uninsured Americans--about 8 or 9 million are illegals. And allowing the market to raise wage rates would mean that at least some of the remaining uninsured could probably afford health insurance.
Bowden's writing
Crista Worthy
Crista Worthy
Mar 08, 2010 12:22 PM
Charles Bowden is a wonderful, as well as provocative, writer. He has a way of serving up the truth so it slaps you in the face. I'm not sure any magazine but High Country News would have the guts to print this story as is.

Bowden often writes soaring words in praise of the Southwest's natural beauty, but he doesn't mince words about the ugly stuff perpetrated by humans.

For instance: Bowden's exceptional book "Stone Canyons of the Colorado Plateau", with gorgeous Jack Dykinga photography explores geology, natural history and human history. When it comes to explaining how the Colorado Plateau was largely emptied of predators 160 years ago, he describes actions supervised by John D. Lee, and I'm not talking about the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Sometimes truth is ugly:

"In 1848, almost a decade before his actions at Mountain Meadows, he supervises a hunt suggested by Brigham Young to rid the area of wolves, wild cats, skunks, minks, bears, mountain lions, coyotes, eagles, crows, ravens, and hawks. Two teams of about one hundred men each set out to slaughter with a point system agreed upon to determine the champion. Between fourteen and fifteen thousand animals are killed with Lee himself accounting for 2,043 'skelps'".

Looking back, although repulsed and angry, I understand why these settlers behaved as they did. Attempting to stay alive in a harsh landscape, they didn't want to have to deal with any predators. They also wanted to quickly populate and claim their land, so polygamy, large families, and planned settlements were the most efficient ways to do that. Something about Bowden's writing, though, cuts through it all and lets you see it as it is---same with this article on Mexico.
why hasn't war next door ended
Sandra Grieves
Sandra Grieves
Mar 11, 2010 02:22 PM
Charles Bowden's article was very inciteful. After living on the border with Mexico for 30 years I ask: why hasn't the war in Mexico been stopped. Who stands to gain if war continues? Recently, no one has mentioned that the countries and world industries who will have an easier time moving into a war torn country and buying up land and mineral rights, water rights, 7 years of oil left, natural gas, land for growing crops, etc.......all of this we are now seeing happening in Africa.
prison-for-profit synergy with drug lords
marty weiss
marty weiss
Mar 11, 2010 04:00 PM
Former Attorney General Gonzales is no fool He said, 'Show me the money.'
He invested in the private, for-profit prison system.
So now there is a very efficient synergy with the drug lords.
They send tons of money to banks who gain immense profits from imprisoning drug users. The American citizens who are imprisoned are worth more in prison than they could earn as free human beings. A guy who makes 25 thou a year is now generating 50 thou as a prisoner. More illegal drugs, more arrests, more profits.
Forbidden fruit has never smelled sweeter to prisons-for-profit.
I cannot improve upon the words of Abraham Lincoln
marty weiss
marty weiss
Mar 16, 2010 04:47 PM
"I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to
tremble for the safety of my country; corporations have been enthroned, an era of
corruption in High Places will follow, and the Money Power of the Country will
endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the People, until
the wealth is aggregated in a few hands, and the Republic is destroyed."
Abraham Lincoln
Comment: the War Next Door
R. N. Mason
R. N. Mason
Mar 16, 2010 11:44 PM

Forty years ago I spent many free hours roaming the shops, bistros and back streets of Juarez, picking up a fair amount of colloquial Spanish on the way. Overwhelmingly, I found the people lovely, kindly disposed to this ignorant Gringo and (by today’s standards) relatively happy.

I am immeasurably saddened by the current horrific situation in that sad city. I can scarcely imagine what life must be like for the children and grandchildren of the people I knew.

Mr. Bowden’s searing essay (“rant”, it has been uncharitably, and I believe unjustly, termed in these comments) has successfully highlighted several of the – presumably – unintended consequences of America’s “War on Drugs”. We should all commend HCN for publishing it. Journalism like this is all but dead in corporate America, at least in the so-called Main Stream Media. Until quite recently the tragedy of Mexican-on-Mexican drug and corruption-fueled fratricide has drawn scant attention in the august pages of the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times or the broadcast media. The sufferings of others, especially the poor, the underfed and the undereducated, tend to remain invisible unless they somehow impinge upon our perceived national interest.

But, since all things are ultimately connected, impingement happens – sometimes most inconveniently. A couple of years ago, Cantarell, Mexico’s premier oil field, went into terminal decline, at a very high rate. Mexican President Calderon predicts nine years to exhaustion – ominous in the extreme, given that oil is a key source of Mexican foreign exchange, that Mexico herself has some irreducible ongoing oil requirements, and that she is an important source of crude for the U.S. Mexico is already feeling the supply pinch; Pemex gas stations are closing all over the country, and there is no realistic prospect of their ever reopening. Absent some miracle, the drug trade is fated to become the principal source of GNP south of our border; coupled with the endemic corruption already present in that unhappy society, Mexico’s plunge into “failed state” status could be inevitable.

