Friday, March 27, 2009

Juarez: City of Blood

The first time that I saw it, the violence in the Coen brothers’ film No Country for Old Men had a certain unreality about it that was hard to easily accept. Can this many people really be killed in such a short period of time?

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?

16 comments:

Pedro H. Albuquerque said...

Nice post! See my comments in my Blog: http://incentives-matter.blogspot.com/2009/03/comment-on-ennymans-juarez-city-of.html

ENNYMAN said...

Thanks for the visit... VERY GOOD observations which I hope others review.

LEWagner said...

>>>>>>>>>>>The message from the top down was: get what you can while and when you can.
Not sure if or where this plays in, but 40,000 Spanish communists fled to Mexico after the failed revolution in Spain, circa 1939.
For what it's worth.

I think it's just as likely, or more likely, in fact, that it's capitalists who are getting what they can and when they can, as it is some ex-Spanish communists from 1939.
The financial, insurance, pharmaceutical, medical, oil, prison and arms-manufacturing industries are pretty clearly being run by the capitalists in this world. For profit, and damn the consequences.
Here's a good article -- the comments are even better than the article -- about a common-sense way to stop a lot of the killing on the Mexican border:
http://www.buzzflash.com/articles/alerts/633

ENNYMAN said...

The overthrow of the haciendas and old ways of the landowners was achieved during a ten year period beginning in 1910, culminating in 1920. The country has been "officially" socialist since that time.

There has not been a whole-hearted embrace of free markets in Mexico since that time. There is one oil company. One lumber company. The cost of plywood in Mexico was 5X what it was in Texas... made from trees that we cut in U.S., shipped to Asia, processed and shipped back to U.S. A 4 x 8 foot sheet in 1980 was fifteen dollars here and $75 South of the Border.

As for legalization being the "solution" to the killing... I know that Libertarian purists would advocate that, citing the whole druglord driven underworld of Prohibition era as explicitly rooted in bad policy. Worse yet is the hypocrisy it generates...

LEWagner said...

>>>>>>>>>There is one oil company. One lumber company. The cost of plywood in Mexico was 5X what it was in Texas... made from trees that we cut in U.S., shipped to Asia, processed and shipped back to U.S. A 4 x 8 foot sheet in 1980 was fifteen dollars here and $75 South of the Border.

Here in Laos (a communist country roughly the size and population of Minnesota), there are 3 telephone companies, any number of lumber companies, and privately owned shops selling goods everywhere, in every neighborhood. You don't need permission to open a shop, a bar, a motel, anything -- if you own the land, you can open a business on it.
The government is majority owner of the LaoBeer Company, the biggest beer company in the country ... but anyone can make beer or even moonshine, and sell it legally out of their house, here. Beer is priced less than in the US, the hard stuff is about $1 a liter, and that's what the poor people tipple on.
Most Chinese-made goods sell for 1/5 to 1/3 the price they sell for at Walmart in the US, and the "quality" is exactly the same. A disposable lighter that costs over $1 in the US sells for 15 cents, here.
There is one oil company ... the price is a little higher than in the US, but much less than in Europe. Anyone who wants to buy an extra 20 liters of gas and sell it by the half-liter or liter in front of their shop is free to do so. The regular gas stations are all required to close at dusk because one got robbed late at night, and the government doesn't want people working under dangerous conditions. If you want gas after dark, you buy a liter or whatever from a private shop at a little higher price than at the gas station. If you need to go a long distance at night, you have to plan ahead.
Cell phone service is government regulated. You buy your phone for $35 on up, buy and install your own SIM card (you pick out any number you want from a row of SIM cards in display cases in private shops all over town, and no one writes down the number when you buy it.) After you have your cell phone, you buy prepaid cards. If you call someone, it goes against your time, not against theirs. If they call you, and you answer, it doesn't cost you anything. You pay only for the time you use, no contracts. Text messaging is so cheap I don't even notice time going off my phone cards when I use it.
Electricity is about 5 cents a kwh, city water costs me about 70 cents a month, the neighbors just hooked up to my city water because they didn't want to pay the water company for their own meter. We split the cost of the water, and we're not breaking any laws.
The banks are regulated, and none of them are going broke.
I know that "socialism" is a buzz-word among Republicans, but there's sure a lot more freedom and fairness here than in the US.

Pedro H. Albuquerque said...

