Monday, December 07, 2009


Before I start, let me make clear that the following is all my own opinion and not those of any current or former employers. OK, enough with the disclaimer.

So my friend and I are standing outside an El Paso bar on a Friday night and the topic of conversation turns to Juárez. She said she has heard from her Juárez friends that the violence there is getting worse and the situation is more hopeless than ever. The family of her friend was carjacked, and there was a shooting at the nightclub her friend's brother owns. Her friend is planning to move away to another city in Mexico to get away from the violence.

"When will the violence be over?" I wonder aloud.

She doesn't answer me and we fall silent. There's not else much we can say about the drug cartel war in Juárez, the Mexican city across the border from El Paso, where over 2,250 people have been killed this year. Here is a good summary of the current state of things, if you haven't read much about it. Body after body has been found gunned down on the streets. Some are found tortured and dismembered. The victims have included women and children. There are also reports of a rise in crimes like extortions, kidnappings, and carjackings.

Reports of the violence across the border typically come to me secondhand as above, through a friend of a friend or through the media. Enough for me to give a polite "I'm sorry to hear that" sort or reaction, not enough to provoke the gut-wrenching reaction that comes when the crime is against someone you know well. The streets of El Paso remain very safe, and even when it's in the city nestled right up against my beloved hometown, the violence to me is still in the abstract, a shadowy, humongous problem that there's not much I can do about, like AIDS in Africa or global warming.

Am I hopelessly insular, that I have so little direct knowledge of Juárez, its citizens, and the violence tearing it apart? Even before the drug cartel war started, I always associated Juárez with danger. It was the place my mom always said she was afraid to go. I suppose that childhood fear is why I can count on two hands the number of times I've been to Juárez. Three times to visit the mercado, once to Villa del Mar, a seafood restaurant, three times to a church camp. That's seven times in 27 years of life, none of those visits in the past two years, when the war has been going on.

Also, unlike a lot of native El Pasoans I have no family members in Juarez. I have acquaintances who live there -- people I went to school with, former co-workers, friends of friends -- but no one in my inner circle, which I suppose makes me lucky. It's not my parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, or close friends getting killed or seeing the bodies pile up.

But when the media do their job and start digging into who these people being killed actually are, I am reminded how closely these two communities are connected. People who lived and worked and studied in El Paso have been killed. Some of the most disturbing headlines this year:
A 7-year-old? Yeah, it's unbelievable, it's utterly horrible, tragic, despicable, and unfair. But solutions that will end the violence aren't forthcoming. The Mexican government has sent in thousands of soldiers to the city. It seemed like the answer, then it failed. Decriminalizing drugs in the U.S. has been suggested, but that likely is not going to happen any time soon.

The U.S. government has added more southbound inspections to curb weapon and currency smuggling into Mexico, and some Juárez groups even want to bring in U.N. peacekeepers. Meanwhile, the BBC suggests poverty and corrution are the real problems.

The experts have done the analyses and some solutions have been tried but the killings continue, and we're back to "what a pity" then silence. It's like this wall of frustration builds up. We need the facts on why the situation is getting worse and not better, but it's not a situation where we can get all the facts, given the dangers for anyone who dares to investigate.

And what's really frustrating is that there is so little that any one average person can do. Tell people about it, I guess (part of the reason I'm writing this). Write to representatives in Congress or to the White House, maybe, and some protests have been organized.

But I think the attitude that "there's nothing I can do" leads to complacency. I'm frustrated by the lack of urgency in the conversation at this point in the war, the attitude that the murders are unstoppable. Especially here in El Paso, where you'd think we'd be hypersensitive to what's going on just across the border, people like me who don't have close ties to Juárez continue on with our lives that are mostly undisrupted by violence, and it starts to fade from our consciousness. I've been guilty of this, too. I'm busy with my own life here, and I am tired of thinking about drugs and violence and death. But in this situation it's not a matter of choice. With about 4,000 people killed in the past two years, and an average of between 200 and 300 killings a month now, we in El Paso and the rest of the U.S. and the world need to keep thinking about it and keep talking about it, and express our solidarity with the citizens of Juárez.

No, I don't have answers for the problems plaguing Juárez. I'm as bewildered by the situation as anyone as I sit here writing from my safe perch. All I'm saying is the fire's still raging there, and we shouldn't allow anyone to forget about it.

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