I was weeping with fear,” Irene says. “It seemed like we were in Iraq.”
It’s Thanksgiving morning, and I’m sitting in the kitchen of her home in Nogales, Mexico, as she describes a recent gun battle that took place about a kilometer away.
Apparently, 15 to 20 gunmen had invaded a house, killed the man inside and then been caught in a gun battle with police that had lasted almost three hours. Ten men had been killed, hand grenades had been used, and about a thousand rounds had been fired.
A few minutes before she had told me of her fear, Irene’s husband, Jaime, a taxi driver who works from a taxi stand near the border, had taken me to the site. Two men had stood on the steps of the bullet-pocked house as we approached it. When I asked if I could take some pictures, the taller one took me on a tour. There were high-caliber bullet holes everywhere.
A mural depicting puppets of violence in Nogales, Mexico.
Pointing to a blood-smeared floor, he said, “Here is where the man living in the house was killed.”
That was November 2006, when my wife, Julie, and I had gone to Tucson, Ariz., for the Thanksgiving holidays with her family. I had taken an early morning side trip to Nogales just to learn about border issues. I had found Jaime at the taxi stand and he had showed me around for several hours. We talked about the shiny new maquiladora plants and how little their owners had done for the impoverished neighborhood over the hill. We talked about the ultimately futile immigration debate that was taking place in the United States. Aside from his reference to a half-completed “drug castle” as we drove by (the owner apparently was imprisoned before he could complete his showpiece), Jaime had said little about the drug wars.
A “Drug Castle” in Nogales, Mexico.
This second trip, on Nov. 27, 2008, was very different. There was a much more intense sense of fear. It began at breakfast in the Americana Hotel on the U.S. side, where Angélica, the young waitress, expressed astonishment that I would be crossing the border.
Then the cook, Juan, came out to express his opinion.
“No one will try to hurt you, “ he said. “The gangs are just trying to kill each other.
“But,” he noted, “they have heavy weapons, and lots of bystanders get hit.”
I crossed the border, found Jaime and we started driving. Almost immediately, he pointed up to a hotel on our right.
That was where the commandante — the Sonoran state police chief — had been assassinated on Nov. 2, he said. Despite the presence of some 25 bodyguards, the commandante had been shot repeatedly.
Then Jaime took me to the battle site.
As we drove, I realized that if you go to Paris, your guide shows you the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower. Now, if you go to Nogales, your guide takes you to where people have been killed.
What about people like Jaime and Irene who are just trying to survive? This middle-class couple has two sons and two daughters. The oldest daughter is married. The oldest son, whom I met in 2006, is now studying engineering at the university there. Irene showed me a set of plans he had drawn for a new building.
Their other son is in the Mexican equivalent of high school — as is Carla, the youngest child. Irene works in a pharmacy next to the border and also makes tamales, which she sells to her father, who owns a very attractive restaurant called Los Azulejos (The Tiles). They have five dogs — two pit bulls who stay on the patio by the front door and three Chihuahuas who stay on the back porch.
After Irene made coffee for me and insisted that I have one of her excellent tamales, Jaime drove us to the restaurant, where she delivered the tamales to her father. Watching her sitting huddled in the back seat, I realized that this isn’t the same woman I met two years earlier. She is still terrified.
Nogales also has changed.
Once it was a major destination for American tourists, who bought its souvenirs and handicrafts and filled its restaurants. But in my three hours there on the morning of Thanksgiving, I didn’t see one other American. Many of the downtown stores are closed, and the economy is terrible. Jaime was lucky that I came along, because very few of the taxis had any business.
The United States has been transfixed by the terrible violence and bloodshed in Mumbai, India, and rightly so. But the cumulative effect of all this violence along the Mexican border — and increasingly throughout Mexico — has cost many more lives. In fact, on the day after my visit, 12 gunmen opened fire in a restaurant in Juarez, killing eight people.
This war belongs to us much more than Mumbai’s terror does. It’s our war on drugs that is not working. We don’t read much about it because many brave Mexican reporters have been killed or intimidated, because U.S. officials such as Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff want us to believe that it’s succeeding, and because we think that it’s contained in Mexico.
As an American, I was able to cross the border, jump into my car, race back to Tucson and enjoy a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner with family members. For how long will we Americans be able to do that?
How long will it be before the violence we’ve created on our southern border reaches up to us?
Morgan Smith is a former state legislator, commissioner of the Colorado Department of Agriculture and director of the Colorado International Trade Office.