It sure didn't seem like the kind of place where bloodied drug smugglers stumble out of the scrub after shootouts. But it was.
On a recent road trip to Mexico, my family and I stopped for the night at some friends' house near Tubac, Ariz., between Tucson and the border. Our friends' backyard stretches into a national forest, where ocotillo and mesquite and cacti grow in the shadows of rugged crags.
It is also a major drug-trafficking route. Smugglers move on foot between the houses and cliffs in order to bypass a border patrol checkpoint. For the most part, the narco trail is not visible to residents, though occasionally, machine gun fire echoes off the cliffs, and the cactus forest turns into a war zone.
About a year ago, a Border Patrol officer near here shot and killed a drug smuggler. A month earlier, some bandits opened fire on nine drug runners, killing two and wounding two others. The survivors, soaked in blood, ran to the neighbors' house for help.
That's just a faint echo of what's happening south of the border. Ten people were killed in a rolling shootout in Nogales this fall. South of there, a paramilitary convoy of criminals invaded the town of Cananea. Things are even more grisly along the Texas border. During recent weeks, these headlines appeared in Juarez news outlets: Five motorcyclists slain in front of seafood restaurant; 11 slain in Juarez in 20 hours; Three severed heads found in ice chest. All in all, at least 5,000 people have died in the violence accompanying the illegal drug trade over the past year.
Desperate for a solution, the El Paso city council tried to pass am resolution that would -- among other things -- begin the discussion of decriminalizing drugs. The resolution passed unanimously, but the mayor vetoed it, ending discussion. That's unfortunate, because it's a conversation that all of us -- not just those living near the border -- need to have.
On a large scale, there are plenty of reasons to decriminalize all or some drug use, production and trafficking. For starters, it's hypocritical to incarcerate someone for smoking a joint, for example, when it is legal to buy and use other drugs, such as alcohol and tobacco. The war on drugs has also made for a crooked dynamic in U.S. foreign relations: Our government supports governments -- primarily in Latin America -- solely because of their efforts to eradicate drug production, without taking account of their often dismal records on human rights.
Then there's the fiscal lack of accountability: Billions are spent trying to catch drug users and peddlers, and billions more to incarcerate them, yet it has done nothing to curb drug use. Instead, it's only raised the stakes,enticing organized crime rackets to get into the drug business and making it more prone to brutal violence.
In the case of Mexico and the border region, decriminalizing drugs would at the very least allow law enforcement to shift their priorities. Rather than chasing drug-runners through the desert, they could focus their attention on the people at the top – the ones who order the mass murders and dismemberment. Because they wouldn't have to worry about being locked up for simply conducting their business, drug traffickers would have less incentive to bribe and corrupt -- let alone murder -- local police officers. (After all, tequila -- a drug -- moves legally from Mexico to the U.S., but who's ever heard of tequila wars?)
Though most of the violence has occurred south of the border, those of us up north have a lot at stake, too. The violence has created more pressure for Mexicans to flee to the United States. Meanwhile, tourism in Mexico, especially northern Mexico, has dropped considerably because Americans are afraid of being caught in the crossfire or kidnapped. That further damages an already decrepit Mexican economy, which pressures more people to move north.
Combine all of this with the global recession that has severely curtailed the amount of money immigrants in the United States can send back home, and the result is an unsustainable, volatile situation in our next-door neighbor. Of course, that affects us here because the U.S. and Mexican economies and cultures are so closely linked. Just consider where that cucumber in your salad came from.
Decriminalization is far from a perfect solution; chances are it would facilitate the flow of drugs across the border, which could increase drug use over here. Still, I'd rather see a few more heads cloudy from smoking dope than showing up in somebody's freezer.
Jonathan Thompson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He edits the magazine in Paonia, Colorado.