Meanwhile, north of the border, our own problems grow apace. Global Climate Change, from whatever cause, is certain to produce significant increases in food prices over time, followed eventually by outright population dislocations as local failures of water supply occur. The consequences of Peak Oil (and Peak-Many-Other-Things), while temporarily postponed by the current U.S. economic difficulties, will inevitably assert themselves, especially in the agricultural and transportation areas. This is likely to result in the sort of dislocations and wipeout of property values pointed to in James H. Kunstler’s “The End of Suburbia”. The dynamics of “imperial overshoot and collapse” are already beginning to assert themselves; our hiring of what are in effect corporate mercenaries in support of U.S. efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere raises haunting echoes of the last days of the Roman Empire.

Moreover, American societal response to these and countless other challenges seems most unlikely to be constructive given the addiction to fantasy to which Mr. Bowden so correctly points. Our collective capacity for denial even of simple physics has reached the point where a 47 story skyscraper (WTC7) can collapse in absolute free-fall, allegedly due only to some unprecedented and “previously unknown” thermal expansion process – as asserted, without proof, by no less than the National Institute of Standards and Technology – without so much as a ripple of protest by other than the “lunatic fringe” of 911 investigators. This is the kind of nonsense that prevailed in the former Soviet Union prior to its abrupt collapse. Nature simply does not care about our myths.

I believe that this situation can meaningfully be addressed only by the profoundest sort of shift in our collective consciousness, amounting almost to a death-and-rebirth. Such a shift is probably impossible absent a great deal of real pain on the part of a great many people. I don’t think it HAS to be this way, but if we stay on our present road we’re guaranteed to arrive where we’re headed.
Charles Bowden and his 03/01/2010 article
carol isaac
carol isaac
Mar 18, 2010 07:45 PM
Mr. Bowden,

I understand one thing about you perhaps. A person who submerges himself in a place and time, and commits to reflecting, and taking on the pleasure and pain it brings, has a right to speak freely and expect it should mean something to us who have not had the experience but have some intelligence too.

This country, the USA, didn't evolve from a host of compassionate Europeans. We are born of more greedy types, sophisticated in methods, and not of much depth of moral thought. That describes those who have accumulated the most wealth and power. There are others of us who wish for everything from a national water policy to longer vacations, impeachment of presidents to removal of atravine... but we don't have the fire in the belly. We are bought off by hope and a long life of discrete, assuaging moments. We know "It is the corporate government, stupid.", and we know we are suffused with a kind of private, slovenly cowardice. You and I aren't leading anything.
Bowden's War
Paul Zeiger
Paul Zeiger
Mar 21, 2010 06:31 PM
Well, Charles Bowden’s essay “The War Next Door” made it to the Denver Post today, and it bears reading in every major news outlet all over the US. Sure it has elements of a rant. Sure some of the facts are debatable. But there is plenty of truth and plenty of legitimate passion to fuel necessary soul searching all over the country. It is a wake up call like the emperor’s new clothes, only much, much, bigger.

I am now back in Denver after 8 years in Tucson, with a little time on the border in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, and I am struck by how a thicker layer of fantasy comes down over the border situation with every mile we put between us and it. Thank you, Charles, for rubbing our noses in it, and I hope you get the chance to rub a lot more noses in it in the near future.

If the presidents (both parties) had ethics!
Julie Winters
Julie Winters
Sep 21, 2010 12:15 PM
Mr. Bowden nails it.
I was there in Columbus the night of the shootings and it was scary.
We have property in NM and can not use it.
N.M. is owned by the Cartels, and until we get a president who will send investigators in and start prosecuting the illegal use of tax payers monies(ie grants) it will continue.
If Mr. Bowden runs he has my vote!
Rick  Grainger
Rick Grainger
Jul 03, 2011 04:45 PM
I think Bowden nailed it on the special "Narco State" Americans love their country, but can't face it without being stoned.
Allison Hunt
Allison Hunt
Jul 31, 2011 04:55 AM
Judging by the prior comments, one might get the impression that drug prohibition is imposed by plutocrats and not supported by the general population. I'm here to inform you that it simply is not the case. "Liberal" California has shot down every State wide referendum to legalize pot. Coke, speed and heroine have never even made it to the ballet.

Eventually, all such drugs will become de-facto legal as our own soon-to-be failed state is overwhelmed with more pressing issues. It's the silver lining of the coming chaos.
Cecily Crebbs
Cecily Crebbs
Apr 23, 2012 03:02 PM
Some really thoughtful commentary. I remember taking business law in college and reading what I thought was the defining case - the People vs. Henry Ford. Ford wanted everyone to have a car so he made his cars cheaper and his shareholders sued him, and won. Profit over people. That was in 1920 or maybe earlier.

What I am wondering is - one interesting comment was about both sides of the equation making money in the "war on drugs.' Follow the money. If you follow the money you walk into a bank. There are banks in Mexico, banks in Las Cruces - something like 150 banks in Las Cruces, which for its population should have something like 10...... banking here, banking there, banking banking everywhere.
Julia Duin
Julia Duin Subscriber
Nov 27, 2015 06:50 PM
He lost me after he wrote this: "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." So the mess that is Juarez is all the fault of the USA? Get real. I know the writer has passed on but y'all might be interested to know that crime stats in Juarez have actually improved recently.
Julia Duin
Julia Duin Subscriber
Nov 27, 2015 06:51 PM
He lost me after he wrote this: "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." So the mess that is Juarez is all the fault of the USA? Get real. I know the writer has passed on but y'all might be interested to know that crime stats in Juarez have actually improved recently.