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.