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How The Drug War In Mexico Destroyed One City

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In the calmer days before the drug war in Mexico turned the country into a battle ground, crossing the border for a night of fun was a regular part of growing up in the Southwest.

Blaring Mexican banda music playing from local nightclubs, a common stereotype of the border town of Juarez.  U.S. college students knew what “Thursday night” meant. It was a chance to get away from nagging parents and the daily grind of school work and smoke, drink and party up. Dollars were exchanged and pesos flowed.

This cascade of cash into Juarez had been flowing, in one form or another, since the 1920s prohibition, when gringos would cross the border to indulge in alcohol that streamed down their gullets. The hooch has been legal for some time, but the cheaper cost, lower (and rarely enforced) drinking age, and easy access to other non-legal substances north of the border meant that there was never a shortage of funds that fed the families of many of the city’s residents. That is, until the Drug War came to Juarez.

On December 1, 2006, the newly elected president of Mexico Felipe Calderon declared war on the infamous Mexican cartels; forever changing “Thursday night.” Calderon admitted that the new get tough policy would have a price in “time, money and even lives.” He would go on to say, “Organized crime has been allowed to grow exponentially due to corruption and sloth, Mexicans cannot and should not allow de facto powers to defy the authority of the state on a daily basis.”

Few places were hit more visibly by this new policy than Juarez. While the (semi-)innocent students were partying on “Thursday Night,” few knew that Mexican cartels owned many of the clubs the frequented. Even fewer gave any thought to the many factories located just outside the entertainment district, which were part of a greater economic drug ring; a drug ring that took advantage of thousands of lower income Mexicans who had no other way of life.

The violent and deadly drug trade of Mexico brought in billions of dollars every year on the backs of the countries rural poor children, men and women. Cartel members, government officials and Mexico’s most vulnerable were all swept up in this flood of dirty money .

The migration of drugs north from Mexico was nothing new. The modern use of cannabis as a recreational substance came to America via Mexican immigrants. The very use of the word “marijuana” as a synonym for cannabis was, in fact, a racist tactic deployed by opponents in the 1930s to implicate the drug’s latino stereotypes, thus making it seem more threatening to white America.

However, it wasn’t until the 1990, when economic policies such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) gave the supply end of the drug chain a seat at the table. Riddled with accusations of narco corruption from the very beginning, Mexico’s drug cartels were poised to profit in NAFTA by buying up small assembly plants called maquiladoras that ran along the U.S./Mexican border, with the ability to cheaply assemble products for exportation to the U.S., tax-free. “By buying up maquiladoras along the border,” wronte one journalist at the time, “[The cartels] would be able to have a larger and more official or legitimate presence along the border.”

Mexican media even warned of a secret CIA report that was circulated among DEA and FBI agents that told of  highly dangerous cartels creating businesses along the border once NAFTA was agreed to. It was also accused George Herbert Walker Bush and Carlos Salinas de Gortari of being accomplices to narco trafficking and that both presidents allowed for the leaders of the drug cartels to make deals once NAFTA was signed into law. The U.S. and Mexican governments argued that these accusations were untrue, and that the narco bosses presented a major threat to national security.

Of course, no one would know exactly which cartel members were involved in ownership of maquiladoras. However, it was generally known that cartel figures were connected to the maquila industry. Former Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent and director of El Paso’s Intelligence Center (EPIC), Phil Jordan made his concerns public.

On the ABC News program Nightline” with Ted Coppell, Jordan stated that the DEA prevented him, as well as many others within the DEA, from expressing concerns about U.S. involvement with NAFTA. Jordan went on to say, “We informed the U.S Attorney General that high level officials in the Mexican government were involved in the drug trafficking trade.”

This concern was due to the Mexican government’s long history of cooperation with drug traffickers. In the interview, Jordan further stated that “other intelligence agencies wanted to express concerns, though they too were told the same thing—keep quiet.”

The effects were seen almost immediately after NAFTA took effect on January 1, 1994. The agreement would devastate farm labor by eliminating agrarian reforms that were protected under the Mexican constitution. Communal farmland was now made into private property. Price regulation of crops such as corn were also eliminated, along with subsidies for small scale farms.

Unemployed farmers now found themselves at the mercy of the drug cartels. Many would plant illegal crops such as marijuana and poppy seeds, while others traveled north to Cuidad Juarez to work in the cartel owned maquiladores. Being paid $150.00 by the drug cartels made all the difference to a poor child trying to survive the violent streets of Juarez. $500.00 to assassinate a rival drug member was even better.

The escalating violence soon scared away the college students whose Thursday night money the town had come to depend on, only furthering the cycle of economic hopelessness. Today, Juarez is known as “Murder Valley, averaging two killings a day. The population that once numbered 60,000 is down to less than 10,000. An entire city eviscerated by the drug war. Right next door.