Border Is No Barrier On Rio Grande 

Border Is No Barrier On Rio Grande 
Posted by FoM on December 03, 1999 at 12:05:04 PT
By Patrick O'Driscoll & Guillermo X. Garcia
Source: USA Today
On a map, this sprawling city and El Paso are on opposite sides of the Rio Grande, the natural border between Mexico and the USA. But as searchers dig ever deeper on a Mexican ranch this weekend for more victims of drug violence, the boundary is virtually invisible to the more than 2 million people who inhabit this vast metroplex of face-to-face cities.
On the El Paso-Juarez border, blood relationships are thicker than the river water. The formal line might split this Mexican strip of the Third World from the First World of the USA, but it doesn't divide the people.Families and friends who for generations have settled and spread across both sides of the border now worry and wonder together. Each day, what are likely the bones of ''disappeared'' loved ones -- Mexican and American citizens caught in the secret cross-fire and retribution of narcotics mobsters -- are being dug out of the dry, drab soil of Mexico's Chihuahuan Desert. As if life on this forbidding landscape weren't tough enough, residents share the misfortune of living in the path of the worst corridor of illegal drug smuggling on the entire 1,833-mile U.S.-Mexican border, and perhaps in the entire world. By one estimate, 70% of America's illicit narcotics pass north through here.Sam Ponder, assistant U.S. attorney and chief drug prosecutor for west Texas, says a ''smuggling culture'' has always existed here: ''liquor in Prohibition, aliens for the last three or four decades and now drugs.''The drug traffic, and attempts to combat it, only grow. Ponder says that the U.S. attorney's office secured about 225 drug indictments in 1993. For this year, the number will be about 1,080.The cities' coexistence ''is an accident of geography, and so is their violence,'' says Charles Bowden, a Tucson journalist. His 1988 book, Juarez: The Laboratory of Our Future, chronicles the harsh, daily struggle for many in this teeming border town. ''It's not that these people are corrupt, but (the drug trade) is everywhere.''He suggests that El Paso and Juarez were overlooked because they sit in the middle of the long border, far from either nation's center of power or influence. They also sit at the hub of major transportation corridors, providing easy distribution for tons of illegal drugs.Tourism officials on both sides fear the discovery of mass graves will unravel efforts to boost the local image and economy.Jose Luis Gutierrez, who owns restaurants in both cities, told the El Paso Times this week that the discoveries give the community an image of ''a region of terror.''Mario Castano, who owns a liquor and cigar store in Juarez three blocks from the border, says the revelations give his city ''a black eye, even with the millions and billions of pesos'' that the drug lords donate to civic and church causes. ''This black money covers up the immorality'' of how they made the money, he says.Retired Drug Enforcement Administration agent Phil Jordan, an El Paso native, says there are still plenty of honest people on both sides of the border, but the problems are beyond their control.''You end corruption, and you'll end a lot of the killings,'' says Jordan, former director of the El Paso Intelligence Center, a joint anti-drug effort of the DEA, the FBI and other law-enforcement agencies.Thomas Constantine, who retired earlier this year as head of the DEA, says that the huge amounts of money in the Mexican drug trade have been used to entice authorities, such as the police and military, to participate.''And it's not the traditional type of corruption where police were paid to look the other way,'' Constantine says. ''Now we have officers there who have gone from looking the other way to acting as security for shipments, and some of them are directly involved in the narcotics trafficking, kidnapping and murders.''Arturo Gonzalez Rascon, attorney general for the Mexican state of Chihuahua, which includes Juarez, says the revelations are having a terrible impact on the community.''We need and will work with whomever we can to keep the reputation of this community clean,'' he says.Rascon visited the suspected killing field of the infamous Juarez drug cartel on Thursday.''The drug network is huge, and it overwhelms us,'' says Juarez native Arturo Palma, 34, a spectator Thursday outside police lines during the continued digging at the ranch.Miguel Sanchez, 26, standing with Palma, has a solution. ''Maybe if the U.S. stops buying (drugs), the traffic will cease here,'' he says.With a sarcastic laugh, Palma replies, ''Do you believe that?'' Both men laugh again, without humor.''The cartel is just too strong, and they generate too much fear,'' Palma says. He likes to quote a grim Mexican saying about the only choice available in the drug world. ''Oro o plomo -- gold or lead,'' Palma says. Riches or bullets. ''Gold or lead works around here. It's very effective.''Published: December 3, 1999 Copyright 1999 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.Related Articles:New Strategy is Needed To Fight Drug War - 12/03/99  Ex-DEA Official: Police, Cartel Linked - 12/03/99
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