Is this a different Laos from the one that's right at the bottom of most freedom and liberty rankings that I know? For example:
http://www.stateofworldliberty.org/report/rankings.html
I also wonder why is it that I never heard before about anyone willing to immigrate to such a marvellous nation...

LEWagner said...

No possible bias in the organizations that did those rankings, that's for sure! The tighter the military alliance with the peace-loving United States, the higher the country's ranking!!
But please, could you address a few of the points that I threw out?
Can you pick any phone number you want in the US? Does the phone company know your number and report it to the government, if asked? Can you put a new number in your cell phone any time you want, by buying a new SIM card at any number of shops in town? I can, here.
How has the unregulated US banking system turned out?
If you don't have enough money to hook up to city water in Duluth, Minnesota, for example, can you make a private agreement with the next-door neighbor and run a pipe over to his place? Why can't you?
Can you build a house, a shop, a brewery, a restaurant, or a motel on your property in St. Louis County Minnesota -- let alone even adding a deck to your existing house -- without jumping through 100 hoops, first? Any Lao citizen can, here, in any neighborhood in the country. Why can't you?
I have absolutely no clue why it is you've never before heard of anyone willing to immigrate to Laos. I've talked to scores of such people, just in this town, smaller than Duluth. Lots of people who left here in the '80's are coming back, because of lack of freedom in the countries they went to. Just because you've never heard of something, doesn't mean it's not true.

Pedro H. Albuquerque said...

Laos is one of the poorest countries in the world, with extremely underdeveloped and poorly functioning markets, so the numbers that you give contain very little relevant information. To be sincere, I don't even understand what you're trying to say. Sometimes you appear to be in favor of regulation, but then you appear to be against it. Anyway, I don't think Laos is a reference to anything that matters to humanity.
Nonetheless, I believe that I know what you're trying to say, because I've heard the same argument before while I lived and visited many poor countries. You confound the absence of the rule of law, of respect for private property, and of respect for individual and family rights (common situation in most poor countries) with freedom.
What happens in countries like Laos is simple: people with resources, power and strength (warlords and bullies) feel "free" to do whatever they want - steal, abuse, oppress or rape.
No great philosopher has ever got this one wrong: this kind of "freedom" has never been and will never be real freedom.

ENNYMAN said...

Interesting dialogue. Thanks for the contributions.
e.

LEWagner said...

So interesting to hear so many new things about Laos, after having lived here for over 4 years.
Laos is not a reference to anything that has to do with humanity? Sorry, I beg to differ. My children and many of my very best friends are from or presently living in Laos.
Are there any other specific countries or groups of people that, in your opinion, are not references to anything that matters to humanity?
You can't tell if I'm for or against regulation? Laos regulates the big producers and the banks. I'm for that. You just can't trust the huge producers -- they might just put out tons of salmonella-contaminated meat or peanut butter for sale to the public, for example. The Lao government leaves small neighborhood shops and backyard producers alone, however, for the neighbors to regulate by buying or not buying according to reputation. I'm for that, too.
Poorly functioning markets? I don't know. The bread-man comes around on his bicycle every morning, as do the metal and glass recyclers. The meat and vegetables are 100 percent clean and fresh, not frozen, thawed, and re-frozen, and contaminated with salmonella. Goods from China are sold at a fraction of Walmart's "falling prices" at literally 100's of shops around town, not just at a few corporate big-box stores.
No respect for private property rights? I posted twice already, giving concrete examples, of Lao individuals' right to put up any kind of business on his/her own property, including a brewery, a store, a motel, a bar ... PLEASE illuminate me about respect for private property rights, by giving some concrete examples of what YOU can do on your own private property in St. Louis County, Minnesota, before saying I'm confounding things.
No rule of law? Well, it is true they don't have volumes and volumes of ever-changing laws for every village, city, county, and state in the country. Their laws apply throughout the country, run to less than 300 pages, total, and can be found for sale at bookstores, cheap. They're also available on the Internet, translated into English. There are village police, one for about every 10 households. Anyone breaking the law is warned first, and if he persists, he is arrested. (That excludes serious crimes such as theft, murder, mayhem, or rape, of course. Anyone committing those crimes is arrested as soon as caught.)
No respect for individual or family rights, here? Just the opposite, actually. They don't have armed police in the schools. They don't have teachers and administrators recommending certain kids for "intervention" and putting them into government- or corporate-run "treatment centers", and on mind-altering medications, against the parents' wishes. You have to go to the US for that kind of total disrespect for family rights.
"Warlords and bullies" stealing, abusing, oppressing and raping? In Laos? Where did you read that? Could you give a link, please? Even simply shooting and killing an unarmed person with a Taser is unheard of, here, let alone stealing, abusing, oppressing and raping. Only criminals are afraid of the police, here, not people with outstanding parking tickets they can't afford to pay and a burned out headlight they can't afford to fix.
Anyway, thanks for the dialogue. It's always interesting to observe right-wing "debate" methods, once again.

