Producer's Notes: War along the border

Friday, March 06, 2009 - 05:00 AM

In Mexico, the national army and federal police have gone to war with drug cartels. It's a conflict on a dizzying number of fronts that doesn't lend itself to easy explanation. Over the past week on The Takeaway, we turned to people along the U.S.-Mexican border to help us all understand not just what's happening, but how and why.

In December, a few stories out of West Texas caught my eye. They said that right across the border from El Paso, in the city of Ciudad Juarez, the private armies of Mexican drug cartel leaders were terrorizing Juarez residents. After talking to El Paso Times reporter Diana Washington Valdez, it became clear that the Mexican drug war is no longer entirely confined to Mexico. When El Paso city councilman Beto O'Rourke told me that there's hardly a person in El Paso that doesn't have relatives or friends or colleagues affected by the often gruesome violence, I became intrigued and surprised I hadn't seen more about it.

But of course, that was only the beginning of the story, and there's much more here than a campaign of brutality by the cartels.

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Carlos Spector, an El Paso-based immigration attorney, summed up the complexity with a bravura analogy comparing cartel leaders, Mexican police and the Mexican army to comic book villains. Spector represents Mexican nationals seeking asylum in the United States: journalists, police officers and domestic violence victims. His point: In this conflict there are a lot of good people; there are very few good guys.

Spector — and others — believe that the deployment of the Mexican army into the cities and towns of Mexico to battle cartels was a tremendous mistake. Mexico's Human Rights Commission agrees.

Fittingly, the men who put me in contact with Spector are reporters who drill deep into complex stories and emerge with more questions. Scott Carrier, an independent radio producer who recently produced a brilliant series on the city of Ciudad Juarez, and renowned writer Charles Bowden, who has been covering the region for more than a decade. Julian Cardona, a talented photographer and Juarez native explained — over a crackly phone line — that his hometown is in the process of collapse. Cardona doesn't answer his phone anymore if he doesn't recognize the number. Journalists covering the drug war are frequently threatened and sometimes killed.

In trying to make sense of a city as anarchic as Ciudad Juarez, I found that statistics helped. Molly Molloy, a librarian at New Mexico State University, methodically compiles murder and death rates, and runs a Web site with articles focusing on El Paso and Juarez. A lot of media coverage has focused on Mexico's drug war moving north. But we also have to pay attention to the number of American guns moving south. Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard joined The Takeaway to discuss why 9 out of 10 guns found in Mexico come from the United States.

The numerous fronts in this conflict mean that comprehensive reporting is hard to come by. The Los Angeles Times has done a fantastic job in its series Mexico under Siege. An appearance by L.A. Times reporters Sam Quinones and Tracy Wilkinson provided context — and reminded us that Mexico's problem with cartels is not a new phenomenon.

The most difficult story to produce was one we did out of Brownsville, Texas, a small border city near the Gulf of Mexico where most residents have relatives across the border in Matamoros. Brownsville's murder and crime rates haven't risen in the past year, but a series of tense events — a brief closure of the border after a gunfight, mayhem at a children's parade — illustrate growing anxiety. We were joined by Brownsville Herald crime reporter Ildefonso Ortiz and Brownsville judge Carlos Cascos.

While trying to find voices from Brownsville, I reached Eddie Lucio, a Texas state representative and Brownsville native, who aggressively supports the deployment of more U.S. troops to the border. But it would be simplistic to paint Lucio as a hawk. He grew up in Brownsville and remembers a peaceful childhood; he now worries about leaving his pregnant wife in the city when work keeps him in Austin.

Elizabeth Garcia, who works in low-income communities in Matamoros — and who moved from that city to the U.S. at age 15 — told a different story. She decried the militarization along the border and told me that many people now fear going south to visit their families and to get (desperately needed) cheap medicine and groceries.

Councilman Beto O'Rourke alerted me to just how many U.S. residents have been affected by this conflict. But Molly Molloy made perhaps a more important point. She's looked at the numbers and they're clear: Mexico's brutal drug war is still largely confined to that country and overwhelmingly affects Mexicans. In the United States, by comparison, we haven't seen anything yet.

Noel King


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