As long as there’s a market here in the U.S., the drug war cannot be won


What do Hector and Yeira Beltrán, Enrique and Bethsaida Cisneros, and Iván and Claudia Vasquez have in common?

They are victims of our drug war. They live on the Mexican side of the U.S. border in the pathway of the billions of dollars in drugs that come northward to meet the demand in this country. In all the debates about legalization — marijuana and Amendment 64 in Colorado — their story is the one you never hear, the story of those who have to survive in countries that we have destabilized by our desire for drugs.

Hector (15) and his sister, Yeira (14) live in a shack on the west edge of Juárez with their grandmother, Elvira Romero. She now has a job cooking for one hundred mental patients in a nearby asylum. Before that, they survived by selling scrap metal along the highway. These kids want to graduate and work in the medical field.

Enrique (10) and Bethsaida (5) live with their grandmother, Reina Cisneros in Palomas, Mexico, some sixty miles west of Juárez. Enrique is first in his class and Bethsaida can recite poetry.

Iván (13) and Claudia (10) are part of a small colonia of Mixteca Indians who migrated northward from the state of Oaxaca hoping to find a decent living. Iván wants to be a science teacher and Claudia a Spanish teacher. Their mother, Cecilia Vazquez sells sombreros, crosses with Jesus on them and various trinkets to people waiting in their cars at the Santa Teresa border crossing west of Juárez.

Enrique and Bethsaida of Palomas, Mexico.
Photo by Morgan Smith/The Colorado Statesman

Until this year, Juárez was the most dangerous city in the world. In 2010, there were more murders in Juárez than the combined total for New York City, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Detroit, Baltimore and Philadelphia. The killings soared after the election of President Felipe Calderón and his decision to take on the drug cartels; many observers believe that this has resulted in over 100,000 murders nationwide. Some are narcos fighting each other, some innocent bystanders or cases of mistaken identity, some are victims of police or Army “cleansing.”

Ivan and Claudia Vazquez with their aunt, Patricia in Juarez, Mexico.
Photo by Morgan Smith/The Colorado Statesman

Both Juárez and Palomas are drug crossing points. That means that these six kids are in the epicenter of enormous violence. You wouldn’t know it from talking to them, however, because they are still full of an enthusiasm that would be the envy of most American students who are much more privileged. Pretty soon, however, the older ones like Hector will earn their high school degrees. Then what? What kinds of jobs will be available? In Palomas, you can see young men selling CDs and dark glasses at the border crossing. For a few dollars, they’ll be glad to wash your car. Cecilia Vasquez, the mother of Iván and Claudia is lucky if she makes three or four dollars a day selling her trinkets. The minimum wage in Mexico is $4.30 a day and most of the maquila or assembly plants don’t pay any more than that. In both Palomas and Juárez, the tourism industries have completely tanked, Americans are no longer crossing the border to have their teeth fixed or to buy their prescriptions and many other businesses are closed.

Bethsaida, the granddaughter of Reina Cisneros, from Palomas, Mexico.
Photo by Morgan Smith/The Colorado Statesman

So the future really boils down to drugs and the violent offshoots of the drug business — car jackings, assassinations, extortion, kidnapping.

These six kids aren’t what are called “ni-nis.” “Ni educación, ni trabajo,” the phrase used to describe kids who have neither education nor work and end up joining gangs. They’re not what Pastor Galván, the founder of the asylum where Elvira cooks, calls “Niños de odio” or children of hatred who want revenge because of the murder of a parent or family member. Not yet anyway.

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to participate in a briefing by Drug Enforcement Agency officials in Cartagena, Colombia. What I remember most was the officer in charge telling us that, although they were having success in Colombia, “Drugs were like a balloon. You push down here and they pop up somewhere else.” Enforcement efforts in Colombia have pushed business to Mexico; now Calderón’s efforts, although not noticeably successful, have pushed it to Honduras and Guatemala, countries with even weaker governments.

In other words, you can push drugs from one producing country to another but as long as you have a market like the United States, this will be a war that cannot be won. For the sake of those who become victims in the process — kids like these six in Palomas and Juárez — I hope that Coloradans pass Amendment 64 and begin bringing sanity to this issue.

Morgan Smith is a former state representative and Commissioner of Agriculture. He can be reached at

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