I’d read the book, and accepted the story line. But seeing it on film made the bloodletting seem an over-the-top Hollywood horrorshow. That is, until I became aware of the realities taking place just South o’ the border these days. The film was apparently no exaggeration.
Currently one of the bloodiest hot spots on the Rio Grande is the city of Juarez, just across from El Paso. I remember my first trip to Mexico in December 1977 almost as if it were yesterday. On that occasion we crossed at El Paso, into Juarez, a sleepy little town with dry, dusty streets and slow moving border agents just corrupt enough to make sure they got a little “tip” for being nice enough not to notice anything you shouldn’t be bringing into the country. Nothing too exorbitant. Just a border ritual you either participated in or didn’t. Whatever the consequences were for not paying the graft, I never found out. The town itself was alive, with streets filled with Americanos who crossed over for the day to shop or whatever. (No visas required for that small step, only for heading deeper inside.) In short, there was nothing ominous as far as I could tell.
If you follow the news at all, it’s apparent things have changed.
Granted, our Southern border has always been porous. Drug trafficking is nothing new. What’s new is the level of violence. In Chihuahua, the state where Juarez resides, murders rose from 600 in 2007 to more than 2700 in 2008. The problem is messy enough that medical students in El Paso are being advised not to go into Mexico at all to do the humanitarian work many have been performing there for years. News accounts tell of beheadings, shootings and burnt bodies in ever escalating quantities.
Ironically, explanations regarding the violence are being given a new twist. It is not the drug dealers who are the problem, it is the smuggling of arms into Mexico from the U.S. side that is being identified as the root cause. According to a March 26 CBS World Watch story by Cami McCormick, “Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on a visit to Mexico, said Wednesday that America's inability to prevent weapons being smuggled across the border is causing the deaths of Mexican police officers, soldiers and civilians.” The article notes that arms dealers are attending Texas gun shows to accumulate assault rifles and other deadly weaponry for their arsenals. Special Agent Michael Golson of the Dallas Field Division likewise places the blame on “firearms trafficking.”
Selling firearms to Mexico is nothing new, mind you. There’s a poignant scene in Viva Zapata in which Marlon Brando, leading the peasant revolt against the injustices of the landowners in Southern Mexico, expresses his revulsion at having to do business with the businessman bringing arms across the border from the North. His friend consoles him by noting that if people only did business with people they like, there would be no business. Brando concedes the point and the guns arrive to help the revolutionaries achieve their aims. The armaments poured in for the next ten years till the new order was finally established in 1920.
Today, it’s a new kind of lawlessness, but the same old game.
As for smuggling arms across the border, well, I did some border smuggling myself way back when, and it isn’t really that difficult. Having said this, I’d best elaborate.
There were two primary instances. The first was when we brought our housing items into the country in 1980. We’d gone to be missionaries at an orphanage in Monterrey. Americans are not supposed to move to Mexico and take Mexican jobs, so you are only given a “tourist visa” which lasts six months max. If you bring pots and pans and everything else for setting up house, it's a signal that you're aiming to settle down and stay a while, which violates both the intent and spirit of the law. We didn’t need a kitchen sink, but we did bring plywood for building cabinets to hold one up, plus tools, and all the condiments, containers, clothes for taking up a long term residence. These things were set up inside a motor home in such a fashion as to appear to be a couch. Under the cushions and couch cover were all our boxes of goods. Additional metal army containers were welded underneath and filled with items for the orphanage. The border crossing guards were very happy to not see anything when we slipped them a fivespot. One guard asked if we could help him buy glasses, meaning, “I have bad eyesight if you give me a little money not to see very well.”
On another occasion during that year we worked at the orphanage, I was sent to the U.S. border to retrieve a very large transformer. Evidently, someone thought that a building in the back forty of the property could get electricity from the power lines if they had a transformer. I dutifully headed north. To bring it across, I conceived the following plan based on Houdini’s trick of making an elephant disappear in Madison Square Gardens.
We took a very large, empty van and lay the transformer on its side between the middle seats. We then placed a couple bags of cat food or something similar on the floor so that looking in from the back the only thing you saw under the seats were a couple bags, clearly identified. From the front view the transformer was similarly blocked by a few small items, and maybe a suitcase. There was nothing on any of the seats. In short, a cursory glance would lead someone to conclude the van was utterly empty. Another fivespot helped insure the same conclusion was drawn.
In short, do you really believe that drug dealers with millions of dollars on the line don’t have sufficient resources to open those borders as wide as they please? On the other hand, do you really think that gun legislation in Texas or a re-configured Brady bill is going to make the violence disappear like Houdini's elephant? What do you think?