Pedro H. Albuquerque said...

You're definitely talking about a different country then:
http://www.hrw.org/en/asia/laos
http://www.amnestyusa.org/annualreport.php?id=ar&yr=2008&c=LAO
http://www.akha.org/news/2006/mar/humanrightsreportlaos2005.html
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_rights_in_Laos
http://home.vicnet.net.au/~lao/laovl/rights.htm

LEWagner said...

No, there's only one Laos (Lao PDR)in the world. I've been living here for 4 years and 4 months, now, and observe every day how people are treated.
It's much more free than the United States. The jail and prison population is about 3000 out of 6 million (.05 percent), and there are no locked-door "treatment centers" and "nursing homes" for forced drugging, at all.
Compare that with US statistics, with the world's biggest prison population, not including the locked-door facilities not even *called* prisons.
(Unless you're talking about a different United States than the one I lived in for over 50 years of my life.)
Again, please, *PLEASE* give some concrete examples of your "freedom" in the United States. Your private property rights, for example.

Pedro H. Albuquerque said...

I feel like this could go on forever, since we clearly judge reality according to different standards. Therefore, this is my last comment on the subject. Here's what respected scholars have to say about private property and rule of law in Laos:
"Nature of the Problem: In Lao PDR (LPDR), as in other developing states, business conditions on the ground vary from those suggested by laws, reports and development agency programs. Although LPDR has institutions protecting private property rights on paper, it ranks among the lowest countries in the world for the actual enforcement of these institutions."
This is the source:
http://sojourn.uchicago.edu/2008/11/good-policies-no-business-private-property-law-in-laos.html
So, if you want real respect for your private property, better look for it in other countries.
I could cite an incredibly large number of sources repeating the same, but it's clear that it would not convince you anyway.
It's not that Laos haven't improved when compared to its tragic past. For sure, it has improved a lot. Nonetheless, it's yet very far from being a benchmark for any kind of real freedom or human right. There's much work yet to be done.
Anyway, I hope the best for you and your family, and please keep pushing ahead the agenda of freedom in Laos.

LEWagner said...

I gave concrete examples of the Lao government's respect of property rights, from right here in my neighborhood.
You have steadfastly refused to do the same, even after 3 requests -- including pleases and even pretty-pleases.
You're right. We judge "reality" by different standards. You pull things that back your view off of the Internet, and present them as fact.
I observe with my own eyes, and report only what I see (and can prove by pictures).
Now I'm going to work on the house I'm in the process of moving into. I'm going to convert the shack I'm living in now into a restaurant. I asked if I needed a permit to do that, and I was told "No, just open it."
Enough of this. The ONLY thing you've proven several times over, is that you can't even give EVEN ONE concrete example of the great economic freedoms and family and private property rights that supposedly exist in the USA.
I'd think it should be easy ... but it's obvious you're baffled.

LEWagner said...

Here, maybe I can help the baffled one, with some examples of true freedom in the US:
You can't freely open a restaurant on your own property in Duluth ... but you ARE free to work for McDonalds. You can't open a store, but you CAN work for Walmart.
There's some real freedom, not fake freedom!(sarcasm)

Also, a few websites concerning human rights. I'd like to show that I know how to Google, too, besides observe with my own eyes:

http://www.amnestyusa.org/us-human-rights/page.do?id=1011100
http://www.hrw.org/legacy/wr2k1/usa/
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_rights_in_the_United_States
http://www.china-embassy.org/eng/zt/zfbps/t36544.htm
http://www.globalissues.org/article/139/the-usa-and-human-rights
http://www.humanrightsusa.org/

LEWagner said...

I'm afraid that Pedro has ventured out beyond his depth, and has disappeared.
He cannot cite a single example of economic freedom, or respect of private property rights in the US of A.
Anyone?