“No rats and no crime.”
There’s no one like a taxi driver who can sum up his whole town in a phrase for a visiting reporter.
The El Paso cabbie who took me from the train station to my hotel was proud of his city — generally considered by its inhabitants to be the finest all-American town in the nation: clean, quiet, crime- and rat-free.
Of course, even the word “no” can sometimes be used as a relative term. While I can say I personally saw neither vermin nor criminals, the local newspapers do report that although crime still exists in El Paso, it is in a steep decline except for two forms: graffiti and murder.
To be fair, the newspapers point out that graffiti is quite a new offence and also that the city is doing rather well in having only four unsolved killings so far this year.
Relatively speaking, however, the taxi driver wasn’t comparing El Paso of today with El Paso of yesterday. He was comparing his city with the one right across the Rio Grande: Juarez, Mexico.
Although Juarez certainly did not invent crime, it has managed to refine the concept and elevate it to permeate all levels of society, government and business.
That becomes readily apparent to the average traveller crossing the border to begin a tour of Mexico. When dealing with a Mexican border official to arrange the necessary tourist card, everyone has to pay an official fee of 264 pesos. Then there’s La Mordida – otherwise known as a tip.
I made the mistake of not having the exact amount ready at the border. I handed over three 100-peso notes when I was gaining entry into the country and I waited pointlessly a few seconds before I realized no change would be forthcoming. The uniformed official made it clear our business was done and I was to get out of his sight.
While corruption like this and the rats who practise it are rife throughout Mexico, in Juarez, they only represent a tiny fraction of all crimes and criminals. Most is tied to a massively lucrative illegal trade in drugs that has sparked interstate wars between cartels, leaving thousands dead.
It has only grown worse since the current Mexican president ordered an all-out offensive against the trade five years ago. In Juarez alone, almost one-quarter of the city’s 488,000 homes have been abandoned by their owners — many of whom claim that they’re ordered out of their neighbourhoods by thugs who need the territory to carry out their illegal activities.
Unfortunately, Juarez is not the only Mexican city with a problem of indiscriminate drug trade violence. A recent international report — one that the Mexican government seems reluctant to acknowledge — calculates that more than 35,000 people have been murdered since 2006, when Mexico’s War on Drugs began, and that as many as 230,000 people have been rendered homeless.
Mexico’s counterproductive get-tough-on-drug-crimes policy is not without its domestic critics. One man who held a high government position until recently even advocated legalization as a way out of the morass.
The logic for such a move is clear and impeccable, not just in Mexico, but in the United States and Canada, as well. It’s not the drugs that cause the violence, the argument goes, but the criminals.
The same thing happened when the U.S. attempted to stop the manufacture, trade and consumption of alcohol in the 1920s. Being engaged in an illegal activity, alcohol smugglers had no recourse in the law when business disputes arose between them. Since they couldn’t settle their disagreements in court, they resorted to violence instead and occasionally the police joined in to make the situation even more chaotic and fatal to criminals and innocent bystanders alike.
When alcohol was legalized again, the crime, death and corruption associated with prohibition disappeared overnight.
Likewise, there’s little doubt Juarez will be a much more peaceful city — with fewer crimes and rats — when North America’s three national governments finally take the sensible step of decriminalizing the rampant drug trade.
Everything else they’ve tried has only led to more crime and death.
Michael Johansen is a writer living in Labrador.