So, I was gone Friday-Monday, and away from the internet. I was in the city of my birth, El Paso, TX. I occasionally get to go back to my second favorite city in Texas (with Austin being an easy first), though I rarely get to stay long enough to do what I really love doing there, which is hitting downtown and thrift shopping. Still, a little listening and looking, and I got a taste of what life's been like these past few years there, and how much things have changed while everything continues to look the same.
See, geographically, El Paso is part of a bigger metroplex area---it's all one big city with Ciudad Juarez, with a very thin Rio Grande and the mountain pass it cut (the Paso that gave El Paso del Norte its name) separating the Mexican side from the American side. Juarez is the much bigger city, but both cities sit in the valley of their little spate of Rocky Mountains. The entire area suffers from dryness, hot sun, and unreal amounts of smog that is trapped by the mountain range and hangs over the city, giving me a sore throat by day #3 there. Most of my life, I felt like the fates of Juarez and El Paso were intertwined in such a way as to be functionally inseparable. People traveled back and forth with ease, both commuting for work (as my Spanish professor for summer courses at UTEP did), and for fun and shopping. That changed a little after 9/11, when the government revoked the right to cross the border without a passport. But things didn't really get weird until this functional civil war with the drug cartels broke out.
Now it seems like El Paso and Juarez are worlds apart, even as they look even more like one city. (In the past, at night, you could see a clean border between the cities because Mexico had a different standard light bulb than the U.S., which led the lights in El Paso to be a light yellow but the lights in Juarez to be a greenish white. Now they all look the same, though the Mexican side of the border still twinkles because fewer people have their lights on.) El Paso is peaceful and quiet, and it's consistently in the top 5 safest large cities in America. This, despite its outrageous poverty, the ability of criminals to border hop to escape detection, and of course, the fact that it's in the same spot on the globe as what is becoming the most dangerous city in North America.
You can hear from a distance how bad Juarez has gotten, or you can hear it up close. The murder rampage is simply on people's minds. What used to be a regular part of visiting El Paso---going to Juarez for a drink and some shopping---is basically unthinkable now. The people of El Paso are as content as the people of Juarez are fearful, and that feels dramatically off, almost impossible, really. But what really blew my mind was when we were standing in the hotel lobby waiting for our cab to take us to the airport, and I saw they were giving away copies of the El Paso Times. I casually picked one up and saw this story.
Juárez cancels Sept. 16 celebration
For the first time since the Mexican Revolution, Juárez city government has canceled the festivities of one of Mexico's most patriotic holidays.
"First comes the safety of the population," said Juárez Mayor José Reyes Ferriz. "Because of threats, because of criminal activities that exist in Juárez, we don't want to take any risks."
On the eve of Sept. 16, mayors in Mexico lead crowds at city hall esplanades in the traditional ceremony of grito de independencia, or call to independence.
¡Viva México! were the words shouted the same day by Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla in 1810, when he launched the rebellion against the Spanish crown.
It's basically like canceling the 4th of July. But it's understandable, of course. Since 2008, there have been 6,200 murders in a city of about 1.3 million people. I know intellectually about the murders, the curfews, the kidnappings, and the general climate of fear. Still, seeing this simple story about the cancellation of the Sept. 16th celebrations really drove home to me how much Juarez has really fallen to pieces, and is basically a war zone. We would stand on the hotel balcony and overlook Juarez and it was almost impossible to believe. Obviously, it looks as quiet and normal as it ever did. Only at night do you even get a hint of it, as the city looks darker than it should.
Of course, the way this tends to translate into American self-centered craziness is by reinforcing the hysterical racism in places like Arizona. Passing laws to antagonize immigrants and people suspected of being immigrants---or beefing up border security to pander to racists despite the fact that there's no real reason to believe the war is leaking over in anyway---is straight forward asshole behavior. The worst part about all this is that the United States does play a role in all this, but it's in a way that we, as a nation, don't want to talk about. The reason this kind of stuff concentrates on the border is because Americans exert such a powerful demand for illegal drugs that are either manufactured or at least routed through Mexico. Conservatives are keeping us busy with their screeching about non-existent crime on the American side of the border and non-existent threats from illegal immigrants, but no one is talking about what we could do to relieve this horror show in Mexico that we played such a major role in creating. Which isn't to say that Mexico doesn't have its own problems with waging a pointless War on Drugs as a bit of moral showboating and a form of control exerted on disenfranchised citizens. But again---border town, American demand, and the criminal element has everything to do with the fact that Americans are so hellbent on keeping drugs illegal and dedicating outrageous amounts of resources towards attempting to stop the flow.
We should be ashamed of ourselves. Deeply, deeply ashamed of ourselves. It's amazing to me that over this past weekend, the Glenn Beck rally was only the second biggest reason looming in my mind for why Americans should be ashamed of ourselves. Of course, part of that is because Tea Crackers are such a clown show, but the War on Drugs is something even supposedly smart people mindlessly keep backing.