Pedro Rojas is the sort of wealthy Mexican who’s usually in control of his world. “I don’t panic or scare easily,” says Rojas, a business owner and rancher from the Mexican border city of Juárez. But last year narcos, or drug traffickers, moved into his upscale neighborhood–punks in cowboy attire and sparkling pickup trucks buying expensive homes. Rojas and his neighbors were awakened at night or horrified in broad daylight by assault-rifle fire and the screaming of tires as cars raced away after kidnappings. One afternoon, local children watched as a pickup rammed down the door of a house, sparking a gun battle that left four people dead in the street. Out at Rojas’ ranch, the situation was worse. The drug gangs, whose trafficking route for marijuana, cocaine and heroin passes near a cluster of haciendas that includes Rojas’, demanded protection money from the ranchers. When they balked, the gangs burned down the ranch houses, then abducted and executed one of Rojas’ best friends.
Since then, the gangs have dumped the severed heads of other victims in front of suburban town halls. So Rojas took his family across the Rio Grande to live in an apartment in El Paso, Texas. “I feel fearful, impotent,” he says. Worse, he adds, is the realization that the police in Juárez not only are incapable of stopping gangs but are “working with them. Our police institutions have been overrun by narcos. Changing that will take many years and some very big cojones.” It has taken many years for Mexico to finally make that admission, decades in which the country’s powerful and violent drug cartels have been allowed to terrorize far too many neighborhoods in too many cities like Juárez. Summoning his army to fill in for unreliable cops, Mexican President Felipe Calderón has brought the fight to the gangs, but their furious backlash has left more than 7,000 Mexicans murdered since the start of last year almost 2,000 in Juárez alone. Still, through the fog of the drug war, especially on the bloodied border, it has become clearer to see what needs to be done to rein in the drug-related crime that, as President Barack Obama said in a visit to Mexico this month, is “sowing chaos in our communities” both American and Mexican. For starters, Juárez Mayor José Reyes Ferriz, who has received death threats from the gangs, is trying to purge the city’s corrupt, 1,600-member police force and hopes to build a more professional department twice the size. “We have no choice left,” he tells TIME. Mexico’s recognition that it has to reform its law-enforcement system coincides with a belated U.S. confession. An insatiable demand for drugs north of the border, the Obama Administration concedes, together with rampant smuggling of guns and laundered drug profits into Mexico, is just as responsible for the crisis. Obama is sending 500 new federal agents to the border this year to snare more weapons and money moving south, and last week he appointed a border-policy czar, former federal prosecutor Alan Bersin. The U.S. Administration also intends to put more emphasis on reducing demand by expanding programs like drug courts that mandate rehab. Solutions on the Front LineIn El Paso, which is receiving a stream of Juárez exiles like Rojas, plenty would like to see an even broader shift in policy. The city council recently voted unanimously to ask Washington to consider legalizing marijuana, whose casual use is widely considered no more harmful than that of alcohol. The move would seriously crimp the drug cartels’ cash flow, estimated at more than $25 billion a year. El Paso’s mayor vetoed the resolution, but “the discussion is changing,” says council member Beto O’Rourke, who insists the U.S. has for too long relied too heavily on military aid to producer and trafficker nations and on stiff sentences for drug possession at home. “If you live on the border, you see that the old drug-policy emperor has no clothes.”The border suffers the bulk of the drug war’s carnage and perhaps because of that, it’s where some of the freshest ideas for fighting the war can be found. A tragic wisdom has emerged at this dusty junction of developed and developing worlds. On one side of the Rio Grande is Juárez, whose maquiladora assembly plants fuel dreams of modernity but which is now one of the hemisphere’s most dangerous cities. On the other side is El Paso, which is one of the U.S.’s safest communities but which nonetheless knows that its future is linked to that of Juárez. “Washington and Mexico City need to know the solutions to this crisis are here on the front line,” says Lucinda Vargas, head of the community-development organization Plan Estratégico de Juárez. Juárez civic leaders like Vargas have long called for the kind of Mexican police and judicial reform that both countries are only now starting to make a priority. Meanwhile, Americans like El Paso County sheriff Richard Wiles want the U.S. to renew the assault-weapons ban that George W. Bush and the U.S. Congress allowed to expire in 2004. If it doesn’t, they fear, the few Black Hawk helicopters that Washington ships to Mexico’s antidrug warriors won’t make up for the thousands of AK-47 rifles and even rocket-propelled grenades pouring into the hands of the gangs. “It’s a shame,” says Wiles, “that it’s taken so many killings in Juárez to make Washington consider that.” See pictures of Culiacan, the home of Mexico’s drug-trafficking industry.
See pictures of Mexico City’s police fighting crime.